20
$\begingroup$

Assume that Handwavium is a gas many times lighter than Hydrogen. Is it realistic to use this gas to make relatively heavy full-body armor (say, brass) lighter and/or more maneuverable? This seems like a physics and momentum issue but I must admit my physics knowledge is pretty fuzzy.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Sounds a lot like this question: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/27968/2386 $\endgroup$ – JonTheMon Jul 25 '17 at 19:07
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ It gets asked every so often about how light gasses could reduce the weight of otherwise heavy objects. Hydrogen is already pretty light, it's a marginal improvement over vacuum. The hydrogen itself is a marginal improvement over helium. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jul 25 '17 at 19:38
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ Put inertial dampeners (negators) on the armor. How do they work? "They work just fine, thank you.". More to the point: weight is distinct from mass. Even a weightless suit of armor can still be hard to maneuver in because, for example, to accelerate your arm it needs to apply a force to the inertia (mass) of the armor. $\endgroup$ – Nick T Jul 25 '17 at 19:59
  • $\begingroup$ @NickT So as I understand it, with weightless-but-high-mass armor you could stand still or move in one direction with less overall effort. It would still take effort to punch someone, but that punch would also still have a lot of force behind it. If this is right, I like it because there are benefits to having a high mass armor, like in cavalry charges. $\endgroup$ – mmur Jul 25 '17 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ Kinda, but being agile also means changing direction with ease. If I slowly swing my massive, very destructive sword at you, the appropriate response is to dodge, not block. $\endgroup$ – Nick T Jul 25 '17 at 21:06

13 Answers 13

49
$\begingroup$

Instead of superlight gas, imagine you had vacuum: no gas. Real things containing vacuum must be structurally augmented to avoid being crushed by atmospheric pressure which is why gas fill is nice. To sidestep this we will state that your light gas has the same mass as vacuum which is 0; vacuum gas.

How much would that reduce the weight of the armor? For each volume of vacuum gas in the armor you can subtract the weight of the same volume of air.

Imagine a cubic meter of vacuum gas. This would displace a cubic meter of air which weighs 1.29 kg. https://hypertextbook.com/facts/2000/RachelChu.shtml So a balloon containing a cubic meter of vacuum gas could lift up to a weight of 1.29 kg.

Here is an image demonstrating how large a cubic meter is. from http://year5rc.edublogs.org/files/2011/06/Kira-1luvv32.JPG enter image description here

It would hard to make big enough pockets of vacuum gas in the armor to reduce its weight in any meaningful way.

$\endgroup$
  • 57
    $\begingroup$ But what if you compress the vacuum? ;) $\endgroup$ – Maurycy Jul 25 '17 at 16:22
  • 19
    $\begingroup$ @Maurycy This increases the density, and makes it heavier per unit volume :P $\endgroup$ – Delioth Jul 25 '17 at 16:39
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @Maurycy No, you'd have less upwards pull because you have less vacuum. You can't actually "compress" vacuum, since the vacuum is already empty and there's nothing to compress. Make the space smaller and you'll end up with less vacuum area, eg: more armor and less lift. $\endgroup$ – Aify Jul 25 '17 at 18:13
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ But handwavium is lighter than vacuum because it actually has negative weight. Compressing it even reduces the weight more. $\endgroup$ – DonQuiKong Jul 25 '17 at 19:15
  • 21
    $\begingroup$ The misunderstanding is that the light gas lifts the object. Actually, the air pressure lifts you. Relevant for the force is only the volume of the object. The less mass it has, the less force is needed to lift, but compressing the gas, even if it has zero mass, helps nothing at all. You need the volume. (See swimm bladder) $\endgroup$ – ths Jul 25 '17 at 21:30
26
$\begingroup$

No.

However much lighter the gas is, to have any noticeable effects the gas pockets would still need to be huge to have any impact, which of course isn't practical for your purpose. Even if you have gas that's orders of magnitude lighter than hydrogen, it won't make much of a difference when having to stick to gas pockets that aren't overly large and thus remain maneuverability. The upwards force generated by this gas is minimal compared to the gravity working on the armor as a whole.

As an added bonus these gas pockets form weaknesses in the armor which make the entire idea even more impractical. If I personally had the choice between living, and my armor weight being reduced by a grand 500 grams or so, I'd choose living any day of the week. I think the only "realistic" way to realize light-weight but tough armor is either magic or fictitious metal akin to mithral.

$\endgroup$
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ Also, it would not reduce the inertia of the armor any... $\endgroup$ – sdfgeoff Jul 25 '17 at 14:46
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @sdfgeoff raises an excellent point with the inertia, I completely forgot about that in my answer. $\endgroup$ – Hyfnae Jul 25 '17 at 14:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Hyfnae: Metal is not the only choice. You can use some composite material (e.g.: kevlar or carbon fiber) to have comparable sturdiness with much less weight. Japanese historic armors were largely lighter than western ones being made in lacquered bamboo wood. Modern materials have an even greater edge. $\endgroup$ – ZioByte Jul 25 '17 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer. It makes sense that volume of the gas is the main factor here, considering blimps and the like. $\endgroup$ – mmur Jul 25 '17 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ Any physics based answer which actually makes the armor weigh less and have less inertia will amount to the answer: Get a substance that is stronger per unit weight, or barring that, have less armor. $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Jul 25 '17 at 15:55
10
$\begingroup$

Yes, this is called metal foam.

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metal_foam#Manufacturing_2

Foams are commonly made by injecting a gas or mixing a foaming agent into molten metal.[10] Melts can be foamed by creating gas bubbles in the material. Normally, bubbles in molten metal are highly buoyant in the high-density liquid and rise quickly to the surface. This rise can be slowed by increasing the viscosity of the molten metal by adding ceramic powders or alloying elements to form stabilizing particles in the melt, or by other means

And https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metal_foam#Composites

Composite metal foam (CMF) is formed from hollow beads of one metal within a solid matrix of another, such as steel within aluminium, show 5 to 6 times greater strength to density ratio and more than 7 times greater energy absorption than previous metal foams.[15]

A less than one inch thick plate has enough resistance to turn a 7.62 x 63 mm standard-issue M2 armor piercing bullet to dust. The test plate outperformed a solid metal plate of similar thickness, while weighing far less. Other potential applications include nuclear waste (shielding X-rays, gamma rays and neutron radiation) transfer and thermal insulation for space vehicle atmospheric re-entry, with twice the resistance to fire and heat as the plain metals.[16]

$\endgroup$
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @Raf: The composite metal foam isn't using a lighter than air gas though, its using one metal within another. While this might make things stronger it isn't goign to make things lighter and certainly not within the framework of the question. $\endgroup$ – Chris Jul 25 '17 at 15:14
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ It's true that this isn't quite in the scope of the question; however, the idea of metal foam looks like very interesting reading. $\endgroup$ – mmur Jul 25 '17 at 15:37
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Chris according to the answer, the beads of the secondary metal are hollow inside, thus it would be lighter. $\endgroup$ – person27 Jul 25 '17 at 17:35
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @Raf "It pulverizes bullets upon impact. I'd say that means it's faring well verses any kind of decent impact." - You can say that, but that doesn't mean it's right. A fast-moving projectile such as a bullet may pulverise, but a slower, heavier, object might do a lot more damage. Case in point: water. Ultrasonic bullets disintegrate upon hitting water, but water would make a poor armour against knives. Protection from one doesn't guarantee protection from the other. $\endgroup$ – marcelm Jul 25 '17 at 17:47
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @Amadeus holes don't strengthen an I-beam, but improve it's strength-to-weight ratio because it's removing material where it's not being stressed (or minimally). For armor, the stresses aren't as simple as a static beam. $\endgroup$ – Nick T Jul 25 '17 at 21:44
7
$\begingroup$

No.

Lighter than air gases such as Hydrogen and Handwavium are lighter than air just because they have a lower density. Buoyancy states that the buoyant force is equal to the weight of the fluid displaced. This works exactly the same for gases. So because handwavium is less dense than air the same volume will have a lesser weight than the volume of air displaced.

So what does this mean? It means that the only way handwavyium can make an object apparently lighter is to increase the buoyant forces and to do this it has to increase the volume of an object while reducing its overall density. The problem is that the armour will still weigh the same overall. For ease of calculations lets assume handwavium is actually entirely massless(!). This way we know that a pocket of handwavium will increase the buoyant force by (density of air)*(volume of handwavium). The density of air is ~1.225kg/m^3. So to reduce the weight of our armour by 1 kilogram we need to increase the volume by 1 m^3. That is quite a lot of volume.

Assuming a person is a 2m tall cylinder of radius 1m (after the current heavy armour) and that we are not armouring the top or bottom. An increase of 5cm thickness will increase the volume of the armour by about 0.644m^3. That is just under 800g of eight reduction. Assuming the heavy armour is very heavy this is almost certainly pretty insignificant compared to the weight of your armour. Also you have added 5cm thickness onto everything which is a not insignificant amount for personal armour.

Alternatively you could consider armour plating. Steel has a density of ~8000kg/m^3. If we have a 10cm thick armour plate that is one metre squared then we now it will weight 800kg. Lets say we want to reduce that by 1% then we need to know what the equivalent volume of 8kg of air is. From our above density measurement we know that it is about 6.5m^3. That means our one meter squared armour plate has gone from being 0.1m thick to 6.6m thick for the loss of just 1% of its weight.

This of course is not going to help the strength of your armour. It is hard to quantify the effect it will have on its strength in the same way - it obviously won't make it stronger and we can imagine that giant gas pockets is not going to do it any favours. You are likely to either have a lot of very small air pockets though (which will likely make it less durable because it is then a series of easier to break thinner pieces of armour) or one big air pocket (in which case you'll need a lot of structural reinforcement to stop it just collapsing easily and that probably costs all the weight you've saved).

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ If the gas pockets were microscopic, but there were millions of them it might not weaken the armor as much as 1 big puncture point. $\endgroup$ – cybernard Jul 26 '17 at 22:50
4
$\begingroup$

Just addressing the question of whether adding lighter-than-air would gas make your armor easier to move around in, the answer is no. It would have to be significantly bulkier to contain all of that gas, making it harder to move through the air--like wearing balloons to run faster.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

Yes!

Well, sort of. While the other answers are correct in saying these ultra-light gasses, or even gaseous vacuum would have a minimal effect, I felt there was something overlooked.

Atmsophere

The pockets of gas could certainly add a slight lifting element, reducing weight marginally, barely noticeably infact. But what about the atmosphere itself? The buoyancy of the gas (and armor) would be significantly increased relative to the heaviness of the surrounding atmosphere. Take Handwavium-X, its a super dense gas; about 1/4th the density of water! Your planet's atmosphere is made of a great deal of Handwavium-X, your armor-wearing beings could even process it in a similar way to how we breath oxygen, or at the very least have it be non-consequential similar to the nitrogen and various other gasses in our system.

Combine this with Handwavium-Y (or Vacuum Gas) filling the gaps in your armor, and your armor becomes relatively light. Of course the other given concerns of extra bulk, armor weakpoints, compromised integrity, reliance on it being sealed, etc. might cause issues. Those aside, it is theoretically doable given the constraints (or lack-thereof) you provided.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ This is definitely a creative way of looking at it, and probably easily explainable (via related handwaving) in the situations I am thinking of. $\endgroup$ – mmur Jul 25 '17 at 21:00
3
$\begingroup$

No. Atomic weight of air is 29. Hydrogen has 1. So, raising effect of Hydrogen will be (29-1)/29 =28/29. Even if you have vacuum, the effect is 29/29. So, relatively you raise the effectiveness by 1/29. About 3%.

Find some gas with negative density. It will really help. But better use metal with negative density. Heavy armor in which you can fly... Or jump as on the Moon, by huge leaps. Imagine the tactics!

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Negative density with positive volume means negative mass. High buoyancy would be one of the least weird physical behaviors of negative mass. For example, if you push it, it would accelerate into the opposite direction you push it (acceleration = force / mass). The physics of wearing a hypothetical negative-weight armor might be quite interesting to explore. You are just scratching the surface of what it implies. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Jul 26 '17 at 11:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Philipp Who said that gravitational mass = inertional one? That is not really known even for the real world. $\endgroup$ – Gangnus Jul 26 '17 at 11:40
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Philipp But negative inertion could be really interesting.... Compensating inertia to 0 we negate STR light speed limits. And further to negative values... That armor will be really ideal! When you try to strike it, it strikes back! $\endgroup$ – Gangnus Jul 26 '17 at 11:43
3
$\begingroup$

Maybe, but in the end it wouldn't help. Another answer already commented on using a vacuum and how little that would reduce the weight. But then consider the extra weight that would be added to produce the vacuum/maintain the seal on the armor. Keeping a seal on a system is kind of hard, especially one with joints that need to move. Your system would probably end up having more weight due to the extra equipment/sealing/whatever needed.

However, not all is lost! A quick thought: try using a system with some motors in the joints and a couple of pressure sensors. When enough force is applied against to the sensor in a limb by the human inside the armor, the motors kick in to assist with moving the limb. You could do that for all limbs.

Another option - use something like an AT-AT, but on a smaller scale. A small moving robot, with a cockpit with some bullet-proof glass, radar, etc, for the controller would protect it well. Now, of course, I'm just describing a smaller tank - soup it up a bit and you've got what you want.

Even better - if this is a sufficiently advanced society, construct some robots/drones and keep the human operators at home to control them. The U.S. is already doing something similar with some drones.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

Maybe you can make this gas highly electromagnetic. Now the armor filled with this gas will be lighter around particular areas where electric charge of the surface on the planet is positive.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Jul 26 '17 at 10:36
2
$\begingroup$

Partially

Have a look at bird bones. They have hollow bones. As the metalfoam answer suggests, having a lot of tiny pouches reduces weight. If you have a look at modern strut designs for stages, you can see the principle behind the bones enlarged.

I dont know your scenario but here are some ideas,

  • a special bird, like the emu, could have very hard bones (metal, maybe some handwavium bio compound). Warriors have to slay a bird to get to the ribcage.

  • special tree that incorporates a metal inside of its wood. if you burn the wood, it results in a metal object of the shape of the wooden object. The wood inside the metal pockets become gaseous.

  • 3d printed metal objects, but to give the printer head something to support the printed mesh, small ice crystals are deposited. During the baking process, these turn to your special gas

That way, you still can have your special gas allthough it wont have that big of an impact. Perhaps, it becomes rigid if a certain pressure threshold is reached?

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

If your handwavium gas is a compount of gravity-negatium (say for the sake of chemistry handwavium gas is gravity-negatium pentahydride) and gravity-negatium has a nucleus that really massively is repelled by normal mass... and ignoring the fact that all the handwavium would have scooted up out of the atmosphere just as fast as it could... you could make a suit of armour that had no weight at all.

But as others have pointed out, it would still have mass. You could stand up in your brass/handwavium armour that masses 1 tonne, but the amount of power needed to get a single leg moving would be akin to towing sacks of sand. And once it was moving, it wouldn't readily stop. So if my some miracle you got your leg moving, you'd have to expend the same amount of energy to stop it when you put your foot down for the next pace. And if my some miracle you got yourself running at full charge towards the enemy, you'd be like an oil tanker with a five mile stopping distance.

Effectively, you would be about as mobile as if you were standing inside a pill-box, great for getting in the way of things but useless for fighting.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ You couldd apply the same tactics as heavy horse cavalry, which also can't stop or turn quickly, so probably some use for fighting, if not the same use as conventional infantry. $\endgroup$ – Pete Kirkham Jul 27 '17 at 11:40
1
$\begingroup$

You haven't specified the "hardness" of the setting. In a hard setting , the lightest gas is vacuum and it doesn't have enough lifting power. If on the other hand this is a fantasy setting like Discworld, where materials can have negative weight(or a sci-fi setting with a Handwavium gas that experiences gravitational repulsion), then yes it would help. Your armor would be very difficult to get moving and stop moving, since the reduced grip of your feet would be totally out of proportion to the momentum of the armor.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

Material strength comes from its molecular and/or microscopic structure. Metals are malleable crystals with a strong yet flexible structure that can withstand significant impact forces partially due to the structure's ability to diffuse the impact's energy mechanically, so they're well-suited for armor applications. Of course the density of this structure and the weight of the atoms themselves make the material quite heavy.

If you can replace heavier atoms/molecules with lighter ones, it will make the material lighter, but those atoms/molecules most likely won't fit into the metal's crystal lattice as nicely as the ones being replaced, or if they do they probably don't offer the same flexibility - making the structure more rigid and the material harder and/or more brittle. The structure has been compromised, so the effectiveness of the armor is reduced.

If you can make that exchange without losing the benefits of that crystalline structure, or if you can reorganize the material into an entirely new structure with similar properties, then you'll manage a lighter material without losing strength. One example of this, fresh in my mind as I just answered another unrelated question with the same example, is aerogel.

Aerogel starts as a semi-liquid gel. By "drying" it (i.e. chemically removing the liquid from it so only the solid components remain) through a meticulous process, the resulting material is usually far stronger than the original and only retains a tiny fraction of the original mass. This strength is due entirely to the structure that the solids form as the liquids are removed. In fact, it doesn't benefit or suffer much at all from whatever gas or vacuum may fill the voids within these structures.

Aerogels can be made from a variety of materials, including some metals (or rather their oxides). There are also some similar materials, e.g. made of vapor-deposited carbon nanotubes, which are sometimes incorrectly called aerogels but still provide the kind low-mass/high-strength ratio you're looking for.

Handwavium could enable this or analagous processes (probably also hand-waved to some extent) to produce similar materials suitable for armor plating.

Note that aerogels form extremely effective thermal insulation, so covering a tank in it for example would require special considerations for keeping its internals and personnel cool enough to function.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.