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Scientists are Developing a Real-Life “Freeze Ray” to Keep Spacecrafts Cool
Spaceships with frickin' freeze rays!
Every supervillain needs a weapon capable of striking fear into their enemies. For Despicable Me’s Felonius Gru (Steve Carrell), that weapon is a freeze ray. We first see it early in Despicable Me, when Gru enters a small coffee shop only to find a long line. He freezes the patrons in place in order to skip the line.
The origin of the freeze ray is seen in Minions (streaming now on Peacock!), when a young Dr. Nefario demonstrates it to a crowd at Villain-Con. Freeze rays may be standard fare for fictional supervillains, but they have so far eluded us in real life. Until now! That’s according to a paper recently published in the journal ACS Nano.
Potential Uses for a Freeze Ray
Researchers aren’t planning to use their freeze ray to take over the world or skip the coffee shop line (if they are, they haven’t told anyone). Instead, they want to use it on high-altitude aircraft and spacecraft to cool their electronics.
On Earth, electronics generate a lot of heat, but the atmosphere is pretty good at radiating heat away. In space, there’s no atmosphere to wick away heat, so it builds up until something goes wrong unless an onboard cooling system can carry it away from sensitive electronics. High altitude planes have similar limitations in the upper atmosphere, where the air is too thin to effectively carry heat away.
Today, spacecraft often use cooling plates to grab hold of heat and radiate it into space, but the proposed freeze ray instrument could be deployed with laser-like precision, targeting hot spots as needed. Counterintuitively, the freeze ray proposed by Patrick E. Hopkins from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Virginia and co-authors relies on hot plasma to cool a target surface.
“With the Air Force and Space Force, you’re in space, which is a vacuum, or you’re in the upper atmosphere, where there’s very little air that can cool. So, what happens is your electronics keep getting hotter and hotter and hotter. And you can’t bring a payload of coolant onboard because that’s going to increase the weight, and you lose efficiency,” Hopkins said in a statement.
Cooling Spacecrafts with Hot Plasma
The plasma-powered cooling device uses “ultrafast and nanoscale energy transduction and heat transfer mechanisms” according to Hopkins et al. Plasma occurs when gas is energized. One of the most common places you see it is inside neon lights. When energy is introduced to the gas trapped in the tube, it creates plasma and lights up in different colors depending on the gas inside. It also happens inside of stars.
Introducing hot plasma to the inside surface of a spacecraft might not sound like an effective way to cool it down (it surprised researchers too) but something weird happens when plasma first strikes a surface. In experiments, researchers sent helium plasma down a hollow ceramic needle, toward a target encased in gold. That’s important because gold is inert, and they wanted to avoid any etching of the surface that would distort the measurements.
They measured the temperature of the surface at the precise moment the plasma struck. They did observe warming from the plasma, but only after an initial drop in temperature. Further investigation revealed that before the plasma hits the surface of its target, it first strips away an ultra-thin layer of carbon and water atoms. Evaporation of that layer caused cooling, similar to the way evaporating sweat cools your body.
They were able to reduce the temperature of the target by a few degrees, and for a few moments. That might be just enough to keep high altitude aircraft or spacecraft cool enough to operate. While the technology is still being developed, the Air Force liked it enough that they provided $750,000 in funding over three years.
Future generations of spacecraft might be equipped with tiny internal freeze rays to keep themselves nice and comfy. Hopefully we resist the urge to weaponize that technology. If you have a freeze ray you can just ask to cut in line, it’s cool.