High-Tech Medical Tools On The Front Lines May the force be with the U.S. Special Operations commandos. Soldiers aren't using light sabers on the battlefield yet, but medical units are testing something similar to treat battlefield wounds. They are called plasma knives, and Wired.com reporter David Hambling tells how these tools are used.
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High-Tech Medical Tools On The Front Lines

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High-Tech Medical Tools On The Front Lines

High-Tech Medical Tools On The Front Lines

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GUY RAZ, host:

The U.S. military is always on the lookout for ways to improve technology on the battlefield. So how about this for inspiration?

(Soundbite of movie, "Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back")

Mr. DAVID PROWSE (Actor): (as Darth Vader) The force is with you, young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi yet.

RAZ: In the military's arsenal of high tech weaponry, there's no light saber just yet. But there is a medical tool that's somewhat similar. It's called a Plasma Knife, and medics are testing it for treatment of injured soldiers on the frontlines.

David Hambling wrote about the Plasma Knife for Wire.com's blog called "The Danger Room." And he joins me now from London.

Welcome to the show.

Mr. DAVID HAMBLING (Reporter, Wire.com): Hello, there.

RAZ: I'm trying to picture this. Can you describe the Plasma Knife and how it's used?

Mr. HAMBLING: It's like a very small blowtorch, only instead of burning gas, it's electrically heated gas. The gas is heated up to a temperature where it becomes a plasma. It's ionized so you get this stream glowing gas coming out of it and it can be used as a knife. So in the same way that you do laser surgery, you can cut skin and flesh with it. But it's also useful for cautery, which is stopping bleeding with the use of heat.

RAZ: Hmm, cauterizing wounds.

Mr. HAMBLING: Exactly. The way cautery works, the sort of - the outer layer gets completely vaporized.

RAZ: The outer layer of skin or tissue.

Mr. HAMBLING: The outer layer of skin or tissue or wherever you're having bleeding from. The top layer ends up sort of crispy and crunchy and blackened. And then below that, there's actually a layer which is just like partially melted flesh, and that's what actually stops the bleeding.

And the advantage with the Plasma Knife is that the whole gas can get through the crispy, crunchy layer, and get to the flesh and apply the heat where it's most needed.

RAZ: That sounds incredibly unpleasant. I understand that Special Operations medics have been testing out this device. What are they finding? What kind of difference is it making?

Mr. HAMBLING: This is something they've been looking at for a few years. They tend to be very much on the cutting edge, as you might say, of emergency care. Because unlike other troops who tend to have medical facilities available just a few minutes away, the Special Operations commandos tend to operate in quite distant locations where they may be several hours away from full-scale emergency care, so they have to have all their medics with them.

So this is - the idea with the Plasma Knife is it's portable, battery-powered device that you can carry with you and use in the field.

RAZ: Have you been able to see the Plasma Knife? How did you find out about it?

Mr. HAMBLING: As with many things, you can find out a lot by perusing the Pentagon budget documents, which are all online these days, Special Operations gone on to publish their list of research and development projects. And although they tend not to tell you very much about any of them if you ask them, they do have to put them all on the budget documents. So we do know from that that they're working on all manner of things, and the plasma knife is one of the less harmful things they're looking at.

RAZ: Are there any concerns about whether this could be used for purposes other than medical use?

Mr. HAMBLING: Well, I think given that we're talking about Special Operations (unintelligible) do have a million and one ways to kill people any way. There's not so much concern about that.

RAZ: So no chance of any light saber battles between U.S...

Mr. HAMBLING: Well, if they like it enough, I'm sure someone might seriously consider adding that to their arsenal of tools.

RAZ: David Hambling joined me on the line from London. He's a reporter for Wire.com's "Danger Room" blog.

David Hambling, thanks so much.

Mr. HAMBLING: Thank you very much.

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