Zap! BOOM! The Navy is getting serious about ray guns that can shoot down missiles in mid-flight.

It's just given defense contractors Boeing and Raytheon close to $7 million each to design and test the basics of a free-electron laser (FEL), a long-pursued weapon that doesn't have many of the drawbacks of other laser systems in development.

Unlike chemical-based lasers, which require huge tanks of toxic substances to work, the FEL would be all-electric and thus easier to transport.

Most other lasers operate within narrow wavelengths and have beams that can be scattered or blocked by humidity, dust and reflective surfaces. FELs generate beams over a wide range, from microwaves at one end to X-rays on the other, and can be "tuned" in operation to maximize distance and power.

There's a catch, though. In order to get an FEL to the millions of watts of power it'd need to shoot down a missile, it'd have to have a huge generating complex behind it.

At least in the Navy's case, that could only come from an all-electric ship, which doesn't yet exist -- but, as with the FEL, the Navy's working on it.

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