Ghostbusters proton packs in real life

Flashback: “Why worry? Each one of us is carrying an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back…” When three scientists go into business as spooktacular startup the Ghostbusters, they zap and trap spectres with the help of some high-tech equipment. Strapped to their back are ‘proton packs’: miniaturized mobile particle accelerators, with wands for firing beams of high energy protons.

Flashforward to today: Following the original 1984 Ghostbusters (and its 1989 sequel), the series was rebooted in 2016 and again in 2021. With the latest sequel Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire hitting screens, it’s a good time to ask: would a proton pack be useful in the real world?


In the trailer for the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, a whiteboard covered with scientific equations also included a URL that directed eagle-eyed viewers to a video of scientist James Maxwell discussing how the proton pack worked. MIT scientist Maxwell advised on real-world scientific aspects of the film’s ghostbusting gear, with the original cyclotron replaced by a more powerful synchrotron. The formulae seen on screen were written by particle physicist Dr. Lindley Winslow, an expert in quantum fields and Grand Unified Theory.

Maxwell is now a Cryogenic and Polarized Target Physicist at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia. “In particle physics, we use accelerators to explore the nature of our universe,” he explains. 

Accelerators like Jefferson Lab or the famous Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland are used to smash together particles such as protons and electrons, “to probe how they work and look for signs of undiscovered phenomena.”

I asked Maxwell what a proton pack might be used for, outside of bustin’ ghosts. “Apart from basic physics research,” he explains, “particle accelerators are most often used in medicine for radiation therapy and sterilization. A real-life proton pack might be used to fight cancer, delivering precise doses of radiation to eliminate tumours.”

It’s hard to fit that in a backpack!

The proton pack’s portability would make it an ideal medical device which could be taken to remote areas and developing countries, or even up in space. Similar technology could be used for other purposes, such as focusing proton beams not inside the human body but inside anything containing hazardous materials or even explosives that need to be neutralised. 

But there are a few problems that need to be dealt with before a proton pack can be used in the real world. Particle accelerators work as the name suggests: they make particles speed up. In a circular accelerator, the acceleration comes from powerful magnets which continually give the particles a kick as they zoom around in the vacuum of a ring-shaped metal pipe.

“The biggest challenge to overcome,” says Maxwell, “is also the primary reason the highest energy particle accelerators, such as the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, are so huge: synchrotron radiation.”

Accelerated charged particles emit electromagnetic radiation, and synchrotron radiation comes from high-energy charged particles as they curve through the turns of the accelerator. 

“The tighter the turn and the faster the particle beam, the more energy is lost as radiation outwards from the turn, slowing the particles down,” says Maxwell. “To get particles going as fast as possible, the turning radius needs to be as large as possible.”

More challenges…

The first ever particle accelerator, built in 1930, measured less than 5 inches. But when it comes to today’s high-energy systems, size matters. The Large Hadron Collider‘s ring-shaped tunnel is 27 kilometres / 17 miles long because you need that much runway to accelerate two high-energy particle beams up to near the speed of light.

Oh, and the superconducting electromagnets have to be cooled to ‑271.3°C, colder than outer space.

Your other problem, as always, is the battery. Particle accelerators require huge amounts of power, so a proton pack’s power source would need to be enormously powerful as well as incredibly compact. A device like that would be world-changing, as we found when we looked at Back to the Future’s Mr. Fusion.

As James Maxwell puts it, “It’s hard to fit that on a backpack!”


Will it sell?

Particle accelerators aren’t just used for probing the building blocks of the universe. They’re used in the manufacture of computer chips and shrink wrap, which means there are endless potential commercial applications for a portable miniature accelerator.

Surprising fact

On July 13, 1978, scientist Anatoli Bugorski stuck his head into the Soviet U-70 particle accelerator to check a malfunction. But safety equipment had also failed, and a narrow beam of radiation fired through Bugorski’s head. 500 rads can kill a person; the beam that hit Bugorski clocked about 300,000 rads. The left of his face was paralysed from then on and he became prone to seizures – but he’s still alive to this day.

The Peter Venkman award for legitimate science

Writer and star Dan Ackroyd originally conceived Ghostbusters as a sci-fi extravaganza set in the future, but director Ivan Reitman and eventual co-writer Harold Ramis helped scale it down to a more budget-friendly present-day setting. Hardware consultant Stephen Dane designed much of the film’s now-iconic gear, including proton packs, ghost traps and the Echo-1 / Ectomobile, a souped-up 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor Sentinel ambulance.

Verdict

Bustin’ makes me feel good. A portable particle accelerator would be hugely useful in everything from medicine to manufacturing – just don’t cross the streams.


James Maxwell: Physicist to Hollywood

How Particle Accelerators Work

Ten things you might not know about particle accelerators

Other FlashForward editions

Richard Trenholm
Richard Trenholm

Richard is a former CNET writer who had a ringside seat at the very first iPhone announcement, but soon found himself steeped in the world of cinema. He's now part of a two-person content agency, Rockstar Copy, and covers technology with a cinematic angle for TechFinitive.com

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