Austin American-Statesman -- April 6, 1998

Research on electric weapons generates buzz for UT institute
By: Dick Stanley

In the early 21st century, electricity won't just run the television, computer and hair dryer.

It will form shields like those on Star Trek'' around ground combat vehicles, power high-technology guns and run super-quiet engines.

They'll run over you before you hear them coming,'' University of Texas physicist Harry Fair said.

It's not science fiction but Army research, some of it secret and all of it maturing at UT's 8-year-old Institute for Advanced Technology, which Fair directs.

UT won the institute -- which the Army finances for $10 million a year -- in a late 1980s competition with the University of California and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

UT won because it had been doing groundbreaking engineering research for more than a decade on a prime international military interest: revolutionary electric guns and the advanced electric generators to power them.

The weapons, which were first developed in the Star Wars missile defense program, also are being researched by the European and Russian militaries.

They are being considered for arming all-electric combat vehicles, to defend against aircraft and missiles, for artillery with the unprecedented range of 155 miles (almost 20 times that of conventional artillery) and to supplement cruise missiles.

The UT institute is near the J.J. Pickle Research Campus in North Austin, but its lab is miles away, northwest of the city in a former furniture factory in Leander.

In the lab's main room last week, Fair, 61, explained the unclassified workings of what looked like a black bridge beam. A test model of an electric gun, the 21- foot-long beam is the centerpiece of UT research into the guns, generators and highly classified electric armor, which could make the ''raise the shields'' command used on the starship Enterprise a reality.

Behind the test gun were floor- to-ceiling electric generators that UT's Center for Electromechanics, in cooperative research, is working to reduce to the size of a garbage can.

The smaller generator, dubbed a compulsator, also would be a battery, with an internal flywheel to store the electricity it produced for running electric engines as well as powering the guns and electric armor.

Both the room-size and small generators can deliver 900 million watts -- roughly the daily electric power consumption of Travis County -- in pulses lasting a tenth of a second.

The pulses would fling 12-inch- long, thin tungsten darts from the copper rails of an electric gun at velocities of almost two miles a second -- three times the speed of a deer rifle's bullet and almost twice as fast as the explosive shells of the Army's front-line battle tank, the M-1 Abrams.

X-ray studies of the nonexplosive darts show that, at electric gun velocities, they strike steel with a flash of light and penetrate more than 6 inches before being vaporized by the energy created by the impact.

The darts could shred enemy tanks and troop carriers, disabling them and killing the troops inside. The idea is for (the enemy) to run out of armor before you run out of projectiles,'' said Don Berry, an institute researcher.

Although electric guns are being tested in cannon and machine gun forms, none yet approaches the people-sized one that Arnold Schwarzenegger carried in the 1996 movie Eraser''.

Fair, who is acting as a host to a growing number of visiting Army generals, expects the military's logistics branches to become the biggest backers of a conversion to electric guns. Unlike conventional ammunition, the nonexplosive darts aren't dangerous to store or transport.

UT researchers are far less open about electric armor, which is being researched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as well as the Army and Marine Corps.

The technology, according to military journals such as International Defence Review, uses electric generators to form strong electromagnetic fields inside steel boxes. Attached to the exteriors of combat vehicles, the boxes slow down a missile or another weapon long enough for the electric fields inside to deflect them.

NASA is considering using electric armor to shield the new International Space Station from potentially dangerous collisions with space debris.

You can provide extraordinary protection electrically,'' Fair said.

© Copyright 1998, The Austin American-Statesman