Artist's concept of a black hole from top down. Image credit: NASA

Black Hole Drive Could Power Future Starships

19 Nov , 2009

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What would happen if humans could deliberately create a blackhole? Well, for starters we might just unlock the ultimate energy source to create the ultimate spacecraft engine — a potential  “black hole-drive” —  to propel ships to the stars.

It turns out black holes are not black at all; they give off “Hawking radiation” that causes them to lose energy (and therefore mass) over time. For large black holes, the amount of radiation produced is miniscule, but very small black holes rapidly turn their mass into a huge amount of energy.

This fact prompted Lois Crane and Shawn Westmoreland of Kansas State University to calculate what it would take to create a small black hole and harness the energy to propel a starship. They found that there is a “sweet spot” for black holes that are small enough to be artificially created and to produce enormous amounts of energy, but are large enough that they don’t immediately evaporate in a burst of particles. Their ideal black hole would have a mass of about a million metric tons and would be about one one-thousandth the size of a proton.

To create such a black hole, Crane and Westmoreland envision a massive spherical gamma-ray laser in space, powered by thousands of square kilometers of solar panels. After charging for a few years, this laser would release the pent-up energy equivalent to a million metric tons of mass in a converging spherical shell of photons. As the shell collapses in on itself, the energy becomes so dense that its own gravity focuses it down to a single point and a black hole is born.

The black hole would immediately begin to disgorge all the energy that was compressed to form it. To harness that energy and propel a starship, the black hole would be placed at the center of a parabolic electron-gas mirror that would reflect all the energy radiated from the black hole out the back of the ship, propelling the ship forward. Particle beams attached to the ship behind the black hole would be used to simultaneously feed the black hole and propel it along with the ship.

Such a black hole drive could easily accelerate to near the speed of light, opening up the cosmos to human travelers, but that’s just the beginning. The micro-black hole could also be used as a power generator capable of transforming any matter directly into energy. This energy could be used to create new black holes and new power generators. Obviously, creating and harnessing black holes is not an easy undertaking, but Crane and Westmoreland point out that the black hole drive has a significant advantage over more speculative technologies like warp drives and wormholes: it is physically possible. And, they believe, worth pursuing “because it allows a completely different and vastly wider destiny for the human race. We should not underestimate the ingenuity of the engineers of the future.”

Article available on ArXiv.
Nod to: io9

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dpig69
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dpig69
November 19, 2009 2:01 PM

This reminds me of the movie “Quest for Fire” and the parallels between humans creating and harnessing fire in the past, to similar challenges for humans creating and harnessing black holes in the future. The last paragraph of this article touched on the possibility of micro-black holes creating new black holes, similar to how early humans kept a “pilot light” going once they first captured fire. On an evolutionary scale, chemical rockets are only a slight variant of man’s early burning log. So we’ve got a long way to go.

Olaf
Member
Olaf
November 19, 2009 2:16 PM

Hmm I wonder, this ship should also accelerate that million metric tons black hole. It might be tiny but it still weighs that much do can enough energy be created to accelerate the ship and the black hole?

Sili
Member
Sili
November 19, 2009 3:20 PM

Sligt problem as I see it.

Now you don’t just have to accelerate your payload effectively. You’re also carrying “about a million metric tons” of dead weight.

Sili
Member
Sili
November 19, 2009 3:21 PM

D’oh. Shoulda updated. Now I look like a rip-off.

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
November 19, 2009 3:31 PM
I actually read Crane’s paper on this. There is a bit of a rub with the idea. You can’t focus light rays onto a point with a temperature higher than the source. This is Fermat’s theorem, and it has to do with the conservation of phase space volume for systems in classical mechanics. From a wave mechanics perspective, it means you can’t concentrate an energy flux larger than c*hbar/wavelength. Here c = speed of light, hbar = Planck unit of action. Now their scheme involves taking light energy from enormous solar panels and concentrating it into gamma rays. That is possible, but you still run into the same limitation. Those gamma photons would have to have an energy… Read more »
Don Alexander
Member
Don Alexander
November 19, 2009 4:26 PM

LBC, good points.

This sounds like classical mega-scale engineering.

I assume making a BH a lot smaller (a few kg, say) and then somehow trying to feed it directly with matter would probably not work. It would irradiate much faster than you would be able to send stuff over the miniscule event horizon.

Spaceriuss
Member
Spaceriuss
November 19, 2009 5:18 PM

[I]This reminds me of the movie “Quest for Fire”[/I]

Well, the ship Event Horizon (1997) had black hole drive smile

Bariman43
Member
Bariman43
November 19, 2009 5:36 PM

The instant I read the title, I thought of the movie Event Horizon. That thought alone almost makes me NOT want a black hole powered ship engine. Almost.

*remembers the violent and bloody Video Log scene*

….Yeah, good luck.

ND
Member
ND
November 19, 2009 5:54 PM

The Romulan birds of prey had something called “artificial quantum singularity.”

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
November 19, 2009 6:11 PM

Ryan Anderson: No this does not involve Fermi-Dirac statistics, which indicates by the anti-symmetry of the fractional spin state one can put on particle in one state. This is about packing photons not in Hilbert state space, but in configuration space (ordinary space).

BTW, with the Bose Einstein case of generating a black hole, that is a huge scale up of a problem I have been picking at for a while with fusion. The idea is much the same, but to get tritium nuclei to transition into He by these means. A much more modest idea, but damnedably tough to figure out.

LC

Greg
Member
Greg
November 19, 2009 8:54 PM
The old addage states that you can’t get something for nothing. I think the article oversimplifies the undertaking to produce such a thing by many orders of magnitude. You would need an enormous amount of mass and energy to create this thing and it would need to be precisely coordinated. All the black hole would amount to is simply the concentration of all of this matter into a confined and therfore portable and useable state. The good news is that this is doable. The bad news is that all that exists of the U.S. would be archaeological relics by the time the human race the technology and industrial capablility to scale this up to produce a space shipyard… Read more »
CrazyEddieBlogger
Member
November 19, 2009 11:32 PM

Lawrence – I must of course respond to the Space Elevator comment…

A goos sized SE weighs several thousands tons, and is powered by maybe a Megawatt-class laser beam – hardly a “mega project”.

Feasible or not – this remains to be seen, but if it is, the launched weight will be less than the ISS.

Ben

qraal
Member
November 20, 2009 12:56 AM

Hi Ryan

One issue with the drive is whether black holes decay to zero mass or “choke” themselves due to quantum back-reaction, thus only converting about 10% of their mass to energy. Tony Rothman has analysed this possibility recently and there’s nothing astrophysically to preclude the possibility. We’ll need a lot more study of black holes generated by successors of the LHC to tell if this occurs.

Even so 10% conversion efficiency is nothing to sneeze at and we avoid the “Hawking Explosion” during the last second of a decaying hole.

DrFlimmer
Member
DrFlimmer
November 20, 2009 4:25 AM

As far as I know, the warp drive is physically possible. The only problem is (but that is a problem for engineers wink ) that you need to pack 30 solar masses into the Enterprise. I guess this needs to be a black hole wink

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
November 20, 2009 6:26 AM
@CrazyEddieBlogger. A space elevator weighing in at a few thousand tons? Given geosychronous orbit is 37,000 km out that would mean an average of about 100kg per kilometer. That is about the mass of two cargo sacks of potatoes. BTW, a few days ago I volunteered at a food bank (very busy these days!) and hauled a whole bunch of them around @ Dr Flimmer: The Alcubierre warp drive is a solution to the Einstein field equation. There are a fewf problems though. The solution violates the weak energy condition that the momentum energy component T^{00} >= 0. This means the quantum field which is the source of the solution is not bounded below with a discrete energy… Read more »
Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
November 20, 2009 8:24 AM
What a fascinating idea! This is Fermat’s theorem, and it has to do with the conservation of phase space volume for systems in classical mechanics. Even if it is one of Fermi’s theorems, it doesn’t say much as a reference. More to the point here, BH’s are outside of classical mechanics, so AFAIU all bets are off. What will happen at the transit between classical to BH regime? This would violate the second law of thermodynamics for black holes. Sorry to pick on the comments, but I don’t get the idea here. Black holes will eventually give back their information to the universe, so why would a worm hole or similar information channel be a problem for them?… Read more »
davesmith_au
Member
November 20, 2009 8:58 AM

I sure hope Crane and Westmoreland didn’t use taxpayer funds for this trip down fantasy lane…

Dark Gnat
Member
Dark Gnat
November 20, 2009 9:13 AM

How would you contain the black hole?

Also, traveling near the speed of light, what happens if you hit a dust particle? (Answer = Boom!)

Also, wouldn’t radiation thats coming from space in front of you be blue shifted to higher energies?

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