China has allegedly tested the 'most powerful' coil gun

According to the South China Morning Post, the Chinese Navy has built and tested a powerful coil gun capable of launching a 274 lb projectile at over half the speed of sound.
Christopher McFadden
An electromagnetic railgun prototype aboard the USS Millinocket.

United States Navy/Wikimedia Commons 

The Chinese Navy has allegedly test-fired what it has termed the "world's most powerful coil gun," reports the South China Morning Post (SCMP). Coil guns (a type of Gauss gun) fire projectiles at great speed by accelerating them using electromagnetism rather than chemical energy (as in conventional firearms). According to the SCMP, the weapon accelerated a 274 lbs (124 kg) projectile to a speed of 435 mph (700 kph) in less than 0.05 seconds. While that sounds impressive, to put it into perspective, a regular artillery shell tends to travel at speeds of around 2,237 mph (1,000 meters per second).

Futuristic weapon

If reports are accurate, this would be a coil gun's largest known projectile launch to date. Although the precise details and range of the weapon are closely guarded, a projectile traveling at those velocities could strike a target several kilometers distant with relative ease.

The projectile in a coil gun remains centered in the EM coil during launch, preventing contact with the barrel wall and allowing for rapid, repeated firing without wear on components. For several reasons, coil guns have the potential to revolutionize warfare by enabling faster, more accurate, and devastating attacks on enemy targets. Additionally, they could be used to launch missiles or send satellites into space.

The technology is nothing new, with the United States making early breakthroughs with a 120mm-caliber electromagnetic coil mortar test device at the Sandia National Laboratories in the United States, which can fire a projectile weighing 40 lbs (18 kg). The Chinese team, led by Professor Guan Xiaocun from the Naval University of Engineering, highlights the advantages of the coil gun, such as higher launch speeds, lower launch costs, and shorter preparation time, compared to traditional artillery.

“It has the potential for revolutionary breakthroughs in speed, range, power, accuracy, safety, flexibility, and reliability,” Guan and his colleagues wrote in a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Transactions of China Electrotechnical Society this month. “It is widely applicable in areas such as weapon systems, near-earth satellites, and high-speed missile launches,” they added.

The Chinese military has also heavily invested in a much larger 30-stage coil gun, which is still in the testing phase, reports SCMP. Ma Weiming, the lead scientist of the Chinese military's electromagnetic launch program, stated in a paper published in June that the Naval University of Engineering has overcome several challenges in building the large coil gun.

Ma said the challenges involved designing and manufacturing large-caliber coils with high magnetic density and compact pulsed power technology. The more powerful coil gun can, it is claimed, launch a projectile at 2,237 mph (3,600 kph), increasing the weapon's kill range to over 62 miles (100 km).

Not all gravy

With regards to the smaller coil gun, by developing a special EM-shielded projectile, the team was also able to record some important data about the launch. Using this, they found that the projectile didn't behave as expected from computer simulations. For example, it was found that the stronger electromagnetic force at the tail of the projectile caused it to tilt and collide with the inner wall of the drive coil. This collision also made the acceleration data of the weapon fluctuate.

The test projectile started to wobble in later stages due to the wrong timing of the pulse current. Thanks to vital information like this, scientists can enhance future coil gun performance by adjusting trigger time for pulse current and reducing wobbling, the team explained.

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