Fun With Antimatter!

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

Antimatter is a one-size-fits-all MacGuffin for Science Fiction. It’s been the source of doubletalk and plot devices for such an incredibly long time now - fifty or sixty years - that it’s easy to forget that it’s actually a real thing with known properties. When you haul a particular technological genie out of the bottle too many times, it begins to lose some of its luster, we begin to take it for granted, we lose the sense of awe that the idea once held. Worse yet, most of the people yammering about one thing or another have no real clue what it is or what it does or how it would work, or whatever.

Which wouldn’t be so bad if those people did a bit of research, but they don’t. They never do. It’s just the go-to magic button you need to make space ships go really fast, or go boom really brightly.

But Antimatter is a *real* thing, and I prefer the science in my Science Fiction to be cooked medium-hard. I know not everyone does, I know not everyone cares, and frankly a lot of technical details can get in the way of a very human story. But at the same time, the real crux of SF is that technical details can *inform* a human story, change the context and meaning of it, if done right. To that end, I’m going to explain how the stuff works.

As everyone knows, if Matter and Antimatter meet, you get 100% conversion to energy. Conversely, with an atomic bomb, you get 2 or 3% conversion to energy, which is pretty pitiful, but it’s also the most advanced tech we’ve got. Fission reactors - power plants, not bombs - are even less efficient. The appeal of Antimatter is pretty obvious, then: it’s something like 97 to 99.9% more efficient than the most powerful processes we can manufacture at present.

Often in SF movies and books in genera, and in Star Trek in specific, Antimatter is used as a magic wand to let people gad about the universe at faster than light speeds. Well, that’s just hokum. All the antimatter in the universe wouldn’t push you faster than light. In fact, all the *energy* in the universe wouldn’t move you faster than light, so we’re pretty much screwed there. It’s still pretty powerful, however.

How powerful?

Here’s the formula: Energy = Mass x The Speed Of Light squared. Simple, right? But as you know, the speed of light is a really big number.

So let’s keep this simple:

- We’ve got one gram (.035 ounces) of antimatter.

- The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second.

- The speed of light squared is therefore: 34,596,000,000

- 1 x 34,596,000,000 = 34,596,000,000 (Well, duh!)

THEREFORE: 1 gram of antimatter = 34,596,000,000 ergs of energy.

Well, yeah, but how much is that? I mean, in real terms?

Well, if we convert ergs to electricity, we get 21,592,944,657,957,900 megavolts. Let’s think about that for a moment: That’s twenty-one and a half QUADRILLION megavolts! A megavolt is one million volts, so that comes out to 21,592,944,657,957,900,000,000 regular old garden-variety workaday volts. That’s twenty-one SEXTILLION volts (And change.)

Which sounds like a lot, and it probably is, but then you start getting into Watts and Amps and molecules and crap, and it all gets really confusing to me, and while I’m pretty sure you could run a really bitchin’ toaster oven with it, I’m not sure how many of ‘em you can use. So let’s convert ‘em to something a little easier, so we can get a more apples-to-apples thing going on, rather than volts-to-toaster ovens.

“British Thermal Units” (Named after their inventor, Dr. Hiram J. Thermalunit, Esquire) are a fairly universal way to measure energy. They’re more commonly known as a“BTU.”

1 gram of antimatter = 3,279,069,109,435,952 BTUs, that’s 3.2 quadrillion. Sounds like a lot, and it is, but to put it in perspective, the united states used about 101.5 quadrillion BTUs in the year 2007, and the world as a whole (including the US) used 486.5 quadrillion BTUs.

Using our formulas above, then, to power the entire world for a year, it would take 153 grams of antimatter, or about 5.3 ounces. About a third of a pound.

By contrast, to power the world at that level using windpower would take more than 160 MILLION wind turbines, or 83,897,910,945 barrels of oil. Round up: 84 BILLION barrels of oil, or 5.3 ounces of Antimatter - which would you prefer?

Anyway, that’s exactly how powerful Antimatter is. You’ve got enough info now to convert antimatter to any kind of anything you like: one gram = how many barrels of oil, or how many tons of coal, or how many megatons of cheese - though of course you’d need to know how much energy it takes to raise and feed the cows, and then process and refrigerate the cheese, so obviously that’s a tough one, but my point is: it can be done! By you! I’ve you’re bored enough! Exclamation mark!

And now you know!

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Comments

A sign of bad writting

neorandomizer's picture

Yes in sci fi antimatter is most often used as a magic work around for producing massive amounts of energy. It's an easy cop out and usual shows sloppy world building.

The second most used energy cop out is zero point energy closely followed by cold fusion. Since many sci fi writers trend toward the left there is a bias against using fission reactors in stories.

The funny thing is that using antimatter for power is far more dangerous than any fission reactor accident nightmare. All it would take for a catastrophic event with antimatter is a power failure of the magnetic containment and pow instant nova. Another thing overlooked with antimatter is that it would produce high energy gamma rays which would be more deadly than anything a fission reactor could produce.

Anti-Nuclear Bias

Republibot 3.0's picture

>>>Since many sci fi writers trend toward the left there is a bias against using fission reactors in stories.<<<

Yeah. In fact, you mention "Nuclear-" anything, and everyone goes all squishy 'round the edges. "Nuclear is bad! Baaad! Baaaaaaaad!" they bleat. These are people who can't tell the difference between a Bomb and a Power Plant, but they feel their opinion is more valid than anyone elses. That's like saying a superstitious idiot's opinion of medicine is more valid than an actual modern licenced doctor.

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

Wow!! Very Informative!!

Yeah, I had a toaster that ran on antimatter and it was not good...the toast did pop out at warp speed but it caused a rift in the time-space continuum which made the kitchen a portal to another dimension...that wasn't so bad but those other universe people never clean up after themselves (and I suspect one of them is responsible for the missing hamster)...so, to make a long story short, I had to throw it out. Was crap at making toast anyhow. Now I have one powered with "blue energy" that I got from the V...what could go wrong...

Well there's your problem.

Republibot 3.0's picture

Well here's your problem: What you're describing couldn't come from Antimatter. I think you got yourself one o' them thar' "Chronosinclastic Infandibular Toasters." An Antimatter toaster would do that. All an Antimatter toaster would do is either explode or make your toast so radioactive that everyone within 8 miles would die. And any really tall people within 16 miles would probably die, too.

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

Nuclear Fission and other energy sources

wolf's picture

Please correct me if I'm wrong or off base but my understanding regarding how we create power from nuclear fission is that the power plants are really just glorified steam turbines that are turned by steam heated by the nuclear fuel rods. It seems an ingenious idea but I've wondered why there haven't been ideas to harness the other energy that the fuel rods are radiating.

On the subject of science fictional fuel sources Travis S. Taylor has worked some into a couple of his books including using energy gathered from using the Cashmir Effect and using single flavor unique quarks. What limited research I've given them both seems to indicate to me that at least they might be possible.

There have been

Church's picture

"It seems an ingenious idea but I've wondered why there haven't been ideas to harness the other energy that the fuel rods are radiating."

There have been (sodium solutions and such) but the practicalities of real world usage tends toward the familiar, and so water, and the limitations it imposes.

Planck engine

nwkeys01's picture

what a planck (as in Max planck)engine does:

move faster than the expansion rate of space itself and slips into the space between the universes for all type of adventures

Or maybe harnessing the power of GRAVITY ITSELF!!!!!
Bwahahahahahahaha

(sorry)

you have two masses attached to a much heavuer center mass. What you do to harness gravity is move the center mass to one side or the other. This changes the center of gravity and causes one side to orbit the other.
Changing the center to the other side during this process would cause the whoel mechanism to move about it space like a slinky going down stairs.

There are many designs used

neorandomizer's picture

Even most high power space fission reactors use a turbine mostly used by the Russians but there are USA designs. NASA uses radioisotope thermoelectric generators or RTG's.

A RTG is a cylinder of plutonium with a thermocouple to produce electricity. Work is being done on Stirling Radioisotope Generator or STG which is a Stirling engine were the heat source is like the ones used for RTG's but with no thermocouple.

NASA has used RTG's to power the experiments left on the Moon by Apollo and all space probes that go beyond the orbit of Mars. They were also used on the Viking lander.

Probes to Mars, Venus and Mercury have used solar power and batteries. RTG's would have been a better chose for some missions but NASA likes to play to the anti-nuke green lobby.

http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf82.html

Atomic Steam Engine

Republibot 3.0's picture

>>>Please correct me if I'm wrong or off base but my understanding regarding how we create power from nuclear fission is that the power plants are really just glorified steam turbines that are turned by steam heated by the nuclear fuel rods. It seems an ingenious idea but I've wondered why there haven't been ideas to harness the other energy that the fuel rods are radiating.<<<

Yeah, basically. There's a few rare exceptions (Open-Cycle Nuclear Jet Engine) but in essence Atomic Piles are used to heat things for various reasons, most commonly to boil water to turn turbines. It's ridiculously simple, and not terribly efficent.

In "Another Modest Proposal," Niven talks about how stupid it is to throw out radioactive waste, since it's only barely been used, and eventually we'll come up with a process to coax more energy out of the waste.

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

Maxwell Planck, Secret Agent 86

Republibot 3.0's picture

>>>you have two masses attached to a much heavuer center mass. What you do to harness gravity is move the center mass to one side or the other. This changes the center of gravity and causes one side to orbit the other.
Changing the center to the other side during this process would cause the whoel mechanism to move about it space like a slinky going down stairs.<<<

I'm probably being rather dim here, but wouldn't that be a bit akin to moving a bus by running back and forth inside it really fast?

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

Anti-nuclear naysayers

Republibot 3.0's picture

>>>RTG's would have been a better chose for some missions but NASA likes to play to the anti-nuke green lobby. <<<

This despite the fact that RTGs are amazingly safe. The Apollo 13 LEM fell from orbit, disintegrated, the remains hit the ocean at 1500 MPH, sank like a stone, sat on the bottom of the ocean for 15 years, and were recovered in the mid-1980s. The RTGs were still in perfect condition, with no loss of material.

Yow!

Added to which you'd think the anti-nuclear naysayers would *support* the idea of getting as much radioactive material off earth as possible, as it frightens them.

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

@R3

neorandomizer's picture

The real pros and cons of nuclear power have never been part of the debate it has always been about the Luddite fear of technology. Remember these are the same people that work to ban pesticides and bio-engineered foods than cry that we do not have enough land to feed the whole planet's population. They truly believe that if we teach subsistence farming to people in the third world they would be better off forget about modern farming techniques the ancient ways are better and if they only have a 40 year life span well there not of European stock so who cares. The left always hides their racism behind what is best for the environment.

Wow.

A lot of math.

So anti-matter is very, very, very, very, VERY powerful?

Amen Neorandomizer!

Seen NOT EVIL JUST WRONG by the Irish couple. It really points out some of the evils of eco-movement.

Appropriate topic for Earth Day.

Fear of change

Republibot 3.0's picture

>>>The left always hides their racism behind what is best for the environment.<<<

Which comes back to my ongoing debate about our relationship to the environment. The hippies and Environmentalists probably *were* right a hundred or two hundred years ago, but they're not now. We're less and less dependent upon 'nature' by the year, and in fact nature is increasingly dependent upon us, but God help you if you try to explain this to one of them. They simply refuse to get it, and insist on hanging on to a long-outmoded and increasingly irrelevant status quo because they fear change.

It's intersting to me that so many environmentalists and lefties are atheists because this whole 'nature is great/nature is all there'll ever be/humans are bad' thing seems to me far less humanistic than belief in a God who says "You people have value."

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

yup

Republibot 3.0's picture

>>>So anti-matter is very, very, very, very, VERY powerful?<<<

Yup.

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

Do tell?

Republibot 3.0's picture

>>>Seen NOT EVIL JUST WRONG by the Irish couple. It really points out some of the evils of eco-movement.

Appropriate topic for Earth Day.<<<

Never heard of it. Do tell!

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

the is beyond wrong

neorandomizer's picture

I am sorry any school of thought that can produce something like the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement is warped. http://www.vhemt.org/

Anything that can produce this level of self hate is just plain evil and of course their are people that take it to the next logical step.
http://www.churchofeuthanasia.org/index.html

http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2009/07/21/obamas-science-czar-considere...

Oh, I agree.

Republibot 3.0's picture

Yup.

I've never undestood how people on the left frequently claim that Religion is a crutch that stupid people use, and which holds back secular humanism and intelectual development, then go on to devise stuff like this.

Meanwhile, most religions, particularly western ones, are fundamentally humanistic ("You are more than the sum of your parts. Humans have value") This message frequently gets lost in fear or legalism, but it's always there at the root.

I'm increasingly of the thought that the primary problem of the Left is that they're literalists and not romantics.

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

bus stop

nwkeys01's picture

well the problems with that abound
the mass on a bus isn't even distributed

If it were and you were far enough away from a significant gravity well, yes running around on a bus would in fact move it.

exactly the same type of motion that occurs between Earth-Moon and Earth-Sun
just the center of mass doesn't change position that rapidly

NOT EVIL, JUST WRONG

NOT EVIL, JUST WRONG is a documentary by an Irish couple about the problems environmentalism is causing and its falsehoods. Its two main targest are Global Warming and DDT.

They did an earlier documentary, MINE YOUR OWN BUSINESS, about eco-nuts stopping mines in (foreign) towns that desperately needed the jobs. Romania and Madagascar are two of the places.
They greenies do not want to disrupt their quaint (read: impoverished) way of living.

Here is a trailer to their first documentary.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wth_p4p0rfY

Just Wrong

neorandomizer's picture

I just watched NOT EVIL, JUST WRONG and it is a must watch.