In much of sci-fi we find examples "Power Draining Beams" and such the like.

How feasible are these weapons?

The weapon should drain power from the enemy ships systems in order to disable or disrupt their abilities but bonus points if the power can be usefully used by the assailing ship.

Notes: The beam aspect of the weapon is unimportant. Even some kind of limpet drone or device that drains power from a spaceship will be sufficient.

The power source on these ships will either be fusion(big reactor for big ships), anitmatter(used simultaneously for propulsion and power generation), Thorium/Uranium fission(small junker/scavenger ships), or solar/laser power.

The ships will all have some form of chemical or solid state batteries to store unnecesary power from the ship for later use. Some ships will also have large capacitor banks for boosting the weapons/engines or such-the-like.

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    $\begingroup$ I think there is no scientific base for neither shields nor "beams" as we see in science fiction. If you want to depower machinery or a grid, there are weapons for that in real life, but they are nothing like what you see in sci-fi (i.e: missile-delivered grapphite ropes, used to trigger short circuits in power lines). $\endgroup$ – The Square-Cube Law Jan 3 '18 at 17:43
  • $\begingroup$ The shields and beams aren't particularly important. Mostly focussed on the Power Drain aspect of the technology. $\endgroup$ – Disgusting Jan 3 '18 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ I think the closest you could get is destroying whatever power supply the enemy is using $\endgroup$ – bendl Jan 3 '18 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ What is the anticipated result? Brownout on the ship in question? Are you trying to claim energy from an enemy ship to use, or just so they don't have it? $\endgroup$ – Chris M. Jan 3 '18 at 17:52
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    $\begingroup$ I think this question is underspecified. You tag with 'science-based' but you don't explain the scientific principles behind your shields. You also don't explain what you want to do with the power. Make it disappear? Make it unavailable for the enemy to use? Bring it back to your ship? I've got to vote to close as 'unclear what you are asking' until there are more details. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Jan 3 '18 at 18:17

Beams and shields as we see in sci-fi do not exist in real life, and there is no scientific basis for them.

In real life, the closest you can get to those is a graphite bomb:

(...) a non-lethal weapon used to disable electrical power systems. Graphite bombs work by spreading a cloud of extremely fine, chemically treated carbon filaments over electrical components, causing a short-circuit and a disruption of the electrical supply. The filaments are only a few hundredths of an inch thick and can float in the air like a dense cloud. The weapon is sometimes referred to as a "soft bomb", since its effects are largely confined to the targeted electrical power facility, with minimal risk of collateral damage. Graphite bombs only work on power lines that are not insulated.

You may consider the part where it says:

Graphite bombs only work on power lines that are not insulated.

But then again, Wikipedia also says this about overhead power lines:

Overhead insulated cables are rarely used, usually for short distances (less than a kilometer). Insulated cables can be directly fastened to structures without insulating supports. An overhead line with bare conductors insulated by air is typically less costly than a cable with insulated conductors.

Someone else may come here and speak about electromagnetic pulses. Again, from the wikis:

Weapons have been developed to create the damaging effects of high-energy EMP. Misleading or incorrect information about such weapons, both real and fictional, have become known to the public by means of popular culture and some politicians' claims. Misleading information includes both exaggeration of EMP effects and downplaying the significance of the EMP threat.

Every space ship built in real life so far is kinda like a plane, so they are at least as resistant to EMP's as your regular Boeing or Airbus, if not more. These crafts face EMP from cloud-to-cloud lightning, and they are built to shrug it off. Spaceships will have an extra defense while outside an atmosphere since vacuum is a very nice insulator.

If you want to completely disable an enemy craft with the least damage to personnel, and in space, your best best should be disabling its sensors. Flying without instruments is already dangerous with an airplane - with a spaceship, it could be suicide. Use extreme radio noise for comms/radars, then laser their visual sensors. The ship will be rendered unable to flee nor fight back, and then you can think of a way to board it.

As for ground stations, you have to disable power lines and generators. I've already mentioned graphite bombs for overhead power lines, but if the lines are underground, your options will require some sort of infiltration. Find a powerline, dig until you reach it, then overload it. An overload is more likely to cause a collapse or damage to the rest of the grid than merely cutting a line. You may need to do a lot of digging - if the enemy is expecting a siege, they may have numerous redundant lines.

If the power lines are modeled after real life AC mains, you can also introduce harmonics into the grid. According to this page:

Harmonics can wreak havoc on the electrical power network, causing failure of PLC circuit boards, machine tools, and robotic systems. They also can trip circuit breakers, blow fuses, overheat motors and transformers, cause insulation to break down, and reduce the service life of equipment.

EDIT: just saw this edit in the question:

Bonus points if your answer results in a gain of power for the assailant.

Another way to depower a ground station is to syphoon its energy.

This is an electric post in Brazil:

Hack hack hack

The vast majority (I'd say over 99%) of the cabling there has been put there ilegally, in order to use power without paying for it by bypassing the registers/counters. Just do the same against your enemies, and you can even sell the extra power to a third party.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure flying without instruments is suicide in space. There's just not a lot to run into... it's pretty empty and all $\endgroup$ – bendl Jan 3 '18 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ "Spaceships will have an extra defense while outside an atmosphere since vacuum is a very nice insulator." - unless the enemy uses contact EMPs. And now your spaceship becomes a resonant cavity, amplifying the power of any EMP bomb that reaches your ship... $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Jan 3 '18 at 18:18
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    $\begingroup$ Space flight is not the leisure thing we see in sci-fi movies. In space you are always orbiting something. Accelerating in any direction changes the shape of your orbit, and you go to places by adjusting your orbit and waiting. A slight acceleration without instrument aid may cause a shift that could take too much fuel to fix later, or cause your period to be prohibitively short or long for your spacecraft. $\endgroup$ – The Square-Cube Law Jan 3 '18 at 18:20
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnDvorak ` unless the enemy uses contact EMPs. And now your spaceship becomes a resonant cavity, amplifying the power of any EMP bomb that reaches your ship` - Nope. Faraday cage. $\endgroup$ – The Square-Cube Law Jan 3 '18 at 18:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Renan faraday cage works if 1) the outer layer is conductive (check) 2) without holes larger than the wavelength (no holes here), 3) the thing you want to isolate is separated from the cage by a gap (here lies a problem), 4) the thing you want to shield from is outside of the cage. Also, I don't think your typical spaceship chassis is such a great conductor. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Jan 3 '18 at 18:28

The only vaguely realistic thing I can think of is automated drones that attach to power lines and then do some very energy intensive work. For this to happen you need three things:

An intensive work source Thing here is that I’m assuming you want to disable the enemy ship, not destroy it completely, so something like ‘heat up until you explode’ isn’t OK. If the drone is externally mounted (which would imply the power lines are on the outside of the ship, which might be odd) then you could use a load of power firing a laser to nowhere. If internal then radiating something in the EM spectrum that’s likely to pass out of the ship might work, trouble is finding something you can fit in a drone.

Or you can fit some empty batteries, charge them and then fly the drone home.

A way to identify power cables

If the cables aren’t shielded you can do this with magnetometers. If they are shielded you may have a tricky time of it, which brings me to point three:

A fearsomely good AI (or pilot)

This drone will have to navigate to the enemy ship, potentially under fire, identify the power systems, get into the power systems, identify which of a myriad of potential tools it should be using to drain the power, then start doing so. I suspect if you have a drone (or squishy meatbag with a remote control) that’s this competent it would be easier to arm them with knives and just let them go Freddy Kruger on the enemy crew.

The countermeasures that enemy ships can employ are rich and varied, ranging from internal defenders and fake power relays all the way down to installing fuse boxes.

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  • $\begingroup$ Could you elaborate on some more "intensive work sources", perhaps? $\endgroup$ – Disgusting Jan 3 '18 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ Would it be better to use batteries or capacitors? $\endgroup$ – Disgusting Jan 3 '18 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Douglas I used the terms interchangeably, really. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jan 3 '18 at 18:34
  • $\begingroup$ I love the image of Kruger drones. Unfortunately, Half Life 2 has already taken that idea with manhacks. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Jan 3 '18 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnDvorak: imagine a manhack that could route around walls and open doors... IN SPACE!!! $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jan 3 '18 at 18:44

How feasible are power draining beams or similar weapons?

They're not, at least in terms of our present understanding of physics and the nature of power generation within our control.

As an example, from the movie Star Trek IV, Checkov and Uhura board the U.S.S. Enterprise (aircraft carrier) to collect the "high energy photons" that result from nuclear fission to help re-crystalize dilithium. An energy drain is detected by the crew of the Enterprise, and Checkov is caught. Ignoring the obvious problem of collecting photons through both a sealed reactor and a closed bulkhead, the drain would have never been detectable... because whatever "photons" were being collected were outside the power-generation process.

As used today, useful energy must be carried along a conductor. So long as it is on the conductor (including within any kind of equipment), it can only be tapped by physically touching the conductor. No intangible "channel" (which SciFi tends to call a "beam") can be opened that will conduct the energy elsewhere. This physical connection is what the answers posted before mine address.

But, what if the energy was broadcast?

Scientists and inventors have been monkeying around with Wireless power transfer almost since the beginning of the electrical age. They've come up with some elegant solutions. But, even here, you can't point an emission of any type that would suck the energy out of the air — at least that we know about or understand.

But, I can imagine the concept of an emitted stream of particles that would become excited when passing through broadcast power. Perhaps, theoretically, the charged particles could then create a conductive path back to the emitter, which had an embedded collector that drained the excess energy from the excited particles. That's not a lot different from a gaseous lightning rod. but now you're talking about using a consumable (the particles) that must be loaded onto and stored in your ship or defensive location. Once you've emitted all the particles, you lose the ability.

Note that I'm assuming you can't use an elementary stream of particles for this purpose, such as an electron, proton, or neutron stream. I'll leave it to WB members with a greater physics background than myself to suggest if using some sort of elementary particle is possible.

Couldn't I use that against power lines?

Well, yes, but remember that electricity (and probably all energy) tends to take the path of least resistance. That will certainly always be the conductive wire, not your particle beam. The idea only works for broadcast power because the stream's conductive path is better than plain air.

Well... I'm not interested in using broadcast power, what are my choices?

Your only choice, I believe, is to disrupt, not drain, the power. I can tell you from personal experience that when a lightning bolt strikes close to home, all kinds of electrical things are destroyed. The reason is simple: the electromagnetic field generated by the bolt couples energy onto house wiring, phone lines, and even the cables between computers and peripherals, in the same way generators produce electricity by passing wires through stationary magnetic fields. The power levels can (and did!) exceed the energy-carrying capacity of wires or the energy-absorbing capacity of circuitry, destroying them. (I had to pull burned phone cable from the walls and replace a printer using those old billion-wire parallel cables....)

This could be done with an electron stream. Ships would need to protect themselves, by coupling their hulls to some sort of grounding reference. But, where there's electricity, there's the ability to overpower.

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  • $\begingroup$ Instead of a beam, I believe carbon nanotubes are conductive. Could you launch two of them at some sort of cable, piercing the insulation somehow, and the drain the power with some useless device on the ship? $\endgroup$ – Disgusting Jan 3 '18 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ Yes... ish... you would have the tubes spooled. How much distance is there between the ships? You would also need to penetrate armor and who nows how many layers of metal, pieces, parts, insulation. It would probably be the most difficult shot in history. It sounds impractical. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jan 3 '18 at 20:52
  • $\begingroup$ It would be, but that makes it useful for "The Good Guys Come Up With A Crazy Longshot At The Last Minute" type stories. $\endgroup$ – Disgusting Jan 3 '18 at 21:53
  • $\begingroup$ Star Trek Voyager is basically all that story. $\endgroup$ – Disgusting Jan 3 '18 at 21:54
  • $\begingroup$ Not to slag Voyager of course, love that intrepid little crew. Just illustrating that it's a good story. $\endgroup$ – Disgusting Jan 3 '18 at 21:54

Any malware that makes the targeted system to waste energy in some unexpected way.

Consider a virus that attacks firmware of wind turbine, making it to consume electricity instead of producing. Any computer can be turned into heater by overloading all processor cores and video hardware. Turn on heating or cooling in environment control systems.

To get these extra points for useful consumption of energy - take over computer-controlled transport, make cars run into military bases at full speed.

Transfer the virus over laser beam communication (so you have a beam too!)

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  • $\begingroup$ This is actually a novel idea for the slow and hidden consumption of power. I like it. $\endgroup$ – adrian Jan 4 '18 at 3:13

If you want to take down the power of a spaceship, your best bet is to destroy/disconnect the power source itself.

  • If the ship operates on solar power, that's relatively easy, its solar panels will be hard to miss. A few shots with scattering ammunition should suffice to take down the power supply. Bonus points if you can target the cables connecting the panels to the ship.

  • If the ship operates on nuclear power (fission/fusion, doesn't matter which), it's a bit harder, but not impossible:

    Any reactor needs cooling to get rid of the entropy it creates. Without cooling, it won't generate any power, that's the physics. Now, for cooling in space, there is only exactly one option: radiative surfaces. Any spaceship with a decent reactor must also have decent heat radiators. And these must be visible (= targetable!) from outside, otherwise they won't work.

    Typical reactor cooling designs will invariably rely on a fluid or another (the obvious choice being water, naturally). Liquids can leak. Assuming the liquid is water, you just need to turn the radiators into swiss cheese, and the attacked ship will soon inform you about their unconditional surrender.

    If the cooling liquid is not water, but some molten metal/salt without an appreciable vapor pressure at operating temperatures, you may need to wait a bit longer for the message of unconditional surrender, though: Water pipes need to be under some pressure to keep the water from boiling. If you puncture a water pipe in space, it will immediately spew out the water due to this pressure, and the water inside will start boiling, pushing more water out through the leak. Molten salts don't need pressure to stay fluid, so you won't get the same fountain effect when you puncture the system as with water.

    Nevertheless, even with molten salts, the coolant needs to be pumped through the pipes to stay in motion, it won't just flow by itself. Thus, there is at least some pressure on the system, and that pressure will eventually push out the coolant in the same way as with the water, just much more slowly. Your attackers can somewhat speed up this process by targeting the pipes feeding the hot coolant to the radiators: That is the point of the highest pressure which cannot be buried deep within the ship.

    So, in any case, a few well placed bullets/grenades will eventually take down any atomic ship's power supply.

  • If the ship operates on battery power, disabling its power supply may be infeasible without destroying the whole ship: The batteries may be well hidden deep within. If they are not hidden well enough, well a few well placed bullets/grenades...

All these attacks are obviously destructive, and thus not revertible. So, be prepared to supply emergency power to the attacked ship after it has acknowledged defeat. Unless your attackers are not of the type that doesn't take prisoners, that is. But in that case, the attackers would much prefer some real fireworks anyway, I presume.

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How feasible are drain weapons ? Not feasible. Possible but not feasible. It's way much more efficient to just power down something by other means (overload, jam, combination of both, etc).

A relatively recent example is the Russian SU-24 with which paralyzed in the Black Sea one of the most modern American combat management systems - “Aegis” installed on the destroyer “USS Donald Cook”. The incident is already well-known. A similar thing happened to an US Carrier (near British waters).

Getting back to the main issue: in order to make something drain power, one should look at this from another perspective. Do we have any practical daily examples of something similar ? YES ! Lightning and thunder. Lots of static power are instantly drained when lightning or thunder happens. What actually happens: a point that attracts the power a lot appears and the power drain manifests. But what do you do about devices ? Well, devices have a normal designed power flow with very specific parameters. If power by design flows from the device's point A to point B, it does because point B is the receiver of the electrons from point A. So what one has to do is make a point C which is way more attractive to the electrons compared to point A (this was from a circuit perspective). So a limpet drone sticking a pole in the right spot would cause most of the electrons to go there.

From an external EM perspective, things are a little more complex. Externally speaking, any power flow generates fields. If a device's power flow generates a field, and you generate another interfering with it, in most cases you'll obtain an overload, not a power drain. Applying a mathematically-calculated inverse-filed will actually cause nullification (your field against the target device's field) so that's not actually a drain. Practically, in the case of powerful fields (like high voltage lines) you can build power drainers/harvesters using coils. Big enough coils will drain quite a lot from it. This is another example for external power drain.

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While there's no scientific basis for the power drain rays we see in science fiction, we do indeed have rays like this in the laboratory. They are used for laser cooling, an approach used to create ultra cool atoms (as in less than 1 kelvin). Doppler cooling, in particular, fits your needs surprisingly well.

Doppler cooling takes advantage of the fact that some atoms absorb light energy on a very narrow band. In doppler cooling, one shines lasers at the ball of atoms, tuned just below this band. Most of the atoms simply don't even notice the laser, because its outside of the band. However, any atom traveling towards the laser experiences a doppler shift, raising the frequency of the laser light it sees into the absorption band. It then reemits the photon in a random direction, applying a tiny force to the atom, arresting its outward movement. Put one of these lasers in each direction, and you can arrest its motion in every direction.

This does indeed drain the kinetic energy out of the particles, just like a sci-fi beam. However, it only works in laboratory settings, with specific compounds. No luck using them in warfare.

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  • $\begingroup$ This sounds more like a tractor beam than a power drain beam. $\endgroup$ – Disgusting Jan 7 '18 at 14:41
  • $\begingroup$ The question was more about ways of draining Electrical power/energy or at least draining energy from the system used to generate it. $\endgroup$ – Disgusting Jan 7 '18 at 14:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Douglas Kind of a reverse tractor beam. You try to keep something at a distance. And yes, the question was more about other powers, but I wanted to bring in some real life physics that does indeed "sap energy," even if it's just a little bit of kinetic energy. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jan 7 '18 at 16:03
  • $\begingroup$ So would it be able to generate some sort of power, directed motion or electric or otherwise, on the assailing ship? $\endgroup$ – Disgusting Jan 7 '18 at 16:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Douglas As stated, most warships aren't made out of materials that fluoresce with such a narrow window, but in theory, yes. If the enemy ship tries to approach them in any way, the beam would push the ship away (a.la a light sail). However, if the enemy ship keeps their distance or goes away, they will find the beam exerts no force on them. The beam could force something to keep its distance, applying force if you try to come closer, but have no effect on vehicles that are moving away. Rather nifty! $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jan 7 '18 at 18:27

You could try for a positron device.


Positrons ... (are) the antimatter counterpart of the electron... When a positron collides with an electron, annihilation occurs.

Given a high power use on or near the skin of a target craft, a positron beam could act to strip the electrons from the area, effectively draining electrical power. The annihilation of the particles could be bright light (photons) or gamma radiation. Either could be damaging to the ship or the crew as a side effect.

Your attacking ship could contain collectors for that type of emission, to reclaim a bit of the power used. However, I would imagine that would be a marginal amount of recovery due to the dispersion.

A limpet "mine" that attaches to the target could have the same collectors working at a much higher efficiency, due to it's proximity to the annihilation ground zero. The collectors would only be useful if the resulting annihilation wasn't a microscopically violent event.

Regardless, you would be draining your own power at the same rate as on the target ship, since you need a 1:1 ratio of positrons to electrons.

People, please, chill out. The OP asked for plausible, science based answers, not hard science with a side of meta-astro-particle-physics-rocket-surgery.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm unsure how shooting a stream of antiparticles would drain power. It seems to me it would annihilate any electrons in whatever matter it happened to collide with, like any other antimater based weapon system. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Jan 3 '18 at 18:47
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    $\begingroup$ Ugh... I hate it when a post sits at 0 for ten minutes, I add a downvote and the post still sits at 0. When voting, please rate the post, not the previous voters. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Jan 3 '18 at 18:53
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    $\begingroup$ You might destroy the battery, but you'll also destroy everything around it. First by the gamma radiation, then chemically (nothing to hold nuclei together), then mechanically simply by having it push itself apart by the charge buildup. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Jan 3 '18 at 18:56
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    $\begingroup$ Good grief, what a hard audience. No matter how impractical, this anwer was CLEVER (I'm one of the upvoters!). I've watched successful movies with "power draining" ideas so ridiculous that they make this sound like 100% solid science. Are our standards just a bit too high? If we're looking for solutions perfectly supported by today's scientific understanding, the only answer is "sorry, can't be done." Maybe we should stop picking nits and enjoy the ride, hmm? $\endgroup$ – JBH Jan 3 '18 at 19:29
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH Nope, this answer is not clever. It's in utter ignorance of any of the orders of magnitude involved. It's like trying to manipulate the gold price by using a nuclear power plant to produce gold. True, you can produce gold that way, but you cannot hope to compete with Fort Knox. Likewise, you can remove some electrons from a spaceship by firing positrons at it, but you won't be able to cause more than a bit of an electrostatic charge of that ship that way. And you will give your ship the same, opposite charge in the process. Finally, spaceships are Faraday Cages, they won't care a bit. $\endgroup$ – cmaster - reinstate monica Jan 3 '18 at 22:41

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