Disintegrators are a type of weapon that rapidly (and in some cases, instantly) reduces its target down to basic components. They come in two broad varieties: molecular disintegrators, which reduce a target down to its component molecules or atoms, and nuclear disintegrators, which reduce a target down to basic elementary particles.
It is unknown if disintegrators as shown in science fiction could ever be made to work in the real world. They seem to rely on the application of exotic particle effects that seem unlikely to work, at least according to what is known to Twenty First Century physics. However, if the laws of physics work out in a certain way, future societies employing much more sophisticated techniques and knowledge than ours could make them a possibility.
Even though disintegrators appear mostly in Space Opera sources, they are usually depicted as considerably more advanced weapons than the run of the mill blaster or laser, and are therefore are placed at the upper levels of the Space Opera range on the Tech Level scale to reflect that. Disintegrators have been seen in a great many forms in a great many science fiction works, including the TV series Star Trek, the movie Forbidden Planet, the novel Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, Larry Niven's Known Space series of novels and short stories, and even cartoons like Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century.
It should be noted that there is a difference between a target being incinerated, which some scifi weapons are capable of, and disintegration. Incineration, like from the heat beams used by the Martians in War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, reduces its target to ash by the delivery of a massive amount of energy all at once. A disintegrator works on a different principle. It causes a target to fall apart by removing the inter-molecular or inter-atomic 'glue' that holds it together.
How exactly this disintegration effect is achieved is usually left quite vague in the various source materials, though it does seem to usually involve some sort of advanced subatomic particle effect unknown to us in the Twenty-First Century. They are most popularly shown as ray guns and would therefore be classified as a type of exotic particle beam. They would have many of the characteristics of that type of weapon. However some, such as the Molecular Detachment Device in Ender's Game, were field-effect weapons and could be deployed as missile warheads instead.
Some weapons seem to disintegrate a portion of the target's mass around its contact point in proportion to how much power is in the beam. Low-powered hand-held disintegrators may just blow away a few cubic inches of the target, while a very powerful one may disintegrate dozens of metric tons of mass. The Slaver Disintegrator from Niven's Known Space stories worked like this.
Some disintegrators, however, seem to initiate a chain reaction effect. If a beam or delivery devices comes into contact with even a small portion of the target, the whole thing will disintegrate as the chain reaction plays itself out over the entirety of the target's mass. Some disintegrator chain reactions, such as those used by Star Trek's phasers, are self-limiting, usually according to how much power is in the striking beam, though they could still break down disproportionately large amounts of mass. Others however, have no such limits and could wreck entire planets, as in the case of the Molecular Detachment Device seen in Ender's Game.
Disintegrators would be greatly coveted as weapons as they would have no physical defense. No physical barrier or amount of armor can stop them. It doesn't matter the material's make up--a disintegrator will destroy the hardest diamond as easily as the flimsiest gossamer. They can usually be stopped or weakened by force fields and powerful electromagnetic fields, however.
Like with most types of weapon systems, disintegrators would likely be employed first as large tactical weapons before they could be miniaturized down for handheld use. In settings where forcefields are unavailable, disintegrators could be an extremely devastating weapon on the battlefield, able to completely negate entire tanks, naval craft, point defenses, aircraft, and even spaceships with a single hit.
Molecular disintegrators break down matter into its component molecules. The primary example from science fiction is the Molecular Detachment Device from the Ender universe, though they have also occasionally popped up as weapons of various super villains in comic books over the decades. Marvin the Martian's disintegrator, which reduced Daffy Duck to a pile of carbon, was also likely a molecular disintegrator.
In the case of the Molecular Detachment Device from the Ender novels, two beams are intersected, which create a field effect in which electrons can't be shared by atoms. Both covalent and ionic bonding of the atoms breaks down. The field weakens with distance, but is 'renewed' with each new molecule it encounters, perpetuating the chain reaction. In the various novels, this field effect was enough to destroy entire planets, as well as fleets of ships if the vessels were close enough to each other. The objects would be reduced down to loose masses of monatomic 'dirt.'
How exactly this reaction would work is unknown. The intersecting beams probably, like modern particle accelerators, smash different kinds of high-energy particle beams together to produce a large population of specific exotic particles. The particles radiating out from this collision must do something to alter the basic electromagnetic character of individual atoms. They would seem similar to the (equally fictitious) Minovsky particles in the Gundam universe, which also interferes with the basic properties of the electromagnetic force.
The Slaver Disintegrator, mentioned in some of Larry Niven's Known Space works such as the novel Ringworld, is also a molecular disintegrator. It suppresses the electrical charge on the electrons on the outer shell of atoms. Solid matter, suddenly overwhelmingly electrically positive down to its most basic building blocks, tears itself apart via mutual repulsion and becomes a fog of monatomic dust.
The Slaver Disintegrators was not a field-effect weapon, and only affected the matter struck directly by the beam. However, it was mentioned that in one of the many wars between humans and kzinti, the humans created a huge version that was able to carve huge canyons miles deep across the face of a planet. Smaller hand-held versions were most commonly used as digging tools.
One major feature of a molecular disintegrator is that it does not alter the mass of the object it hits after disintegration--its still all there, only broken down to its base ingredients. The results are usually clouds of dust or piles of monatomic debris.
Disintegrating something organic (like a human or an animal) would however have a more interesting result. Assuming the individual atoms react normally after the disintegration effect passes, a number of chemical reactions ensue. In a typical body, there is a lot of water, meaning it would break down into oxygen and hydrogen gas. But there's also a lot of suddenly non-bonded phosphorus in the mass as well, which may set the whole thing on fire as it combines with the freed oxygen. Whereas a disintegrator may reduce a mass of metal to individual molecules of iron in a mundane-looking, straight-forward manner, a human victim may burst into a violent ball of phosphorus-fueled flame. Since most of its mass was tied up in elements that are normally gasses (oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen), the remaining pile of burnt remains would also be much smaller and lighter than the original body as those newly liberated gasses escape into the air.
Molecular disintegrators would have applications beyond just their use as weaponry. For example, they would be ideal as mining tools, breaking down rock into its molecular component which can then be separated by element via centrifuges or other means.
Nuclear disintegrators are also sometimes called atomic disintegrators.
Nuclear disintegrators break matter down at the nuclear level. The most famous sidearm in science fiction, the phaser from Star Trek, can be powered up into this type of weapon. Nuclear disintegrators can be seen in other properties such as the movies Forbidden Planet, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds.
Just as with molecular disintegrators, how nuclear disintegrators could work is usually left quite vague in most source material they appear in. The phaser from Star Trek uses a particle beam made up of fictional 'rapid nadions.' Depending on how much power is put into the beam--i.e., how energetic these 'rapid nadions' become--they have a variety of effects, from disrupting electromagnetic fields to acting as a normal particle beam to tearing up atomic nucleii. Itís the latter that causes a phaser's disintegration effect. On the weapon's higher settings, the rapid nadions disrupt the Strong Nuclear Force, causing the particles at the nucleus of atoms to fly apart. The phaser's disintegration effect is a chain reaction, but a self-limiting one. How much matter affected is determined by how much power is in the striking beam. At its strongest setting, a hand held phaser can disintegrate up to 450 cubic meters of matter.
Other atomic disintegrators may work in a similar manner. The carrier particle for the Strong Nuclear Force is called the gluon. If these gluons can be somehow disrupted or negated, the nuclear structure breaks down and an atom's protons fly apart from mutual electromagnetic repulsion.
A hazard associated with a nuclear disintegrator is the fact that these component particles fly apart violently, making them in effect a wave of high-speed particle radiation that can be quite hazardous to people and devices nearby. The exact character of this radiation flash would depend on the exact method by which the target was disintegrated--different particles in a striking beam may have different effects on the particles in the target.
For example, a phaser's rapid nadions initiates a chain reaction that transforms most of the particles caught in the disintegration effect into neutrinos. Fortunately for Star Fleet officers, this kind of radiation flash is harmless to humans.
The radiation released by other kinds of nuclear disintegration weapons may be quite different, however. Freed protons would combine with electrons in the former atoms' shells, becoming neutrons. This would make the radiation flash of a disintegrator into a wave of pure high-speed neutrons, which can be very damaging to organic tissue and be difficult to shield against. Anyone expecting to use an atomic disintegrator at close range would be well advised to wear heavy sealed armor, and even then the armor would eventually become radioactive itself after repeated nearby hits.
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