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A fun thought experiment: the science of electric superpowers

  1. Nov 9, 2015 #1
    Context: I'm an artist working with a writer on a superhero comic. One of the characters we were thinking of adding is a person with electricity powers. However, the writer wants the electricity powers to be somewhat more "realistic" (at least, aside from the whole electric super-powered human thing).

    I've taken a year of physics, but electricity was always my weakest subject so of course it is coming back to bite me in the ass now. I do understand nuclear physics/chem (electrons, charge, photons, etc) but thinking about it on a larger scale is difficult.

    So, here is a very rough schematic of a bunch of situations that could happen while this character is fighting:


    For situation 1, the writer thinks shooting a lightning bolt straight to the target is unrealistic, and that if a human were to have such superpowers it would be difficult to control where the electricity will go, and it would just kind of blast out and hit anyone/anything nearby with the least resistance. Does that seem right?

    Situation 2-5, the electric human makes direct contact with the target. Does it matter if the target is grounded or not? Does it matter if the electric human is grounded or not? Does it matter if he's only touching the target with one hand?

    Situation 6-9. We were thinking that instead of shooting electricity directly out of his body, he holds onto some gun-shaped device that can absorb his electricity, channel it through and come out like an electrolaser or plasma beam or something. So the gun is useless by itself, and if a regular human holds the gun, nothing comes out. Does this seem plausable (or at least, not horribly *wrong*)? If so, same questions apply--are there situations where the target is invulnerable to these attacks (floating or jumping in the air, does it matter if they're wearing metal armor or something?)

    Situation 10-11, he could throw conductive wires like a lasso. But if the lasso doesn't penetrate the target (like a taser) does it not matter? If there are two ends of the rope on the target, or if the rope is made of 2 wires braided together, would that make a complete circuit through the target? (kind of a silly way to fight, but whatever)

    Some other situations that I've thought about (but was too lazy to add to the schematic image): How does the situation change if the target is underwater (assuming it's not 100% pure water)? If they're in space? The target is wearing an insulating armor (rubber boots or something?)
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 10, 2015 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    1. Look at vids of tesla coils. But also look up ball lighting. Maybe plasma pulses... your main problem here is setting the power level.
    2-5. Yes to everything... but depends how the superpower works. The main science you want to think about is where the electricity comes from... so this bit needs detail.
    You also want to look up the effects of electric shock.
    6-9. A pointy object will give more direction to the bolt ... also look at how lightning works.
    In principle your superperson could power electrical devices charge capacitors etc.
    10-11 you only need electrical contact... again, think mainly where does the electricity come from and where does it go.
    Note: tasers have two wires... wires have to be insulated from each other so the current passes through the target to get from one wire to the other.

    Under water... water = ground. Big shocks may still have an effect... look at lightning striking the sea.
    In space... you need air for lightning. You can spray charged particles or maybe make an ion drive.
    For most purposes insulation is good protection... does not help with lightning though.
    Standing near a grounded conductor (re lightning rod) could also offer protection.
  4. Nov 10, 2015 #3


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    It is very difficult to shock an insulated person without two points of contact. Say a person some distance away standing on top of a car which is insulated by its tires.
    Or a person right next to you standing on thick glass. In order to kill someone, current needs to pass through their body. They can be charged to a high voltage with no effect if there is no conduction of current from their body.

    He could use his electrical powers to send high current through his coiled fingers in order to electromagnetically accelerate a projectile. Or create plasma balls (maybe --- not something I can explain how to do).

    He could radiate high intensity microwaves which he focuses with his parabolic abs and then cooks his opponent.

    Your best bet is to just give him the power to aim his lightning through directional ion trails that unexplainably radiate straight from his pointed finger allowing him to discharge a lightning bolt high energy enough to jump any insulating gap (like the car tires).

    BTW, there is a science fiction writers forum here. You can draw from a wider audience.
  5. Nov 11, 2015 #4
    Could you expand on what you mean by "where the electricity comes from"? Do you mean, we need to establish how electricity is being transferred or created in the superhero's body? The writer and I hadn't discussed it much but I was imagining it a little like an electric eel's electric organs, probably located on his hands, but also more powerful than an actual electric eel. But this part is most open to change.

    That is a pretty cool idea! So it would be like a coil gun, but using his fingers instead of wire?

    Hmm, would the made-up funneling gun depicted in situation 6 serve as a way to achieve that?
  6. Nov 14, 2015 #5

    Simon Bridge

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    ... well, that, and where the energy comes from.
    Eels don't get their electricity for free.
  7. Nov 21, 2015 #6
    The two main comic companies, DC & Marvel each have a plethora of characters with similar powers, especially those with many various electrically based abilities.

    Some can generate and send only a DC type charge, and some with AC abilities. Either have been able to cast directed lightening strikes, while others are only able to produce random bursts. For some, water is an instant kryptonite, while others have enough control of their abilities to avoid "shorting out".

    A big thing to keep in mind is: Who's he going to interact with? Is it going to be against a DareDevil type character? Or a Mister Fantastic? Or a Hulk? Or a Magneto?
    And then, you have to figure who you want to win in those encounters. After that, you need a good way to explain HOW? Because going up against a Magneto would be quite interesting, seeing as how they each would have control of aspects of the electromagnetic spectrum in their powers.
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