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A few months from now, Peter Anthony Schlesinger hopes to zap a laser beam at a couple of chickens or other animals in a cage a few dozen yards away.
If all goes as planned, the chickens will be frozen in mid-cluck, their leg and wing muscles paralyzed by an electrical charge created by the beam, even as their heart and lungs function normally.
Among those most interested in the outcome will be officials at the Pentagon, who helped fund Schlesinger's work and are looking at this type of device to do a lot more than just zap a chicken.
Devices like these, known as directed-energy weapons, could be used to fight wars in coming years.
"When you can do things at the speed of light, all sorts of new capabilities are there," said Delores Etter, a former undersecretary of defense for science and technology and an advocate of directed-energy weapons.
Directed energy could bring numerous advantages to the battlefield in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have had to deal with hostile but unarmed crowds as well as dangerous insurgents.
Aside from paralyzing potential attackers or noncombatants like a long-range stun gun, directed-energy weapons could fry the electronics of missiles and roadside bombs, developers say, or even disable a vehicle in a high-speed chase.
The most ambitious program is the Air Force's Airborne Laser, a plan to mount a laser on a modified Boeing 747 and use it to shoot down missiles.
At the same Air Force Research Laboratory in New Mexico, researchers working with Raytheon Co. have developed a weapon called the Active Denial System, which repels adversaries by heating the water molecules in their skin with microwave energy. The pain is so great that people flee immediately.