The Chemistry Report You've Heard Sooooooooooo
Much About
With a whole lotta thanks to Lawrence M. Krause -
I couldn't have done it without you - and I mean that.
The 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.
Getting There
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 protons. 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 with matter.
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 antiprotons 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 formula 2<5>6 dilithium 2<:>1 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.
Beam Me Up!
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. Next, 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
dematerialization step. 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. After this 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: 10^28. 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 billion degrees. This 10% is also around the same amount (10%) needed to annihilate the material, which would end up to be somewhere equivalent to 100 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 big.
What About Tomorrow?
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
2000 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!

P.S. - 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.

Yes, 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, 1991
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?)
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