The science of Dune: how we could create a real force field

In the Dune universe, a Holtzman shield is a portable force field capable of protecting an individual soldier in combat. Created by a belt-worn generator, the shield is capable of deflecting fast projectiles away from the wearer, although slow objects, such as a knife in melee combat, can penetrate the barrier.

Force fields like this are a big challenge in the real world. There are four fundamental forces known in nature: gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces that exist in atomic nuclei.

Of these, gravity is too weak to be useful as a localized force field – it takes all of the gravity produced by our planet, Earth, to stick our relatively puny bodies to its surface. On the other hand, nuclear forces can be strong but, as the name suggests, they are confined to the tiny nuclei of atoms.

University of Surrey physicist Professor Jim Al-Khalili believes it may one day be possible to build a force field based on electromagnetism. It is certainly a force stronger than gravity, with a longer range than nuclear forces. However, it only exerts its influence on bodies which are electrically charged. So the first job when detecting an incoming projectile would be to charge it.

This could be done, Al-Khalili believes, by bombarding the object with a positron beam. They are particles of antimatter, of equal mass to the electrons that orbit the exterior of atoms, but with an opposite electric charge. When positrons and electrons meet, they annihilate each other completely. He speculates that this effect could be exploited to charge an incoming projectile so that it could be deflected.

“You can use positrons to destroy the electrons in the target,” he says. “And if you destroy enough of them, the target becomes positively charged. Then you can strike on an electric or magnetic field to deflect it.

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While plausible, it is still very likely a technology for the distant future – indeed, it is probably just as good as the action in Dune will not take place for 20,000 years.

One concept under development is electric armor for battle tanks. Usually, a tank relies on heavy steel plates to deflect incoming bombs, missiles and fire.

But the new idea is to replace the thick armor with two thinner metal plates separated by an insulating layer. The plates are electrified from a power source, so they act like a high power capacitor, capable of storing a huge electrical charge due to the insulation between them.

“When a metallic projectile penetrates the outer layer and strikes the second, it closes the circuit and allows a massive amount of power and energy to be discharged into the projectile,” said James Bingham, a military analyst. “This either destroys the projectile or offsets its kinetic energy and penetrating effects enough to lessen its destructive impact.”

This results in highly efficient armor that is much lighter than usual, giving armored vehicles more speed and maneuverability. Electrical shielding is currently under development at the UK Defense Science and Technology Laboratory.

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