Could an X-Ray Death Ray Really Work?
Neil Patrick Harris brandishes his 'death ray' in "Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog," a Web series-turned-movie by Joss Whedon.
CREDIT: Timescience Bloodclub
Ray guns, death rays, freeze rays — these make-believe weapons have long been staples of the wackier side of science fiction.
That is, until two men from upstate New York allegedly decided to make one for real.
Glendon Scott Crawford, 49, and Eric J. Feight, 54, have been accused of trying to make an X-ray-based weapon that they allegedly intended to use against Muslims.
The idea behind the weapon was that people targeted wouldn't feel anything at first, but within several days would get sick and die from radiation poisoning.
In April 2012, the men allegedly tried to sell their still-unfinished device to an Albany-based Jewish group for use against "Israel's enemies." The shaken synagogue employees contacted the police, which began the FBI investigation that eventually lead to the capture of the two men. [See also: Crystal Could Make Handheld X-Rays]
For the past year, Crawford and Feight were under constant FBI surveillance. They even met regularly with undercover FBI agents, believing them to be allies or equipment suppliers, and referred to this group as “the guild,” the FBI reports.
According to the official FBI complaint, at one point, Crawford described the device as "Hiroshima on a light switch" so powerful that "everything with respiration would be dead by the morning." The device was incomplete when the two men were arrested.
This begs the question, is an "X-ray death ray" even possible?
Mad scientist’s dilemma
According to the official FBI complaint, the two men have been accused of conspiring to build "a radiation-emitting device that could be placed in the back of a van to covertly emit ionizing radiation strong enough to bring about radiation sickness or death against Crawford's enemies."
However, there are a few functional obstacles they'd have to overcome in order to make a functional, portable and lethal X-ray machine.
First, what is a lethal dose of radiation? Fred Mettler, professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico's department of radiology and the U.S. representative to the United Nations' Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, said exposure to 10 gray, or 1000 RADs of radiation, is enough to destroy a person's bone marrow, which would kill them within 30 days. In comparison, a medical chest X-ray is about 7 miligray, or 0.007 grays, so the lethal radiation dose would be equivalent to the radiation emitted by about 1,429 chest X-rays at once.
It's true that upon first receiving a lethal dose, a person wouldn’t feel any different. Only after a few days would symptoms such as aches, sickness and hemorrhaging begin.
Lower doses would perhaps be enough to give a person cancer down the road, according to Philip Meyers, associate professor of radiology and neurological surgery at Columbia University. But death within days would require a lot of radiation, and to get that much radiation from an X-ray machine, you'd need to input a lot of power.
Which introduces the next problem: powering that device. Only a small amount of the voltage put into an X-ray machine is output as X-rays; the rest is harmless heat. It would take "massive voltage" to get an X-ray machine to output a lethal dose, said Meyers.
[See also: Death Star's X-Rays Decimating Nearby Planet]
Crawford and Feight believed they had found a way around this difficulty. Their planned X-ray death ray was to be mounted inside a van alongside a makeshift 2,000-watt battery.
That power source might be enough to produce lethal amounts of radiation, but only over several hours of exposure.
Crawford and Feight had come up with an answer to this problem, too: They planned to use their weapon while their targets were sleeping, to ensure that they would hold still long enough to receive a lethal dose.
But that presents a third problem: X-ray machines overheat quickly. Most laboratory devices have cooling systems, but in a van, overheating would pose more of a problem, particularly when the machine needed to share space with a battery or power generator.
Another issue that Crawford and Feight didn't seem to have addressed is how close they'd need to be to their target. Radiation strength decreases the further it is from the source. Therefore, Crawford and Feight would have had to drive their van right up to their targets’ windows, or compensate for extra distance by increasing the power.
Crawford and Feight both worked for General Electric — Crawford as an industrial mechanic and Feight as an outside contractor — so presumably, they had some idea of what they were doing. But experts said that although they believe such a device was theoretically possible, it’s far from practical. [See also: Seven Sci-Fi Weapons from Tomorrow are Here Today]
“[Such a weapon] requires a huge amount of electrical input; it requires a huge amount of engineering, and [X-ray machines] are large and very heavy,” Mettler told TechNewsDaily.
“In general, it’s not a particularly smart idea,” he concluded.
Meyers' conclusion was similar: "It's a little bit cockamamie, but I guess it's possible — maybe.”