Star Trek: Instantaneous Matter Transport

star trek transporter
A Star Trek-style transporter that teleported humans and matter from ship to planets and other locations. Image from a Star Trek exhibit, taken by Konrad Summers, CC-BY-SA-2.0.

It's one of the most famous lines in the Star Trek franchise: "Beam me up, Scotty!" Of course, the line is in reference to the futuristic matter transportation device that dematerializes entire humans and sends their constituent particles to their desired destination and reassembles them perfectly. Every civilization in the show seemed to have this technology, from the inhabitants of Vulcan to the Klingons and Borg.

It all sounds fantastic, but could it ever be possible to develop such transporter technology? The idea of transporting solid matter by turning it into a form of energy and sending it great distances sounds almost like magic. Yet, there there are scientific reasons why it might happen, but there are many barriers to making it happen in the near future. 

Is "Beaming" Possible?

It may come as a bit of a surprise, but recent technology has made it possible to transport, or "beam" if you will, small pools of particles or photons from one location to another. This quantum mechanics phenomenon is known as "quantum transport". It does have a future in many electronics such as advanced communication technologies and super-fast quantum computers. Applying the same technique to something as large and as complex as a human is a very different matter, however. And, without some major technological advances, risk a human's life by turning them into "information" may never be possible.

Dematerializing

So, what's the idea behind beaming? You dematerialize the "thing" to be transported, sending it along, and then it gets rematerialized at the other end. The first problem is dematerializing the person into individual subatomic particles. It seems extraordinarily unlikely, given our current understanding of biology and physics, that a living creature could survive the process.

Even if the body could be dematerialized, how do you handle the person's consciousness and personality? Would those "decouple" from the body?  If not, how are they handled in the process? That's not something ever discussed in Star Trek (or other science fiction where such technology is used). 

One could argue that the transportee is actually killed during this step, and then reanimated when the body's atoms are reassembled elsewhere. But, this seems like a very unpleasant process, and not one that a person would willingly want to experience.

Re-materializing

Let's suppose for a moment that it would be possible to dematerialize — or "energize" as they say on screen — a human occupant. There is an even greater problem: getting the person back together at the desired location. There are actually several problems with this. First, this technology, as used in the shows and movies, seems to have no difficulty in beaming the particles through all kinds of thick, dense materials on their way from the starship to distant locations. This in itself is terribly unlikely.

Even more worryingly, however, is how to arrange the particles in just the right order as to preserve the person's identity (and not kill them)?

There is nothing in our understanding of physics that suggests we can control matter in such a way. That is, that we could send a single particle (not to mention quadrillions of them) thousands of miles, through lots of walls, rocks, and buildings and make it stop in just the right place on a planet or another ship. That's not to say people won't figure out a way, but it seems like a pretty daunting task.

Will We Ever Have Transporter Technology?

Based on our current understanding of physics, it does not seem likely that such technology will ever to to fruition. However, there are some scientists that haven't ruled it out.

Famed physicist and science writer Michio Kaku wrote in 2008 that he anticipated scientists developing such technology in the next hundred years. If so, then it would be proof that there are many things that humans are capable of that we don't yet realize.

We don't know what the future holds and we may very well discover a breakthrough in physics that would allow exactly this type of technology.

Edited and expanded by Carolyn Collins Petersen