July 3, 2016

Slice of PIE: Gasoline and Antimatter…

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/69/PositronDiscovery.jpg/609px-PositronDiscovery.jpgUsing the panel discussions of the most recent World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane, August 2015, I will jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. This is event #4183. The link is provided below…

Super Science Saturday: Antimatter in Science – A Journey from Detecting Nothing to Reaching the Stars

What do research and engineering tools to detect atomic-sized voids or really “nothing” in materials have in common with attempts to reach the stars? Antimatter. I will present an overview of current research with one particle of antimatter – the positron – and the work in harnessing the potential of antimatter for space travel. Three fundamental challenges separate antimatter science fiction and science fact: generation, storage, and conversion to propulsion. Marc Weber

The most I could find out about Marc Weber (who has a picture on the Washington State University website (no CV, no nothing else…LinkedIn, FB, etc., all dead ends. An article says the following: “the work Weber does at WSU’s Center for Materials Research could one day help fuel space travel…antimatter is an ideal form of rocket propulsion. That’s because when antimatter reacts with matter, the particles explode, creating the most powerful energy source known. He and his colleagues are developing a way to harness and store antimatter particles called positrons.…” and “[one] of the foremost positron researchers in the world”.

In other words, he knows his stuff.

I don’t know much about positron generation, storage, or conversion to propulsion; BUT I wonder if the process might have an analogue in the generation, storage, and conversion to propulsion of gasoline in an internal combustion engine. Certainly the scale is different, but I wonder if there might be parallels – as the repercussions of the invention of the ICE and the invention of a workable “warp drive” powered by antimatter annihilation had…and might have…results so profound as to alter the course of civilization.

Briefly, the development of the ICE using gasoline as fuel goes something like this:

“Gasoline was around before the invention of the internal combustion engine but for many years was considered a useless byproduct of the refining of crude oil to make kerosene, a standard fuel for lamps through much of the 19th century.”

How did that useless byproduct end up powering the most dramatic change in technology this planet has ever seen? The invention of the internal combustion engine is studded with well-known inventors – al-Jazari , famed for authoring the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices among which devices, you would find the crankshaft; Christiaan Huygens (yes, THAT Huygens – the one after whom the Titan probe was named…because he discovered the moon…) who found that he could use gunpowder to drive water pumps; and Alessandro Volta, who invented both the electric battery and a toy gun that fired a cork after hydrogen and air were compressed and sparked.

At first, the ICE went nowhere because the gasoline that some of them used was scarce and few people saw any need for the ICE-gasoline combination to move people around. The German Siegfried Marcus, “He never applied for a patent for the motorcar…never claimed to have invented the motorcar…[but] was the first to use gasoline to propel a vehicle, in the simple handcart of 1870…”  In fact, in England, Edward Butler invented the first “true” automobile (sparkplug, ignition, carburetor, and much of the rest – and was promptly slapped with a new law that prohibited ANY motorized vehicle from traveling faster than 2 mph. It also had to have a person walk in front of it waving a red flag. He gave up and went on to other, more lucrative constructions.

After several hours of searching, I could find nothing that dealt with the development of gasoline as the primary fuel used in the ICE, so I don’t know if thousands died making it to use it in cars, or if it was serendipitous and without it life as we know it wouldn’t exist. As I said initially, it was just waste – the REAL goal was to produce enough kerosene for the booming and totally essential lamp industry. Gasoline was like a resource waiting for a use.

So let’s see if there’s a parallel here for the development of antimatter as a fuel: positrons are naturally occurring particles. We never really bothered with them because we were WAY more interested in directing and manipulating electrons for the booming and totally essential electrical industry.

Thus far, no one has used positrons for much of anything except PET scanning and some experiments to look at bizarre, exotic particles. It’s like it was a resource waiting for a use…

Marc Weber is working to both collect positrons and store them. He has a dream to use them to power matter-antimatter annihilation starships; and that’s exciting!

However, I all of a sudden started wondering about the GETTING there. Even in Star Trek, we skip the development of the matter-antimatter control and go right to warp drive (STAR TREK: First Contact). Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any stories or novels that would be comparable to learning to use gasoline as a fuel during the development of the ICE – certainly it wasn’t the first choice. Steam engines are ancient and came first; coal gas and even coal powder was more powerful and easier to use. Gasoline use didn’t come until much later – and only then because certain inventors made certain choices.

What will be the history of the use of antimatter in Human civilization? I look forward to speculating! Any ideas?

References: http://www.greatachievements.org/?id=3677,
Image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/69/PositronDiscovery.jpg/609px-PositronDiscovery.jpg

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