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Warp Speed and Lightsabers: Energy Science Fiction vs Energy Science

March 7, 2014 - 2:20pm

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Science fiction has envisioned many ways that mankind might be able to explore distant galaxies, like the spiral galaxy M106 pictured here, but what is science fiction and what could one day be science fact? | Photo Credit: NASA.

Science fiction has envisioned many ways that mankind might be able to explore distant galaxies, like the spiral galaxy M106 pictured here, but what is science fiction and what could one day be science fact? | Photo Credit: NASA.

All this week on Energy.gov, we’ve highlighted how the Energy Department and the National Labs have developed technologies that have helped us explore new planets, harness the power of the stars, and begin to venture past our own solar system.

Not so long ago, these technologies would have been found only in the realm of science fiction. But science fiction and science fact have always had a symbiotic although sometimes rocky relationship.

“It’s a double-edged sword in some ways,” says Andrew Zwicker, a physicist and head of science education at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. “It definitely gets people excited, but often there’s so much they get wrong,”

And when science fiction ventures into space, energy issues become immensely important…and complicated. As Don Lincoln, a senior scientist at the Fermi Laboratory, says, “When you travel in space, everything gets bigger and grander, so you have to imagine more energetic solutions.”

From blockbusters to B-movies, energy issues are at the forefront -- whether powering space travel, supplying futuristic fuels or being harnessed into new weapons systems. And while the ideas are often more fanciful than fact-based, there are at least a couple iconic technologies that border on the scientifically possible.

Powering Space Travel

Central to space science fiction is the search for intelligent life and the discovery of new worlds with exotic environments and even more exotic life forms. But moving between worlds requires travelling great distances in short amounts of time.

As Fermilab’s Lincoln notes, science fiction suggests four basic ways to travel the cosmos in plot-sensible amounts of time:

  1. Faster than light travel: Advanced civilizations build spacecraft that can travel faster than the speed of light, but as Einstein discovered such brute force speed is just not possible.
  2. Hyperspace: Spacecraft travel through other dimensions to jump through space, but science has found no evidence that these extra dimensions exist.
  3. Wormholes: Theoretically these tunnels through the galaxies could exist, but you may want to read up on “spaghettification” before navigating your spacecraft towards one.
  4. Warp drive: A craft creating and traveling at great speeds through a distorted spacetime is perhaps the most conceivable theory for rapid deep space travel, but would have to overcome major hurdles like negative mass.

Even if they were possible, any one of these methods of space travel would require massive amounts of energy, and science fiction has supplied a wide range of fictional fuels and elements to supply these energy needs.

“The only really credible power source is antimatter, and it actually exists,” says Lincoln. First predicted in the 1920s and discovered shortly thereafter, antimatter is composed of antiparticles and is a sort of mirror opposite of the material world. When antimatter is combined with regular matter, a massive amount of energy is released.

Star Trek’s warp engines harness this antimatter-matter reaction (although they add the fictional “dilithium crystals” into the mix) to power deep space travel, and the idea is at least semi-conceivable. “If you had a kilogram or so of antimatter in your fuel cells, you could generate a massive amount of energy,” says Lincoln.

Antihydrogen and antihelium atoms have already been created, but in such small amounts that annihilating them with matter would only produce enough energy to light a light bulb or warm a cup of coffee. Generating enough energy to power a spacecraft is still the stuff of science fiction, but antimatter is probably our best hope to ever reach warp speed.

To Heal Rather To Harm

Any good story needs conflict, and space science fiction naturally includes an endless supply of weaponry. From blasters to lasers, to photon torpedoes and death rays, space science fiction favors weapons that use energy over bullets and blades.

Perhaps the most iconic of science fiction weaponry is the lightsaber, the energy sword favored by the Jedi Knights of the Star Wars universe. Since a laser could not be confined into the fixed size of a blade, the most plausible scientific explanation is to see the lightsaber as a plasma-based weapon.

The appropriately named Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL) conducts cutting-edge research in fusion energy and plasma psychics. While PPPL is not conducting any lightsaber-type research, they do see something familiar in the underlying technology.

“When you look at the lightsaber, it’s almost certainly a plasma weapon,” says PPPL’s Zwicker. In fact, other researchers have created an atmospheric plasma (a plasma that’s not inside in a container) that looks like a very small lightsaber and could have a number of environmental and medical applications. “If you keep the energy low, you may be able to one day sterilize a wound with a little plasma pen that would be enough to kill bacteria, but not harm flesh,” says Zwicker.

Creating larger and more powerful atmospheric plasmas could lead to a plasma scalpel that could cut, cauterize and sanitize at the same time.  “If you keep going up, there’s nothing that says you couldn’t make a lightsaber,” says Zwicker.  “Where science fiction comes into play is that this is something you could keep in a handle that fits into your waistband.”

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