We've just started work on the technology to power a Star-Trek style replicator

June 30, 2015 by Gianluca Sarri, The Conversation
Machine to make anything. Credit: Shutterstock

Who has never dreamt of having a machine that can materialise any object we need out of thin air at the push of a button? Such machines only exist in the minds of science fiction enthusiasts and the film industry. The most obvious example is the "replicator" that Star Trek characters routinely use to generate a diverse range of objects, helping them escape from even the most impossible of plotlines.

However, scientists might have found a way to build such a dream-like machine. The trick will be to exploit the ever-famous E=mc2 equation, known as Einstein's energy-matter equivalence principle. This equation tells us that mass (the amount of matter a body is made of) is just another form of energy. This means it should be possible to take some mass and directly convert it into pure energy.

This phenomenon is supported by uncountable . For instance, it provides the energy that keeps atomic nuclei together. If you "weigh" the nucleus of an atom, you will find that it is slightly lighter than the sum of its components. The missing mass is converted into energy, which holds everything together. So far so good, but the equals sign in the equation tells us something even more exciting. We can, in principle, take pure energy and materialise it into mass.

Vacuum – not so empty

How might that be possible? In order to grasp this idea, we need to change our concept of pure vacuum. Classically, vacuum is nothing but a completely empty (and rather boring) region of space. Quantum mechanics instead tells us that vacuum is an extremely busy region of space, where ultra-tiny particles come into existence for extremely short periods of time (shorter than 10-21 s, or a thousandth of a billionth of a billionth of a second).

The particles are quickly annihilated when they collide with a corresponding (anti)particle made from antimatter. Together, these particles and antiparticles, usually referred to as "" because they exist for such short periods of time, are a direct consequence of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.

Now, imagine sending a super-intense laser beam (which is pure ) into a vacuum. If the laser is intense enough, it could rip these virtual particles away from their antiparticles to such a distance that they will not collide and annihilate. This means you have sent energy into a void region and end up with some real particles with mass.

There's only one drawback: you would need to send enough energy to separate the virtual particle-antiparticle pair before they would naturally annihilate each other (remember the 10-21 s?). This appears to be a Herculean task, but recent developments in laser technology are now giving us the opportunity to do so.

Lasers are now able to produce bursts of light that last for tiny periods of time, periods comparable to the time it takes an electron to perform one revolution around the nucleus in the atom. They can also be focused on a region of space smaller than the width of a human hair. To bring things into a bit more perspective, these laser bursts are thousands and thousands of times more powerful than the whole UK electrical grid (although they require relatively small amounts of energy) and billions and billions of times more intense than solar irradiation on Earth.

Ramping up the power

Scientists are notoriously never satisfied, however, and are pushing this limit even further. A major European project is now building the most powerful laser ever generated, the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI). This unprecedented project will result, in the next few years, in the creation of a laser system that provides beams with a power of 10 PW (10,000,000,000,000,000 watts). That's 10 times more powerful than existing state-of-the-art laser facilities.

Theoretical calculations indicate that such a laser is able to "produce" a handful of particles out of a pure vacuum and provide the first experimental evidence that can be directly transformed into tangible matter.

We might still be a long way from producing a polished finished object from but the first step is now being taken. Once the wheel is set in motion, it will only be a matter of time before a replicator will be an essential appliance in every household. The only problem remaining then will be what to do with the anti-objects that will unavoidably be generated beside the requested objects?

Explore further: How we recreated the early universe in the laboratory

Related Stories

How we recreated the early universe in the laboratory

May 12, 2015

One of the all-time great mysteries in physics is why our universe contains more matter than antimatter, which is the equivalent of matter but with the opposite charge. To tackle this question, our international team of researchers ...

Scientists one step closer to mimicking gamma-ray bursts

May 27, 2015

Using ever more energetic lasers, Lawrence Livermore researchers have produced a record high number of electron-positron pairs, opening exciting opportunities to study extreme astrophysical processes, such as black holes ...

Boosting the force of empty space

July 22, 2014

Vacuum fluctuations may be among the most counter-intuitive phenomena of quantum physics. Theorists from the Weizmann Institute (Rehovot, Israel) and the Vienna University of Technology propose a way to amplify their force.

Recommended for you

Reducing the impact forces of water entry

November 20, 2018

When professional divers jump from a springboard, their hands are perpendicular to the water, with wrists pointed upward, as they continue toward their plunge at 30 mph.

Tiny lasers light up immune cells

November 20, 2018

A team of researchers from the School of Physics at the University of St Andrews have developed tiny lasers that could revolutionise our understanding and treatment of many diseases, including cancer.

19 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Jun 30, 2015
There's only one drawback:

Niggle: Another drawback would be that half of the particles you create would be antimatter. So let's say we create a replicator by this design that could create an object of 1kg in an hour. That would mean it also creates a 1kg of antimatter in an hour...which would make for a pretty intense radiation bath unless it were caught (roughly a 40 megaton bomb's worth)

Second niggle: Creating a particle doesn't create an atom. You can't really create atoms that way because they would fly apart 'during construction' due to unbalanced electrostatic forces.

Nevertheless: Creating particles from 'nothing' would be a pretty nifty trick.
axemaster
5 / 5 (2) Jun 30, 2015
However, scientists might have found a way to build such a dream-like machine. The trick will be to exploit the ever-famous E=mc2 equation, known as Einstein's energy-matter equivalence principle.

The moment I read this I knew this was yet another written-by-children article. Yes! Let's use the total energy production of the USA to make a coffee mug! Genius!
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (1) Jun 30, 2015
this will sound stupid, but...
what the hell -
Why not develop a reactor to use the accumulated "anti- objects" as a power source...? Think of all the power we'd have available from making coffee mugs or Earl Grey tea...
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Jun 30, 2015
disassemble it to subatomic particles,

...atomic particles. Subatomics would require a collider (and there's no way to store subatomic particles - with the exception of the electron - yet).

Why not develop a reactor to use the accumulated "anti- objects" as a power source...?

Beacuse you put in a LOT more energy to create the antimatter in the first place?
Whydening Gyre
4.7 / 5 (3) Jun 30, 2015
Why not develop a reactor to use the accumulated "anti- objects" as a power source...?

Beacuse you put in a LOT more energy to create the antimatter in the first place?

It's already been created by the other function. Why not recover some of that energy?
Osiris1
1 / 5 (2) Jun 30, 2015
Think about it the other way around, sports fans. Lasers did not put IN enough energy to MAKE that matter they 'liberated' from hyperspace, just did enough to break a quantum bond. Now we maybe have TWO full matter/antimatter pairs that when they RE-UNITE would liberate energy whose number is only known to GOD. Think of it!! And we would not have to boil water either, just send the stuff down an MHD tube surrounded by superconductors or real cold graphene and let the magnetohydroelectrodynamics work to generate electricity by induction in those coils to power the world..
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Jun 30, 2015
RE-UNITE would liberate energy whose number is only known to GOD.

erm...no. Scientist know the number (it's E = mc squared). God knows as much as a unicorn fart does (because that's how much he exists)

And we would not have to boil water either, just send the stuff down an MHD tube surrounded by superconductors or real cold graphene and let the magnetohydroelectrodynamics work to generate electricity by induction in those coils to power the world..

Your joking, right? Right?

If not. Please get off my planet. You're wasting oxygen.
axemaster
5 / 5 (3) Jun 30, 2015
Your joking, right? Right?

If not. Please get off my planet. You're wasting oxygen.

I agree with the sentiment but your approach could be better. He isn't smart or rich enough to find a way off the planet. Since he can't stop generating CO2, you should ask him to plant a forest or live in a hobbit-house to make more oxygen. That's more realistic :)

erm...no. Scientist know the number (it's E = mc squared). God knows as much as a unicorn fart does (because that's how much he exists)

This made me chuckle!

On a side note, AA, how have you managed to maintain your sanity posting in this desolate place for so many years? I've been around longer than you, and I think you're one of the very very few actual fellow scientists who post on here. I had to back off from posting a few years ago because the crackpots on here were getting so exasperating. How do you engage with these people constantly, and not go crazy?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (5) Jul 01, 2015
On a side note, AA, how have you managed to maintain your sanity posting in this desolate place for so many years?

It's a bit like this: I like to rip into the occasional dunderhead. But I'm a sardonic kind of guy, anyways (and fully aware that posting on interenet comment boards is about as effective as the aforesaid unicorn farts in changing....anything).

Seriously: if I weren't bored out of my skull at work I wouldn't post here at all. But it's a bit of light fun. If I would feel that my blood pressure would rise a single point by what some people post then I'd not consider it worth it.

I guess the short answer is: I don't care what anonymous people post on the internet. It means nothing (and that includes me). The fun is that some don't realize this.

Oh...and there are the really cool postings by yourself, yyz, Stumpy, JeanTate, Ira (who always makes me chuckle) and quite a few other, quality posters ... These are always worth hunting for.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (5) Jul 01, 2015
antialias_physorg: You'll almost have to go to subatomic, as in protons and neutrons, unless you want to keep enough of every element to make whatever you want.

Ah...I was thinking in terms of quarks and other elementary particles when referring to 'subatomic'. (E.g. protons aren't subatomic. They're just hydrogen ions)

Protons are storable. Neutrons not so much. A lone neutron will decay (via beta decay) with a half life of roughly 15 minutes. (Also it's quite hard to store neutrons as they have no charge and only a very weak magnetic moment).

I would think that storage by element will be the way to go (though that is tricky in some cases. Some 'pure' elements are highly reactive. But for most applications you don't need all elements. With C,H,O,N,P and S and some traces of other's you'd be good for printing a steake.)
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Jul 01, 2015
It should be possible to build a waste "de-replicator" that would work the other way,

Yes, I've been thinking along these lines for a number of years, too. There's still a lot to iron out, though. Not least of which:
- how to do this disassembly-and-sorting-by-type efficiently.
- how to inactivate not yet finished molecules (which would have reactive ends and would tend to want to create unwanted molecules with their neighbors equally unfinished neighbors)
- And the big one: speed of printing. Even with massively parallel printheads - the number of layers one would need to print even a very small piece would be ginormous.
Let's take carbon as an example: At about 70pm covalent radius it would take roughly 7 trillion layers to make a 1cm thick piece of coal. If you want to do this in 24 hours you'll have to lay down 80000 layers a second. That's pretty daunting.
KBK
not rated yet Jul 02, 2015
A much easier way, and not requiring virtual particles or planetary power grids, is to simply rearrange the matter. Dump in a few kilograms of whatever is handy, disassemble it to subatomic particles, and put it back together as desired. No need to create mass from energy. And there isn't any theoretical reason it wouldn't work.


That's called a "Mr. Fusion", it sits on the back of one's converted DeLorean.

It uses banana peels to get the job done.
KBK
not rated yet Jul 02, 2015
antialias_physorg: You'll almost have to go to subatomic, as in protons and neutrons, unless you want to keep enough of every element to make whatever you want.

Ah...I was thinking in terms of quarks and other elementary particles when referring to 'subatomic'. (E.g. protons aren't subatomic. They're just hydrogen ions)

Protons are storable.


And it's all just electrons mixing around in your tum tum tummy!
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Jul 02, 2015
How much data does it take to describe a non-homogeneous object? Let's say we want to make a classic fast food meal - cheeseburger, fries, soda.

Not as much as one would think, because beyond a certain scale we can't tell whether it's homogeneous or not (i.e. whether the slab if cheese is just a repetition of small, identical 'cheese-building-blocks' of exactly repeating protein configurations or whether they are all jumbled). So the "right place" for taste and texture is only relevant to a certain degree (for nutrition it's pretty much irrelevant).

Slight mistakes on the level of a protein here or a botched configuration there on molecular levels wouldn't affect us. It happens in nature, too. Not all proteins are manufactured perfectly in plants/animals and there's a lot of extraneous gunk (from environmental pollution) that we don't actively notice.
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Jul 02, 2015
Nkal and AA.
It's a mathematical fractal formula...
Cave_Man
not rated yet Jul 04, 2015
......How much data does it take to describe a non-homogeneous object? Let's say we want to make a classic fast food meal - cheeseburger, fries, soda.

We can't just print them out, because all of the ingredients have multiple components, and they all have to be in the right places, or the taste, texture, and nutrition won't be right. How many gigabytes would be needed to fully describe a leaf of lettuce, or a pickle slice? And even a slight mistake would, at best, make it unappetizing, and at worst, poisonous.

I think we'll be growing our food for a LONG time to come!

Your comment brought forth images of accelerated growth machines where particles could be directed into an organism right when and where it needs them to artificially grow a leaf of lettuce, this would require only a moderate increase in our current ability to manipulate matter, specifically small things like nutrients.
Zzzzzzzz
not rated yet Jul 05, 2015
Of course one destination this leads to is teleportation, or the disembly of an object in one location followed by the reassembly in another location. Once the object becomes a human, leaving earth to go to work for the day on one of Saturn's moons (Star Trek transporter type of travel) the thought progression really gets interesting......
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Jul 07, 2015
That's the problem the tissue culture researchers are having. They can't get the large-scale structure,

Since the fibers are relatively macroscopic one could envision a 'rough' map of the food to be created (i.e. that part which does convey structure - which would not need to be any better than 0.1 millimeter scale resoolution)...and a the rest could be filled up with 'fine mush', because humans can't tell the difference, anyways.

If you want to go all out: In the end all the data you need for an entire organism is contained in the DNA. If you can store that (about 2GB for a human) and the instructions on how to get from there to a human (i.e the growth sequence) then you can construct very complicated things from very little data.

And people are actually starting to work on this molecular building stuff from individual atoms. Awesome.
http://phys.org/n...ser.html
ViperSRT3g
not rated yet Jul 09, 2015
I generally scroll down to the comments just to see what AA has to say. The offhand random/ignorant comments always get my 1 star. AA's generally get my 5.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.