Chemistry Report You've Heard Sooooooooooo
With a whole lotta thanks to Lawrence
M. Krause -
I couldn't have done it without you
- and I mean that.
Chemistry of Star Trek
Star Trek has made a huge
impression on the culture of today. Everyone has heard of the phrase,
"Beam me up, Scotty!" and knows that Vulcans
show no emotion. But the most amazing thing about this
series is its technology.
Warp drive and transporters have become pop
icons, and yet no one (except scientists at MIT with nothing better
to do (j/k))really stops to think
about how they work, or even if they could.
Well, if you've ever wondered if humanity could actually travel
at Warp 9 to beam down to Vulcan,
here's some information you might want
to read before you make travel plans any time soon.
The first thing you need
to beam down to Vulcan is, well, get there.
To do that in Star Trek, you need a warp capable ship, or it will
take you a while to get there.
Right now, however, warp drives, which are
powered by matter-antimatter reactors, which are not really
effective. For why, Let's
start at the beginning - antimatter.
Antimatter is the opposite
of matter; that is, antielectrons, for example,
have the opposite charge as electrons, which is why they are
called positrons. The thing
with antimatter is that when it comes into contact
with matter, they annihilate each other. The question of why
matter makes up the majority
of the universe is a little difficult. When the
two destroy each other, they create a photon. Scientists have
determined that, to account for
the number of photons in the universe, there
must have been 10 billion antiprotons to every
10 billion and 1
It is from this small excess of protons over antiprotons in
the early universe that all the
protons of today originated. So starships
getting their antimatter from space is fairly implausible,
considering that there isn't
much free antimatter just floating around in space;
if there was, it would be obvious, considering the reaction it has
So now the question
is, how do we make it now? How do we keep
it from annihilating everything after it's made? For that, we have
to visit the Fermi
National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois. They
make high-energy antiparticles,
and, coincidentally, use the same kind of
system that Star Trek ships 'use'. A simplified explanation of how
Fermilab makes their antimatter
would be that they shoot a stream of electrons
at a lithium target, and every so often an antiproton is made.
These antiprotons are diverted
to a storage ring, where they await their
turn in experiments. An interesting and useful fact about
antimatter is that they move
in circular orbits when influenced by magnetic
fields. This is used to control antiparticles so that they move
in prescribed orbits in donut
shaped containers when magnetic fields of
correlating strengths are applied. This way they don't touch the
walls of the container, which
are made of, that's right, matter.
Here's where we run into some problems. For one, Star Trek
makes a big mistake when they
describe how they make engine-grade antimatter.
First, they combine antiprotons and antineutrons to make
the nuclei of anti-heavy hydrogen.
Then the writers make their fatal mistake;
they figure that neutral atoms are easier to handle than ions,
so they add antielectrons to
the mix to make neutral anti-heavy hydrogen
atoms. The problem here is that neutral antiatoms will be no
more affected by magnetic fields,
the only things known to control antimatter,
than this piece of paper.
Another major problem
is a fiscal one. Currently, 50 billion
are made every hour, with 6 million high-energy
antiprotons made to the dollar.
If lower-energy antiprotons are made, around
10 to 20 million antiprotons could be gotten
to the dollar. Unfortunately,
using a dollar's worth of antiprotons and converting them
into energy would only release 1/1000 of a joule.
If you converted all
the antiprotons made by Fermilab into energy, you'd get 1/1000 of a
watt. In order to power
a lightbulb, you'd need 100,000 Fermilab
Antiproton Sources. In
other words, you use more energy making antiprotons
than you get out of using them for energy. This makes
matter-antimatter drives a little
unattainable, unless antiprotons
become easier to make, or
we figure out some other kind of practical engine.
Let's not forget about
the secret to starship drives, dilithium. According
to Starfleet, dilithium is "porous" to antihydrogen when
exposed to high frequency EM
fields in the megawatt range. It permits the
antihydrogen to pass right through its crystalline structure
without ever touching it, due
to the field dynamo effect created by added
iron atoms. Its full "name" is forced-matrix
diallosilicate 1:9:1 heptoferranide.
What it does is regulate
the reaction between matter and antimatter, a little like the
carbon rods in nuclear reactors.
Unfortunately, dilithium is like cold-fusion
- a very nice dream.
Ok, one last slap-down
- the matter-antimatter ratios in the engines
of the starship Enterprise are changed according to how fast
the ship is going. This
change goes anywhere between 25:1 to 1:1,
depending on speed, or perhaps
an alien presence that likes the taste of
the ship. Let's quickly shift focus for a moment from starships to
cars. Everyone knows
that in order to change speed in the vehicle, you need
to press on the gas pedal to give the reaction chamber more fuel.
Taking this knowledge and others
and applying it to starship engines tells
us that changing the ratio will do nothing for the speed; it will
only waste the fuel that is in
excess, as it does not have anything to react
with. Ah well, it sounded good on air.
All right, so getting
to Vulcan is a bit out of the question. But you
can still take a trip to the moon by beaming down from an orbiting
ship, right? Wrong.
Transporters are also, unfortunately, way far off as
of now. But before all your dreams are totally smashed, let's go
over how Star Trek justifies
their pet device.
Since this is a high
school chemistry project, the in-depth workings
of the transporter will not be explored; only a simplified
explanation will be given here.
For starters, there is a target scan and
lock, in which both the destination
and the subject are scanned in order to
confirm the destination and the molecular makeup of the subject.
the molecular imaging scanners get a real-time quantum-resolution
pattern image of the subject, and the primary energizing
and phase transition coils convert the subject to subatomically
debonded matter stream, all in the energize and
Following this, the pattern buffer Doppler
compensator holds the matter
stream briefly and allows the system to compensate
for the Doppler shift between the start and destination.
is completed, the matter stream is transmitted while being
surrounded by the annular confinement
beam to the destination so that the
matter does not scatter. When the matter gets to the destination,
everything is apparently put
back together again, hopefully in the right
In real life, things
do not work this easily; oh no, it's a heck of a lot
harder. There are many problems surrounding the transporter.
The first problem is the number
of atoms in the average person's body:
This is a lot of atoms. With this in mind, let's examine how to
break down all these little bits
of human being so they can get to the surface
of Vulcan, or just the moon.
Because of the electric
fields in atoms, it is very hard to overcome
them and take the atom apart; that is why atom bombs are
so powerful. Therefore,
it will take a lot of energy to get something down
to its constituent parts, like protons and neutrons, or even
quarks. Let's start with
the process for breaking down atoms into
First, the subject
would need to be heated up to approximately 10%
of their rest mass in heat, which would be around 1000
This 10% is also around the same amount (10%) needed to annihilate
the material, which would end up to be somewhere equivalent
1-megaton hydrogen bombs. That would definitely leave a mark.
So let's go with something that sounds a little simpler - breaking
down something to the proton/neutron
level. The energy requirements here
for breaking something down to this level are less than that
needed for the quark method,
but you would need an amount of energy comparable
to the rest mass energy needed to speed the matter up. This
turns out to be 10 times the amount of energy needed to dissolve
the matter into quarks.
Even so, this is still a bit easier than the quark
method, being as there are places like the Fermilab Tevatron
that can sped up protons and
neutrons to 99.9% the speed of light.
So you make the choice - either produce power that is greater
than the total amount of power
used on Earth by a factor of 10,000, or
reduce this total energy requirement by a factor of 10 and heat the
subject up instantaneously
to 1 million times the temperature of the sun.
Hmm, I wonder if that could be applied to fast-food....
One last note: there
is also the problem of pinpointing positions. Right
now, huge telescopes are needed to focus on such things as
stars and galaxies. The
lens is the main point here, as a huge lens is what
is needed to focus on things that, while being huge where they
are, appear very small to us.
Just imagine how big a lens would be
needed to resolve individual
atoms in a person, especially from orbit! Estimates today place the
size of such lenses somewhere in the ballpark
of 50,000 kilometers. That's pretty
Well, now that all hope
for a beam-down to Vulcan has been shattered,
it is heartening to remember that this information is only
applicable in today's world and
time. Future scientists who delve into these
technologies might, and probably will meet with more success
than their present counterparts.
One thing to consider, however, that most
definitely spells hope for future generations: at present, it takes
times the age of the universe to write the human pattern onto
tape; that would be a million
billion billion megabytes of info. What with
current advances in computer technology, it is expected that by
some time in the 23rd century
processors will be able to handle the information-transfer
problem in transporting. The most promising
advance would be the idea
of biological computers, which have molecular
dynamics that mimic digital logical process. Still, that's a
long time to wait. So,
it seems, the laws of chemistry and atomic "dynamics"
have once again, while applauding Star Trek writers for their
ingenuity, slapped them down for being a little beyond conventional,
and common-sense, scientific laws. Let's not forget, of
course, that anything is possible,
especially beyond the stars!
- There's an interesting fact that is hard to pass up. In
the Next Generation
episode, "Starship Mine," it is revealed that starships undergo
baryon sweeps every so often in order to get rid of accumulated
baryons in the superstructure from long term travel. This
sweep is lethal to humans; however,
this is not where the writers got it
wrong. The only stable baryons, as the writers apparently didn't
know, are protons and neutrons.
So a sweep that gets rid of baryons would
most certainly be lethal to humans, but it certainly wouldn't help
the ship much.
I think that's enough, don't you?
Krauss, Lawrence M., The Physics of
Star Trek, BasicBooks, NY, 1995
Sternbach, Rick, and Okuda, Michael,
Star Trek: The Next Generation -
Technical Manual, Pocket Books, NY,
Okuda, Michael and Denise, and Mirak,
Debbie, The Star Trek
Encyclopedia, Pocket Books, 1994
I know this isn't a major source, but
some of the baryon things were
learnt as a result of the United States
Academic Decathlon science
portion of the test.
(Ok, so it's not a blaster,
it's a lightsaber-like thing. Big whoop.)
(Please, if you're going
to do a report on this, do the
work yourself, or find
a different topic, ok?)