The Star Trek universe uses a lot of power – and we know where it comes from; Antimatter.
Or do we?
Antimatter is a difficult thing to find. There isn’t a realistic natural source in the galaxy – and making it by any known method takes rather more energy than you can get back out of it.
It’s equally awkward to store. If something happens to your containment system, not only will you loose your energy reserve, but you’ll probably lose your ship too.
It does have one major advantage of course; it’s the most efficient source of power available to known physics and engineering. Antimatter has, in fact, such a good power-to-weight ratio that it is already – even with our incredibly inefficient methods of antimatter production – a marginally viable fuel for space travel (try googling “NASA Antimatter Engine”; you’ll find a load of trash, but there are some genuine studies out there).
This is science fiction, so we can, of course, invoke zero-point energy systems, tapping into other dimensions, violations of conservation laws, and similar forms of technobabble, to supply energy – but if we overdo that we might as well admit that we’re making the “technology” work by waving a magic wand. Every science-fiction setting is entitled to a few waves of the magic wand – but the trick is to keep it down to as few as possible and – preferably – to keep them on the level of principles ormaterials instead of individual gadgets.
That’s why this analysis is sticking with the original series and the first few movies. The various followup series used the magic wand so often that it’s almost impossible to make anything consistent out of their physical principles.
So what do we actually know about the antimatter systems in the Star Trek universe?
They use antimatter, and actually seem to be fairly realistic about it’s properties – it annihilates on contact with normal matter to yield vast amounts of energy, it’s very dangerous, it’s very hard to find, you need special containment systems for it, and you DEFINITELY don’t want it getting out. There’s an alternate mirror universe full of the stuff (although there isn’t normally any access), and the interaction produces some fairly odd results.
They involve “dilithium” crystals, which are rare, somehow involve more than chemistry, and seem to have some fairly unique properties. In addition, time travel, very high warp speeds, and other exotic circumstances seem to put some special strain on them that isn’t shared by most other materials – including the highly-sensitive ones of living bodies. There are serious problems with synthetic versions and even the natural ones tend to break down in use. None of this has much to do with actual lithium or dilithium.
They are apparently necessary to achieve sustained FTL speeds – although there may be a mention or two of other systems apparently involving “quantum singularities”. Given that we never get more than a casual mention though, this could be the usual gross oversimplification that you get in casual conversation which touches on technical subjects.
Powering up a matter-antimatter annihilation engine too quickly results in backwards time travel. Now THAT’S a big anomaly.
Antimatter engines are apparently regarded as being SAFER than fission systems. That’s also pretty weird under normal circumstances. “Makes an area messily toxic and hard to clean up” is usually a bit less menacing than “instantly vaporizes the city”.
They don’t seem to use very much antimatter. Federation starships seem to be equipped with methods of transporting relatively small amounts of it rather than large reserves, can physically eject the antimatter system and have it be at a relatively safe distance in less than a minute, are not considered a major menace in orbit, and have been destroyed within eyesight range of unprotected humans with no one the worse for wear. The explosion is impressive, but certainly can’t involve much antimatter.
There’s some indication that the matter-antimatter engines use up a lot more matter than they do antimatter.
Federation warp drives require antimatter due to the vast energy demands.
Federation ships don’t actually carry enough antimatter to yield vast amounts of energy.
Federation ships do have to have antimatter, but once they’ve got some, they seem to have enough to operate almost indefinitely.
In the Star Trek universe, antimatter is a fairly safe fuel source.
They apparently don’t have to invest massive resources in creating the stuff.
Federation starships have broad corridors, plenty of personal space, and other luxuries – implying power to spare. There isn’t really any sign of them being particularly mass-and-space conscious.
We have one set of observations that say antimatter is plentiful, and another set that says that it’s only actually used in tiny quantities.
How can we make sense of this and still keep the magic wand waving to a minimum?
Well, it was noted long ago that an antiparticle is indistinguishable from a normal particle moving backwards in time – and time seems to be entangled in this whole mess.
Ergo, here’s the vital point where we can keep our magic wand waving to a bare minimum.
The internal structure of “Dilithium Crystals” involves time. When electromagnetic energy above some critical threshold is projected into, or generated in, the otherwise-unreactive interior of such a crystal, it produces a field (or altered volume or space) within which time flows backwards.
The annihilation of matter and antimatter generates vast amounts of intense electromagnetic energy.
If carefully maintained within a small area, such a field will convert matter entering it into antimatter. That means that the initial supply of antimatter is only a catalyst; if it’s focused into a small area, and the matter feed is carefully regulated, you can increase or decrease the power output to suit demand.
If you try to do it too quickly, you run the risk of the field either collapsing too rapidly – shutting down the engines and requiring a slow, careful, startup again with a fresh infusion of antimatter – or of the field expanding beyond the limits of the crystal. If it expands beyond the vacuum-chamber, but does not engulf the entire ship, the resulting matter-antimatter explosion will destroy the entire ship. If it does engulf the entire ship, from the viewpoint of the ship, it will go backwards in time until the field collapses again.
Given that, we need very little antimatter – quantities small enough so that multiply-redundant containment systems are quite practical and that even a total containment failure will not endanger much of a planetary surface and will be quite survivable at even a modest distance from the main ship.
We can even have several small antimatter reserves, so there’s a backup way to start the engines if you lose power unexpectedly. That also means that you can dump extra antimatter into the system to try for that “fast start” or “intentional time travel” stunt.
The main fuel supply can simply be ordinary matter – such as water.
Now, if the Dilithium Crystals have a structure that unique, it’s pretty reasonable that they’d be affected by time travel and forces which have no effect on normal matter. Normal matter doesn’t have any structure on that level to be affected. It’s also a possible reason for why synthetic crystals aren’t a lot of use and why even natural ones degrade; in operation, the structure of the crystal is forced unevenly back into time. Natural crystals – often many millions of years old – can handle a lot more going back into time before breaking down than synthetic ones from last year. Ah, that precious, precious, natural dilithium!
This also means that antimatter reactors are far safer than fission reactors.
What else can we do with this particular pass of the wand?
Well, the other technological wonders of Star Trek include the Transporter/Replicator (and, later on, the Holodeck), the Warp Drive, the Phaser, the Tractor Beam (and other artificial gravity effects), Subspace Communicators, Tricorders, the Universal Translator, Sensors, and the Shields/Force Fields.
OK, we can get around a few of those:
Tricorders are just sophisticated special-purpose analytical systems with a lot of miniaturized sensors.
The Universal Translator is presumably simply a very high-powered linguistic analysis system and automated translator.
The Warp Drive… well, we’re already playing with generating a field which modifies time. If we wrap the ship in such a field without quite going to the (presumed) threshold for time travel, then we’ve just opted out of normal space and time; we’re now within a “warp” – and FTL travel is fundamentally linked to time travel through relativity. All we need now is a low-powered drive to give us some “impulse”, and there’s no reason why our “warp” shouldn’t let us move around quite handily. That glosses over a LOT of details of course, but if we actually knew the details, we’d be able to do it. It also gets us out of having multiple drive systems; impulse power is a necessary part of the warp drive.
Phasers can be used to cause things to become hot, to cause matter to quietly vanish – with no apparent residue or energy release, to stun living creatures, and can be fired at targets which are moving far faster than light. They can also be dodged, but only by creatures which are clearly operating in purely subjective time. Phasers seem to have near-infinite speed, but can be seen. They lose energy even passing through empty space. Awkward… Wait; if solid matter is accelerated in time, it will become hot – at least to an outside observer. If it’s slowed, it will seem cold, and – it’s not too hard to believe – that complex biological processes will be somewhat disrupted. If matter is somehow stopped in time, it would quietly vanish – lost to the past without necessarily releasing other energies. OK: “Phasers” “fire” time-manipulation effects, losing energy as they “pass through” normal space due to interface effects and virtual pair production. Obviously, Phasers involve the use of tiny bits of dilithium. They’ve only got a limited charge, so they’re obviously too small for antimatter – but a larger power pack will make the same emitter “more powerful”; it’s just pumping more energy through the dilithium speck at the core of the system. Dilithium can be affected by high-energy radiation, thus Sulu’s misfire in Star Trek IV.
Force fields glow a bit, glow more brightly when touched, and interact with phasers. Another boundary effect then, generated by pumping power into an array of tiny dilithium-based “field emitters”. That means that things which can warp normal space and time – like Charlie – can easily pass through them if they wish. Energy never just vanishes, so energy directed against a force field feeds back into the generator system – so shields can overload and burn out.
The Tractor Beam is apparently an artificial gravity effect – a warp in space time. Can we do that? Happily, yes, we can. Once we’re distorting space and time, artificial gravity effects are pretty straightforward.
The Transporter/replicator is harder – if only because the Star Trek universe is never too clear on what the thing actually DOES. If it moves atoms, how can it duplicate people? If not, why can’t it copy people normally? Is the Soul involved? How can it sometimes send you into alternate universes? How could it split Kirk into good and evil halves? Well, if dimensions – that is, space and time, are involved, we can avoid the problems with quantum mechanics. The system is somehow flicking it’s targets through other dimensions, a process which could allow access to alternate universes and any kind of weird effect we like. Who knows what other universes could be like or what strange disturbances might occur there? Playing games with space and time… It’s a bit of a stretch, but that does still fall under the basic effects we can get from our one bit of unobtainium dilithium.
That leaves us with Sensors and Subspace Communicators. Sensors aren’t all that awkward with respect to what they pick up; what’s awkward is their ability to do it at incredible ranges, and through massive amounts of matter or other shielding. Similarly, Subspace Communicators operate at incredible ranges and leap right past the speed of light. It’s almost as if both were operating through another dimension - just like the Transporter.
Magic Wands are nice. Well-aimed and precise magic wands are even better. They also make it a lot easier to game in a setting; you can give the players a fair idea of what will and will not work, and of how they can try to adapt a setting’s equipment to their own purposes.