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The Physics of Dragonfire

Last year, I wrote a post about the physics of the plasma-temperature dragonfire from Dwarf Fortress. Today, because my frontal lobes are screwed on backwards, I wanna work out whether or not biology could produce a plume of 20,000-Kelvin plasma without stretching credibility too far. I have a hunch that the answer will be disappointing, but my hunches are usually wrong. Must be those faulty frontal lobes.

The first thing we need to work out is how much power we’re going to need to heat all that air. Let’s say dragonfire comes out of the dragon’s mouth at 50 meters per second (111 mph, about as fast as a sneeze or a weak tornado). As a rough approximation, let’s assume that a dragon’s mouth has a cross-sectional area of about 0.0600 square meters (about the area of a piece of ordinary printer paper). This is one of those nice situations where we can just multiply our two numbers together and get what we’re looking for: a flow rate of 3.120 cubic meters per second.

So here’s what we know so far: we’ve got a dragon breathing 3.120 cubic meters of air every second. That air has to be heated from 300 Kelvin (roughly room temperature) to 20,000 Kelvin. The specific heat capacity of air is close to 1,020 Joules per kilogram Kelvin over a pretty wide range of temperatures, so we’ll assume that holds even when the air turns to plasma. That means that every second, our dragon has to put out 79.96 million Joules, or 22.2 kilowatt-hours. But we’re not talking about hours here. We’re talking per second. That’s 79.96 megawatts, which is almost twice the power produced by the GE CF6-5 jet engines that power many airliners. That’s a lot of power.

But, much to my surprise, there are some fuels that can deliver that kind of power. Compressed hydrogen burning in pure oxygen could do it. Except I’m basing that assumption entirely on the power required. There’s a lot more physics involved than that. The highest temperature that a combustion reaction can reach, assuming no heat loss, is called the adiabatic flame temperature, and although this is an impressive 3,500 Kelvin for a well-mixed oxy-hydrogen flame, that’s nowhere near the 20,000 Kelvin we need. The only fuels with higher energy densities than hydrogen are things like plutonium and antimatter, and for once, I’m going to be restrained and try not to resort to antimatter if I don’t have to. Let’s see if there’s another way to do it.

In my previous post on dragonfire, I described Dwar Fortress’s dragon’s-breath as a medieval welding arc. So to hell with it–why not use an actual welding arc to heat the air? Well, it turns out that something like this already exists. It’s called an arcjet. Like VASIMR, it’s one of those electric-thruster technologies that has yet to get its day in the spotlight. But arcjets have found another purpose in life: allowing space agencies to test their reentry heat shields on the ground. Here’s a strangely satisfying video of one such arcjet heater being tested on an ordinary metal bolt:

That certainly looks like how my brain tells me dragonfire should look, but from a little research, it seems that the Johnson Space Center’s arcjet only puts out something like 2 megawatts, thirty-five times less than the 79 we need. According to these people, the arc in an arcjet thruster can reach the 20,000 Kelvin we need, but it seems pretty likely that the actual plume temperature is going to be a lot lower.

And besides, our dragon’s powerplant has to be (relatively) biology-friendly, since it has to be inside a living creature. The voltages and currents needed to run an arcjet would probably make our dragon drop dead or explode or both.

So, as much as I hate to do it (I’m kidding; I love to do this) I’ve gotta turn to antimatter.

Antimatter is the ultimate in fuel efficiency. Because almost all of the universe is made of matter (and nobody really knows why), if you release antimatter into the world, it’ll very quickly find its matching non-anti-particle and annihilate, producing gamma rays, neutrinos, and weird particles like kaons. The simplest case is when an electron meets a positron (its antiparticle). The result is (almost) always two gamma rays with an energy of 511 keV, meaning a wavelength of 2.4 picometers, which is right on the border between really high-energy X-rays and really low-energy gamma rays.

This presents yet another problem: hard x-rays and soft gamma rays are penetrating radiation. They pass through air about as well as bullets pass through water (which isn’t an amazing distance, I’ll admit, but I’m still not about to sit in a pool and let someone shoot at me). At 511 keV and ordinary atmospheric density, the mass attenuation coefficient (which tells you what fraction of the radiation in question gets absorbed after traveling a certain distance) is in the neighborhood of 0.013 per meter, which means a beam of 511 keV photons will get 1.3% weaker for every meter it travels.

Working out just what fraction of these photons need to be absorbed is a bit beyond me. If the radiation has to be 1,000 times weaker, it’ll have to pass through 1.6 meters of air. That sounds to me like it’d be enough to burn our dragon’s tongue right off. And indeed, if we run the equation a different way, we see that, after traveling through 30 centimeters (about a foot) of air, the gamma rays will still have 25% of their original strength. I’m trying very hard not to imagine what burning dragon teeth would smell like.

But there’s no reason our dragon has to be making its death-dealing plasma out of air. Water is the most common molecule in biology, so why not use that instead? A 511 keV photon can still travel over 10 centimeters in water, but that’s a heck of a lot better than the 150 centimeters we were looking at before.

Of course, we can add a dash of metal atoms to the mix to absorb more of the x-rays and protect our poor dragon from its own flame. The heaviest metal found in organisms in large quantities is iron, usually in the form of hemoglobin. So let’s just throw some hemoglobin in that water, handwave away how the dragon is producing so many positrons, and call this experiment a success.

Well, it’s not a total success, since what I just described is essentially a dragon vomiting a jet of blood and then turning that into scalding-hot plasma. No wonder everybody’s scared of dragons…

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Could you kill the human race with a BB gun?

As you might have guessed, this post is heavily influenced by xkcd’s brilliant weekly What-If blog

While pondering meteorites striking the earth with absurd velocities, I got to wondering whether or not you could actually kill the human race with a single BB. Because physics is a frightening place, the answer to questions like this is usually yes.

To simplify the first stage of calculations, we need to know how much energy is required to kill the human race. I will call this constant the “ohgod,” and I will set it equal to the kinetic energy of a 15-kilometer-wide stony asteroid traveling at 22 kilometers per second, which would be more than sufficient to cause a mass extinction which would almost certainly wipe out the human race. One ohgod is approximately 1.283 x 10^24 joules, or about 2.6 Chicxulubs (or, as people who fear the awesomeness of Mesoamerican words put it, 2.6 dinosaur-killers).

The mass of a BB is surprisingly hard to find, although there is a very handy chart listing the masses of high-end BBs in grains, which can easily be converted to grams. By my reckoning, a standard 4.5-millimeter (0.177 caliber) BB should weigh about 0.4 grams. In order to figure out how fast a 0.4-gram BB would have to be moving to have 1 ohgod of kinetic energy, we must solve the relativistic kinetic energy equation for velocity. The relativistic kinetic energy equation is a little unwieldy:

E = [(1/sqrt(1-v^2/c^2)) + 1] * m * c^2

I actually had to get out pen and paper to solve this equation for v. Here’s my math, to prove that I’m not a lazy cretin:

When I calculated v and plugged my numbers back into the relativistic kinetic energy formula on WolframAlpha, I was greeted with one of the most satisfying things a nerd can ever see: I got back exactly 1.283 x 10^24 joules, which means I didn’t have to do all that algebra again.

As it turns out, in order to have a kinetic energy of a species-killing asteroid, a BB would have to be traveling quite fast. I would have to be traveling at 0.9999999999999999999996074284163612948528545037647345 c, in fact. That speed is slower than the speed of light by only a few parts in 10^22, which is to say by only a few parts in 10 billion trillion. A few parts in 10 billion trillion equates to a bacterium-sized drop of water added to an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Feel free to insert your own joke about homeopathy here.

Our lethal BB would be traveling almost as fast as the fastest-moving particles ever detected. I’m thinking here about the Oh-my-God particle, which was (probably) a proton that hit Earth’s atmosphere at 0.9999999999999999999999951 c. The Oh-my-God particle is faster by a hair. But our BB is still traveling a ludicrous speeds. Light is fast. A beam of light could circle the Earth in 133 milliseconds, which, if you look at reaction-time data, is about half the time it takes a human being to detect a stimulus and for the nerve impulse to travel down their arm and make a muscle contract. Very few physical objects can hold their own against light. But our BB could. If you raced our BB and a beam of light head-to-head, after a thousand years, the BB would only be lagging 3 millimeters behind, which is about the diameter of a peppercorn, which is ridiculous.

But the question here is not “How fast would a BB have to be traveling to have the same kinetic energy as a humanity-ending asteroid.” The question is “Could you actually use a hyper-velocity BB to kill the human race,” which is much more interesting and complicated.

First of all, the BB would have an insane amount of kinetic energy. E = m * c^2, of course, and from that, we know that our BB’s kinetic energy (its energy alone) would have a mass of 1.428 * 10^7 kilograms, which is about the mass of five Boeing 747 jet airliners. I would have to be a very gifted physicist to tell you what happens when you’ve got atoms with that kind of energy, but I suspect that there would be very weird quantum effects (aren’t there always?) which would conspire to slow the BB down. Because of quantum randomness, I imagine the BB would constantly be emitting high-energy gamma rays, which would decay into electron-positron and proton-antiproton pairs. Which is to say that our BB would be moving so fast that, rather than leaving behind a wake of Cherenkov radiation, it would leave behind a wake of actual physical matter, conjured seemingly from the ether by the conversion of its kinetic energy.

As for what would happen when the BB actually hit the Earth, that’s beyond my power to calculate, on account of I don’t have access to a fucking supercomputer. But we can assume that the BB would pass straight through the Earth with no physical impact: all of its interactions with our planet would probably be on the level of ultra-high-energy particle physics. And from that, we can estimate its effects.

The BB would cut a cylindrical path 4.5 millimeters across and 1 earth diameter long. If it deposited all of its kinetic energy along this track, it would raise the temperature of the rock by 10^15 Kelvin, which would make it one million times hotter than a supernova, which would most certainly be more than enough to kill all of us and vaporize a significant fraction of the Earth.

But the BB would only spend 44 milliseconds passing through the Earth, and somehow I doubt that regular matter would stop it entirely. Let’s assume instead that only one tenth of its energy got deposited in its track. We’re still talking a temperature a hundred thousand times that in the center of a supernova, which is ridiculous and would, once again, kill us all and peel the skin off the planet.

What if the BB only loses one one hundredth of its energy as it passes through the Earth? Same result: the Earth is replaced by a ball of radioactive lava.

But if, because of its ridiculous speed, it only loses one one millionth of its kinetic energy interacting with Earth, it still heats its needle-thin track to 3 billion kelvin, which is hot enough to fuse Earth’s silicon into iron and produce a violent explosion that would spawn earthquakes and firestorms and might, in spite of the energy losses, kill us all anyway.

But when you consider how much energy even the mighty Oh-my-God particle (which was, let me remind you, moving so fast that light was having trouble staying ahead of it) deposited just by hitting the atmosphere, I’d say the BB would lose quite a bit more than one one-millionth of its kinetic energy on impact. And I’d say that that kinetic energy would be spread over a fairly wide area. I’m thinking it would leave behind a column of hydrogen-bomb-temperature fusion plasma in the atmosphere, then hit the crust and fan out within an ice-cream-cone-shaped volume of the mantle. The nastiness of the results depend entirely on how big an ice-cream cone we’re talking, but it’s likely to be fairly narrow and fairly long, so we’re probably looking at a near-supernova-temperature column of fusing rock plasma with a length measured in kilometers. The explosion would be worse than anything the Earth has ever seen and would, yes, almost certainly kill all of us. If the immediate radiation didn’t get us, then the explosion would expose the mantle and lift enough dust to darken the sky for years.

You know, at the start of this, I thought I had an idea I could pitch to Daisy Outdoor Products. Now that I think about it, I think I’ll put the proposal in a drawer and forget about it.

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