Matter-Antimatter Power on Star Trek

warp drive
Warp drives driven by matter-antimatter reactions could be in our far distant future. NASA

Aboard the starship Enterprise, the famous starship from the Star Trek series, the warp drive is powered by a sophisticated power source that uses antimatter to produce incredible amounts of energy.

Naturally, such a power-plant is the work of science fiction. But could this concept one day be used to power interstellar space craft? Actually the science is quite sound, but there are definitely some hurdles that stand in the way of bringing this dream to reality.

What is Antimatter?

The reaction is really quite simple. Antimatter is comprised of particles that are, individually, antiparticles of the various building blocks of matter, such as positrons (the antiparticle to the electron) and the antiproton (the antiparticle to the proton). These antiparticles are identical in most ways to their regular matter counterparts, except that they have the opposite charge.

How is Antimatter Created?

Antiparticles are created by various means through a number of naturally occurring processes of nature, but also through experimental means such as in large particle accelerators on Earth.

Recent work has found that antimatter is created naturally above storm clouds, providing the first means by which the substance is produced naturally on Earth. Usually, antimatter is generated in artificially in labs using high energy particle collisions.

Otherwise it takes massive amounts of heat and energy to create antimatter, such as during supernovae or inside main-sequence stars.

How Antimatter Power-plants Work

In theory the design is quite simple, matter and its antimatter equivalent are brought together and immediately, as the name suggests annihilate each other.

The antimatter would be contained separate from the normal matter by magnetic fields so that no unintended reactions take place.

The energy would then be extracted in much the same way that nuclear reactors capture the expended heat and light energy from fission reactions.

Matter-antimatter reactors would be orders of magnitude more efficient at producing energy over the next best reaction mechanism, fusion, it still is not possible to fully capture the released energy. A significant amount of the output is carried away by neutrinos which are nearly massless particles that interact so weakly with matter that they are nearly impossible to capture (at least for the purposes of extracting energy).

Problems With Antimatter Technology

The primary difficulty with such devices is obtaining a significant amount of antimatter to sustain a reactor. While we have successfully created small amounts of antimatter, ranging from positrons, antiprotons, anti-hydrogen atoms and even a few anti-helium atoms, they haven't been in significant enough amounts to power much of anything.

If you were to gather all of the antimatter that has ever been artificially created it would scarcely be enough to (when combined with normal matter) light a standard light bulb for more than a few minutes.

Furthermore, the cost is high. Particle accelerators cost too much to run at very high energy even to produce a small amount of antimatter in their collisions.

 In the best-case scenario, it would cost on the order of $25 billion to produce one gram of positrons. Researchers at CERN point out that it would take 100 quadrillion dollars and 100 billion years of running their accelerator to produce a single gram of antimatter.

Clearly, at least with technology currently available today, it does not look promising that we could manufacture enough antimatter to make antimatter reactors viable. However, NASA is looking for ways to capture naturally created antimatter.

The Van Allen radiation belts (doughnut-shaped regions of charged particles that surround the Earth) contain significant amounts of antimatter created as very high energy charged particles from the Sun interact with Earth's magnetic field. So it may be possible to capture this antimatter and preserve it in magnetic fields.

Also, with the recent discovery of antimatter creation above storm clouds it could be possible to capture some of these particles for our uses. However, because the reactions occur in our atmosphere, the antimatter will inevitably interact with normal matter and annihilate; likely before we have a chance to capture it.

So, while it would still be quite expensive, it may be possible to develop a technology that could collect antimatter from the space around us at a cost less than artificial creation on Earth.

The Future of Antimatter Reactors

As technology advances and we begin to understand better how antimatter is created, scientists can begin to develop ways of capturing the elusive particles that are naturally created. So, it's not entirely impossible that we could one day have energy sources like those depicted in science fiction.

 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.