Eat your heart out, Mr. Freeze.
Let's Kick Some Ice
A professor at the University of Virginia claims to have created a "freeze ray"-like device that was apparently inspired by Mr. Freeze, the pun-loving villain of "Batman" fame.
But before you get too excited about a frosty beam that can instantly freeze your enemies at a distance like Arnold Schwarzenegger's role in the 1997 film "Batman & Robin," the reality is a bit more muted.
Patrick Hopkins, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor at the University of Virginia, was looking for a new way for electronics in spacecraft and high-altitude jets to say cool.
"That’s the primary problem right now," he said in a statement about the research. "A lot of electronics on board heat up, but they have no way to cool down."
His solution, for which he was awarded an appreciable $750,000 grant from the US Air Force, is a tiny plasma laser that can cool a surface — counterintuitively — by striking it. Still cool, as it were, but in a somewhat different way.
Cold Boys Club
The problem with being in space or an extremely thin atmosphere is that there's "very little air that can cool," Hopkins explained. Bringing a bunch of coolant isn't a great solution, either, "because that’s going to increase the weight, and you lose efficiency."
A prototype device, as detailed in a new paper his team published in the journal ACS Nano, takes advantage of an unusual physical property of plasma, which is commonly referred to as the "fourth state of matter."
When a plasma jet quickly strikes a surface "like a laser beam" or "lightning bolt," per Hopkins, it can actually chill it before heating it up.
In previous experiments, Hopkins and his colleagues found that a purple jet of plasma cooled a gold-plated surface before heating it up — and puzzling yet replicable result.
The researchers suggest that the cooling must've been the result of blasting off a tiny surface layer, much in the same way a body cools off due to water evaporating off of the skin after a dip in the pool.
"Evaporation of water molecules on the body requires energy; it takes energy from body, and that’s why you feel cold," Hopkins explained in the statement. "In this case, the plasma rips off the absorbed species, energy is released, and that’s what cools."
So far, the team has found that surface temperatures can be lowered by several degrees in just a few microseconds using the jet — which may just be enough to make a difference in outer space or at extremely high altitudes.
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