How Photon Torpedoes Will Mark An End To The Energy Crisis

By Kyle Hill | December 3, 2013 10:00 am

Photon torpedoes come after utopia, at least in Star Trek. Imagining a universe centuries ahead of our own time and technology, the long-running sci-fi shows explored philosophy, morality, and the secluded intricacies of physics. But what was left unstated said the most. By the time Jean-Luc Picard took the captain’s chair, poverty in the 24th century had been eliminated, as was crime. Star Trek made these humanistic zeniths plausible by sheer abundance of energy resources. Without scarcity, standards of living increased. People had no reason to steal or beg. All of this was possible because 24th century humans perfectly realized the fact that inside even a small amount of mass was boundless energy. Star Trek then realized the dreams of Einstein, dreams that indeed were the tides that lifted all starships. Photon torpedoes can show you how.

Other than Newton’s F=ma, Einstein’s E=mc2 is perhaps the most famous equation of all time, and it calculates the end to an energy crisis. According to the equation, mass is equivalent to energy—a gargantuan amount of energy. That’s because even small masses in this equation are multiplied by the speed of light squared (c2), a number with around 20 zeroes (depending on your units of choice). You can think of the energy contained in mass like a calorie. To measure calories, researchers light a constituent of food on fire, and then measure how much that flame can heat a known quantity of water. The greater the final temperature of the water, the more calories the tested food has. Likewise, the “E” in E=mc2 shows how much energy you get if you could “unlock” all of it bound up in the atoms and molecules of some mass. In the Star Trek universe, they figured out how to do just that with antimatter.

Antimatter is simply ordinary matter with an opposite charge. An apple with all the atoms’ and molecules’ charges reversed is an anti-apple. And this small change has enormous consequences. When ordinary matter interacts with antimatter, they both annihilate—or destroy each other completely—and release (in theory) all the energy predicted by Einstein’s equation. Antimatter is therefore the key to a Star Trek-style energy utopia.

Like most science fiction stories that deal with antimatter, Star Trek has the hardest problems are already solved. One is generation. Useable anti-particles such as positrons (positively charged electrons) and anti-protons have been detected in naturally occurring gamma rays. However, they are fleeting, and make up less than 1% of the particles in those rays. Capturing natural antimatter is, for now, impossible. Artificial generation is the other option. We have created antimatter in the lab, but at tremendous costs—in fact, the highest costs. In 1999, NASA gave a figure of $62.5 trillion per one gram of anti-hydrogen.

The other problem with antimatter is containment. Recent movies like The Da Vinci Code make it look easy, but it isn’t. (The movie also shows probably 100 trillion dollars worth of antimatter in that small container.) Antimatter cannot touch any matter or else it will annihilate. Literally a wisp of air in the containment chamber and that’s all it takes. In reality, you need something like a “Penning trap” that uses electric and magnetic fields to suspend antimatter. That solution is not science fiction—they do it all the time at CERN.

Drawing of a schematic Penning Trap shows a charged particle (red dot) suspended in a chamber of electric (blue) and magnetic (red boxes) fields. More information below.

Star Trek, for the sake of narrative, does away with the problems of antimatter production and containment. The warp engines of the Federation can both contain and utilize the massive energy released from matter/antimatter interactions, and fuel availability doesn’t seem to be an issue. Antimatter is abundant enough in Star Trek that kilograms of it can be used in standard weaponry. You wouldn’t destroy material that could power an entire planet unless you had a lot of it.

This brings us, of course, to the photon torpedo.

No science fiction universe is complete without a legion of fans arguing over details, and Star Trek is a seriously complete universe. Looking at a photon torpedo scientifically would mean picking and choosing from one of the many makes, models, weights, payloads, and ranges. However, for simplicity, a standard torpedo to use would be a warhead from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which carries a 1.5-kilogram payload of antimatter. Here is where Einstein comes in again.

If you want to use 1.5 kilograms of antimatter in a warhead, you would also need 1.5 kilograms of normal matter to react it with. The resulting explosion would be incredible, surely to the delight of Lieutenant Commander Worf. An annihilation of three kilograms of material—according to a 100% efficient E=mc2 model—releases one and a half times the amount of energy that the Sun hits the Earth with every second. That’s an amount of Joules (a unit of energy) that has 17 zeroes, so maybe a better way to think about it is in an equivalent amount of TNT. Making the conversion, one photon torpedo is effectively a 64-megaton bomb. That’s ten times greater than the Tunguska Event—a meteor strike that leveled 830 square miles of Russian forest, nearly three times greater than the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, and larger than the largest nuclear device ever detonated—Tsar Bomba.

In short, the Enterprise was exploring new worlds and new civilizations with a more powerful arsenal in just one torpedo than all the energy in all the explosives detonated during World War II. Good thing they are explorers, not a military operation.

But the incredible destructive power of the photon torpedo speaks to a larger good. Energy in a Star Trek future is basically free—enabling society to move past poverty and crime—precisely because they have enough fuel that they can even put it in their weapons. The energy in just one photon torpedo could power the entire United States for a whole day! And that’s just 1.5 kilograms of antimatter. The prevalence of the weapon indicates that 24th century humanity has more than enough to go around. Power is cheap. People are liberated.

Once humanity progresses to the point that it can afford to put the best source of energy in the known universe into a disposable torpedo, the energy crisis is over. Humanity could end all the fighting over resources and begin to readjust focus on the cosmos. Maybe that was one of Einstein’s dreams; it was surely one of Gene Roddenberry’s.

Image Credit:

Photon torpedo shot from the Enterprise reproduced under a fair use license for educational purposes in published, fact-based content

Penning trap diagram by Akriesch

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science
  • http://dividingbyzero.weebly.com thequantumforge

    I believe you said that we could power civilisations by producing antimatter, then annihilating it. Do keep in mind that in order to get energy out of antimatter, you have to put energy into making it. Since the theoretical limit for antimatter production efficiency is 50%, you’ll only get back half of what you put in – or less, a loss. That is, unless you use it to induce a nuclear reaction or something.
    You can make an energy profit by collecting instead of producing antimatter, but the stuff is spread pretty thin around here.
    However, it will work frighteningly well as a weapon.

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It has been said that you should try to make a problem as simple as possible, but not simpler. Here, that problem is finding the real science behind pop culture. But Not Simpler is a place where you can ask the questions you thought were too nerdy for real answers. The physics of video games? Sure! The chemistry of dragon breath? Why not? When you can find the realities behind your favorite fiction, and seriously nerd-out in the process, everyone wins. Simple.

About Kyle Hill

Kyle Hill is a science writer and communicator who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. His work has appeared in Wired, The Boston Globe, Scientific American, Popular Science, Slate, and more. He is a TV correspondent for Al Jazeera America's science and technology show TechKnow and a columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Find his stream of nerdery on Twitter: @Sci_Phile Email him at sciencebasedlife [at] gmail [dot] com.

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