Fun With Antimatter!
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.
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!