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Can I Beam Up, Yet?

The Fossil Fuel Paradigm


“Beam me up, Scotty.” That phrase is as well known to science fiction aficionados as “Gort, Klaatu barada nikto.”

James Tiberius Kirk, the lead character and commanding officer in the futuristic space fantasy television series Star Trek (1966-1969) would call through his wireless communicator for his chief engineer Montgomery Scott to initiate the process of “energizing” him, to be instantly converted into pure energy, and propagated — “transported” — from a planetary surface or another spaceship back to Kirk’s own spaceship the Enterprise where he would be returned to his bodily form.

The popularity of the Star Trek series and its many sequels, spin-offs, imitations and entertaining derivatives all show how entrancing people find the idea of being able to pursue their private dramas with unlimited energy and unflagging power at their disposal, literally at the push of a button. And, one of the most attractive fantasies about having such power would be the ability to hop in a flash across great distances at a moment’s notice: the transporter.

Today as our fossil fuel diggers frack their way under the skin of Planet Earth with their noses pressed tight against the grindstone of profitability, and we burn up oil squeezed out of tar sands and coal hollowed out of mountains to keep up the high-powered freneticism of modern times, dismissing concerns about increasingly turbid choking cancerous air (as in Harbin, China) and global warming with its negative effects on the polar regions, on oceans and marine life, and on weather and climate, the longed-for science fiction fantasy of unlimited kilowatts and unlimited horsepower without undue environmental consequences can seem so cruelly distant. Why can’t we have that now? When will we get it?

In our (humanity’s) attachment to the fossil fuel paradigm, too many of us find it so much easier to imagine how we would employ unlimited push-button power for our expanding and instantaneous personal wants, instead of imagining how to fashion lives of timeless fulfillment liberated from fabricated desires, and expressed with elegant and graceful efficiency.

Given all that, I though it would be interesting to consider the physics problem of building a “beam me up” transporter. To start this speculative analysis, let us consider the energy and power needed to convert a 70 kilogram (154 pound) person into pure energy for electromagnetic transport.

First, a few words about notation:

The symbol x means multiply.

The symbol ^ means exponent (of ten).

The unit of mass is a kilogram, with symbol kg.

1 kg = 2.20462 pounds.

The unit of energy is a joule, with symbol J.

1 Exajoule = 10^18 joules = 1 EJ.

The unit of power is a watt, with symbol W.

1 joule/second = 1 J/s = 1 watt = 1 W.

1 Kilowatt = 1 kW = 10^3 W.

1 Terawatt = 1 TW = 10^12 W.

1 Exawatt = 1 EW = 10^18 W.

3,600,000 J = 1 kilowatt x 1 hour = 1 kWh.

Albert Einstein famously showed that mass (m) and energy (E) are two aspects of a single entity, mass-energy, and that the pure energy equivalent of a given mass is E = m x c^2, where c is the speed of light (c = 3 x 10^8 meters/second, in vacuum).

The physical universe is 13.8 billion years old (since the Big Bang) and presently has an extent (distance to the event horizon) of 1.3×10^23 kilometers. The total mass-energy in the universe can be stated as a mass equivalent of 4.4×10^52 kg, or an energy equivalent of 4×10^69 joules.

A 70 kg mass, whether a living person of just inert stuff, has a pure energy equivalent, by Einstein’s formula, of 6.3×10^18 joules (6.3 EJ). So, our desired transporter must supply at least 6.3 EJ to beam a 70 kg mass.

For comparison, the total US energy use in 2008 was 95.7 EJ, and the total world energy use in 2008 was 474 EJ. The combined pure energy equivalents of 15.2 people of 70 kg equals the total US energy use in 2008. Similarly, the combined mass-energy of 75.4 such people is equivalent to the world energy consumption that year.

Given that there are 3.15569×10^7 seconds in one year, we can calculate the average rate of energy use during 2008 (the power generated) in the U.S.A. as 3 TW, and in the world as 15 TW.

At the US power rate, it would take 24 days to convert one 70 kg individual or object into pure energy for transport if the entire national power output were devoted to this task. If the entire world were yoked to this purpose, it would take 4.9 days.

Aside from considerations of monopolizing national and world power consumption, the idea of “disassembling” a living person and converting them to pure energy over the course of one to three weeks seems unappealing long. How do we assure we don’t lose the life whose bodily form is being disassembled and dematerialized so slowly? The whole point of a transporter is to achieve near instantaneous relocation.

For the sake of simplicity we will continue a little bit further with the convenient assumption that a 70 kg transport, whether of a human being or a lump of lead,  only requires 6.3 EJ. This implies 100% efficiency of mass conversion to energy, and that no extra energy is required to collect the information needed to materially reconstruct the individual or object on arrival, rather than just deliver a 70 kg puddle of gunk.

If this transporter were to accomplish the 70 kg conversion process in 24 hours exactly (86400 seconds), it would have a power rating of 6.3 EJ/day or 72.8 TW. This is a much higher power consumption than the US national average (3 TW). To operate such a transporter would require an energy storage system with a capacity of at least 6.3 EJ to feed the transporter (discharging over a 24 hour period), and which storage system would be charged up over a longer period prior to transport.

Obviously, if we could build transporters of increased power, the conversion would occur in less time. Thus, a transporter that could convert the 70 kg traveler to pure energy within one hour would operate at 1,747 TW (and draw power from the storage bank at that rate). A 1 minute transport conversion would require 104,846 TW. A 5 second transport converter would require 1,258,157 TW (1.26 EW). For any of these machines, it would take 24 days of total US power generation to store up the energy required for one transport, or almost 5 days of total world power generation.

The power generated on Planet Earth, in reality not science fiction, is just not enough for a transporter. Why not use the power of the Sun?

The Sun’s luminosity is 384.6×10^6 EW. If totally harnessed, it would take the Sun 16.4 nanoseconds to supply the 6.3 EJ needed for our 70 kg transport converter. A 5 second (1.26 EW) transport converter could be powered from only 3.3 billionths of the Sun’s luminosity.

The solar mean distance to Earth is 1.496×10^8 km, which is used as a convenient unit of distance in descriptions of the Solar System, and known as 1 AU (one astronomical unit).

A disc 34,224 km in diameter at 1 AU would capture the 3.3 billionths of the Sun’s luminosity needed for our 5 second transport converter. That solar collection disc (assumed 100% efficient) would be 2.7 times larger in diameter than the Earth. Since we wouldn’t want to give up our sunshine by using Planet Earth as a solar collector (for the transporter), nor risk shadowing Planet Earth with an oversized collection disc in nearby outer space, it would seem best to have the entire collector and transporter system away at a distance comparable to the Moon. Travelers and cargo from Planet Earth scheduled for deep space transport would first have to shuttle to their embarkation point on the Moon by relatively sedate rocket technology.

Let us return to the question of the extra energy required to collect the information needed to materially reconstruct an individual or object on arrival after beaming. The immense amount of information about the molecular, atomic and sub-atomic bonds and their many dynamic structural arrangements that in total make up the biophysical self of a particular individual will necessarily require a huge investment of energy to ascertain and code electronically.

One can see that such vital information about the actual relationships between particle and cellular forms of matter, which actually form a specific living organism, has an equivalent mass-energy being the sum of the energy required to program the information and then convert that program into transmissible electromagnetic waves. Because a human being is much more complex than the sum of his or her elemental and chemical composition, it is possible that the information mass-energy of a human being will outweigh their bulk mass-energy. Hence, the transport of a 70 kg person that only accounts for the 70 kg of bulk mass will undoubtedly deliver a dead blob of stuff unlikely to even duplicate the original chemical composition. To deliver the same living person, who happens to posses a particular physicality of 70 kg bulk mass, will require much more energy, a vast overhead to account for the great subtlety of living biochemical reality and consciousness. So, perhaps our 70 kg transporter will be able to deliver 70 kg of water, or a 70 kg salt crystal or slab of iron, but only safely transport a much simpler living organism like a small plant or an insect.

Actually, it is only the fully detailed structural code of the individual that would be essential for dematerialized transport. We imagine that such a code would have to be determined by disassembling the materiality of the individual (or object), by “energizing” them. It is then only necessary to transmit the code, not the now destroyed physical materiality converted into pure energy. Otherwise, if such unique structural codes could be determined nondestructively, then the transporter system would advance into being a duplicating system, a 3D cloning printer.

On arrival, the electromagnetic message that is the coded person or object being transported can be rematerialized from energy stored at the destination. Otherwise, the electromagnetic forms of both the structural code and the bulk materiality of the person or object would have to be transmitted, and the materialization at the destination would involve reading the code to use it as a guide in reconverting the beamed-in energy back into the original structured bulk mass.

Other problems for transporter system designers, which we will not explore here, include conversion efficiencies, distortion and loss of signal during propagation, and transport through through solid material.

It seems that we will be earthbound without transporters for quite some time.

Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,

Or that the Everlasting had not fixed

His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God!

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Fie on ’t, ah fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden

That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely. That it should come to this.  

Today’s reality may seem so primitive, constricted and decayed in comparison to the fantasy worlds of Star Trek, unbounded by physical science, but perhaps the liberation of the spirit so many imagine through science fiction can be experienced here by having the right attitude rather than just wanting unlimited power.

Manuel García, Jr. enjoys writing about his observations on energy, nature and society. His e-mail is