A Matter of Antimatter

Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry (who in my humble opinion is a true visionary and prophet of science fiction and science fact) is one of the most important things to further the advancement of humanity since the TARDIS. I could go on for hours about how his show actually brought us much of the technology we use today by inspiring young scientists and engineers to replicate what they saw on the television, just look at that smart phone you have. Hell, I even have a fully functional tricorder app that samples real data from the environment and has an lcars ui (geek speak)

Okay, so today I’d like to talk about antimatter and how it’s used in Star Trek vs real world applications being explored by the scientists at CERN and NASA. Antimatter is a substance that occurs when you slow down a subatomic particle and reverse its spin. Electrons become positrons and protons become antiprotons. When antimatter comes in contact with regular matter they annihilate each other completely, giving off pure energy.

In Star Trek their starships are powered by massive matter/antimatter reactors located in the secondary hulls below the warp nacelles. This system consists of a large tank filled with deuterium, or heavy hydrogen with the electron stripped off, and a magnetic ”bottle” filled with anti-hydrogen ions. In the original series Enterprise, the two fuels were mixed in an intermix chamber and the matter/antimatter reaction was controlled with a catalyst known as dilithium and produced pure energy that powered the ships systems and warp drive.

The wonderful thing about Gene’s vision was that most of the physics is sound, we geeks call this hard-scifi. Now, of course there are flaws. Dilithium is a nonsensical bit of trek lore, antimatter would annihilate it just like any other form of matter and the energy given off would not be a useable electric energy that you could just plug a TV into. The energy given off would be mostly thermal and kinetic energy with large amounts of gamma radiation too.

So, how can we use antimatter today? Well first off, antimatter production and storage would be the first issue to overcome. Currently the large particle accelerator at CERN can produce about 2 nanograms at a cost of about a million bucks. The process slams protons into a tungsten target at near light speeds resulting in the proton smashing into a various assortment of exotic particles and a few antiprotons being expelled from the target. It actually uses more energy to produce the antimatter than what you’d get out of it in a sustainable reaction. As superconductor technology advances so will antimatter production and in about 10 years we’ll have viable antimatter production in an efficient use of energy. Storage is the other problem, antimatter destroys anything it comes in contact with so the only option is magnetic restriction, another thing Star Trek used on the Enterprise to direct the flow if antimatter and store it in magnetic ”bottles”. Current tech lets us store a few micrograms, and soon will let us store much much more. Again, energy is a factor as these ”bottles” need to be super cold and run on electricity to power the superconducting magnets. Eventually, I see cold fusion reactors being used to power the production and storage of antimatter and further used to mediate a stable matter/antimatter reaction to give us the power needed for interstellar travel.

Now, one more thing. How do we use this antimatter to power a starship? Well as far as warp speed like on the Enterprise, that there is a whole other topic :-p
I can tell you that Penn State is working on an amazing engine utilizing antimatter. It would work by a process called antiproton-catalyzed microfission (ACMF). 4 Whereas conventional nuclear fission can only transfer heat energy from a uranium core to surrounding chemical propellant, ACMF permits all energy from fission reactions to be used for propulsion. The result is a more efficient engine that could be used for interplanetary manned missions. The ICAN-II (ion compressed antimatter nuclear II) spacecraft designed at Penn State would use the ACMF engine and only 140 nanograms of antimatter for a manned 30-day crossing to Mars.
The future is here people! What a great time to be alive in this epic part of human history!


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