Potato Cannons are Way More Dangerous Than You Think — Especially When the Air Force Gets Their Hands On Them

With the right fuel, you can send a potato flying at more than 300 miles per hour

This… is my boomstick. Photo: Hjem

When you were a kid, perhaps you had a potato gun—a little plastic toy gun that, stabbed into a potato, creates little starch-based pellets. If you were more of a tinkering and engineering type, perhaps you built a potato cannon, a hollow cylinder stuffed with something flammable and a potato.

This was probably not a great idea. It turns out that potato cannons are incredibly dangerous. And, just because, Michael Courtney, a physicist trained at M.I.T and now at the Air Force academy in Colorado and a colleague have figured out how to make them even more so.

Even your standard potato cannon (usually fueled with hairspray, says MIT’s Technology Review) can be deadly. Recent research found that if you take a potato to the head you have way more than a “50% risk of skull fracture.” Even taking a body shot could do some serious damage and has a good chance of killing you. No bueno.

But that’s with a regular potato cannon, not the one that Courtney put together. In research published on the arXiv the other day, Courtney published a systematic study of which type of fuel packs the biggest potato punch. He tested acetylene, ethanol, methanol, propane and butane. None of these are fancy Air Force-style combustibles—you could theoretically get any of them around the house or at a hardware store. Then, Courtney and his associates used a high-speed camera to track how fast they could send their spuds flying. Propane clocked in at 62 miles per hour. Acetylene at 309 miles per hour.

Courtney doesn’t even try to come up with some heavy-handed justification for the research. He just wanted to see which fuel would make the best potato cannon. MIT:

The Courtneys make absolutely clear that this kind of cannon is extremely dangerous and potentially lethal. “Potatoes launched with acetylene were also destructive to wooden boards and plastic objects initially employed as backstops before transitioning to 6mm thick steel plate,” they say.

How about we all just agree now to cut off this produce-based arms race before it really gets going, deal?

More from Smithsonian.com:
How the Potato Changed the World
A Brief History of the Potato

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