Once found only in science fiction, China may be making hand-held laser weapons a reality. Photo: iStock

Stories about a powerful new Chinese laser assault rifle are spreading like wildfire via Twitter, following a report on the weapon’s purported capabilities. The claims made by scientists to The South China Morning Post this week were so impressive, in fact, that some say they are literally unbelievable.

Tantalizing headlines on Monday hyped the “real-deal laser gun that inflicts ‘instant carbonization’ of human skin,” warning that the futuristic rifle “can literally set you on fire.”

In the original report, one “laser weapons scientist” said the ZKZM-500 laser assault rifle can “burn through clothes in a split second … If the fabric is flammable, the whole person will be set on fire.”

The weapon weighs about the same as an AK-47, has a range of 800 meters and is ready for mass production, according to the report.

Along with the hype, there was a healthy dose of skepticism that these claims weren’t much more than propaganda.

Even existing large-scale laser weapons systems powered by large batteries struggle to produce significant heat damage unless focused on targets for a matter of seconds, an analysis published by TechCrunch pointed out. But according to the report Sunday, the gun is powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and is capable of a thousand two-second shots, or about a half an hour of lasering.

“There’s just no way that a laser powered by a lithium-ion battery that a person could carry would be capable of producing the kind of heat described at point-blank range, let alone at 800 meters.

“That’s because of attenuation. Lasers, unlike bullets, scatter as they progress, making them weaker and weaker. Attenuation is non-trivial at anything beyond, say, a few dozen meters. By the time you get out to 800, the air and water the beam has traveled through enough to reduce it a fraction of its original power.”

Commentary from Next Big Future was less skeptical, if vague, comparing the claims to what the US is working on.

In 2015, Boeing said it had developed a ten-kilowatt laser system weighing 650 pounds (295 kg), which would be operated by eight to 12 soldiers, according to the article. The system is said to be operable to damage targets at a range of as far as 22 miles (35 km).

“Since the Chinese weapon does not require the advanced targeting equipment and relied on line of sight aiming then the size could be reduced,” the author said. “A 10-kilowatt combat laser in the 100-kilogram range seems possible,” he added, though he didn’t refute the points made by TechCrunch, which he linked to in his article.

Chinese military-grade lasers were in the news recently when the US issued a formal complaint in May, accusing China of engaging in “unauthorized laser activity.” A series of alleged incidents resulted in US pilots suffering eye injuries from lasers coming from the direction of China’s military base in Djibouti.

A prototype of the Chinese weapon reported on this week has already been built by ZKZM Laser, a firm owned by the Xian Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics, and they are shopping the device around for large-scale production. One of the weapons would cost the Chinese military or police around US$15,000, according to the South China Morning Post report.

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