Although the strangely named “vibrational weapons” may not be as ubiquitous as lasers or power armor suits, they are still a recognized form of technology throughout science-fiction. These weapons and tools – their names are often shortened to “vibro weapons” or “vibroblades” – are particularly common in the Star Wars, BattleTech and Rifts universes.
A vibroblade looks almost identical to a conventional blade, but it has advanced technology incorporated into it in order to greatly increase its cutting power. A vibroblade operates by using a generator in the blade or handle to create microscopic oscillations within the blade. These oscillations occur thousands of times per second, but are so tiny and so fast that they are completely invisible.
In most science-fiction stories, the only noticeable difference between a vibroblade and a normal blade is the faint humming sound they make. The idea for vibroblades came from the fact that normal blades have trouble cutting through a surface when they are simply pressed against it, requiring a dragging or sawing motion for full effect. The oscillations of a vibroblade create this sawing effect thousands of times per second, enormously increasing the blade’s cutting power and requiring less effort from the user to create a much more impressive result.
In some ways, vibroblades function like chainsaws, but they are smaller and quieter. Vibroblades are also safer for the operator than a chainsaw, since there is no chance of a chain snapping and lashing back at the person using it. Another huge difference between these tools and chainsaws is that vibroblades are actually more precise than conventional blades, as they require far less force to be exerted and can thus be used for more delicate work. The many advantages and few downsides of vibroblades mean that in some science-fiction universes, they have completely replaced non-powered blades for most tasks. Although they are usually portrayed as weapons, vibroblades would have enormous potential in many fields, from medicine and manufacturing to forestry, food production, and search and rescue.
When looking at modern versions of this technology, the first thing to come to mind is likely the electric carving knife. These tools use a pair of serrated blades that quickly move back and forth in order to provide neater slices than a normal knife while requiring less effort. These useful kitchen tools are a step towards full vibroblades but still a long way off, and so it may come as a shock to many people that these science-fiction devices already exist. While they may be called “ultrasonic cutters” in the real world, these tools function in much the same way as the vibroblades of Star Wars and BattleTech.
Companies like Sonotech build ultrasonic cutting tools for many applications, and though most of them are designed for industrial uses, they also sell handheld models. Ultrasonic cutting technology has been used to create drills and coring devices by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for space exploration missions, and so a drill of this type was mounted on the Sojourner rover. There has also been a great deal of interest in ultrasonic cutters in the medical field, as their high precision and the low cutting pressure they require would be very useful for delicate surgeries. Modern ultrasonic cutters are not yet equivalent to science-fiction vibroblades, as they tend to require bulky electronic oscillators and are mostly designed to cut softer materials, but as technology progresses it will likely not be very long before vibroblades become a common tool in many different fields.