Have you ever wondered what powers those starships we see careening through space in the movies -- like Count Dooku's interstellar sloop from Star Wars: Attack of the Clones -- or what energizes those automated, self-sufficient mega cities we sometimes see in comic books?
Well, you're not alone. Sci-fi power sources are enigmatic, and oftentimes leave us with more questions than answers.
Where exactly does hyper matter come from, and how does it work? How exactly do dilithium crystals power a starship? Well, if you’re looking for answers, you might be surprised to learn that not every sci-fi power source remains untethered from reality.
The idea of using novel energy sources to change some aspect world has been around for some time. In the 1800's, Abraham Lincoln envisioned such things-- namely, wind power -- and recognized the ability to dramatically change the world. As technology has evolved over the years, the line between what is possible and what's not has begun to blur. As a result, the promise of things such as super powered batteries, and the wireless transmission of energy, always seems to loom large on the horizon.
One power source that's been on the horizon for years now is nuclear fusion. It allowed Dr. Emmett Brown to jump start a DeLorean with a banana peel and a beer can, in Back to the Future. Oh, and who can forget about that other practical use for fusion - powering ghost eradicating, backpack particle accelerators. However, as it turns out, the promise of fusion might not be as crazy as it sounds. In fact, some researchers believe that a large-scale fusion reactor, capable of producing considerably more energy than it consumes, could come online within a decade. Should such a large scale reactor materialize, the benefits would be substantial. In theory, such a reactor could produce vast amounts of energy with nothing more than seawater, and it would produce almost no harmful waste to boot.
But wait you say, what about those fusion cores that managed to power colossal mechs, and seemingly scaled down to a size usable by humanoid robots?
Well, while not quite small enough to power humanoid robots, major corporations such as Lockheed Martin have been researching fusion as well, and recently Lockheed claimed that they were developing a small fusion reactor that could potentially fit in the back of a large truck. The small reactor is expected to be capable of producing 100 megawatts.
There are also some more unconventional approaches to power generation, that have gained traction as of late. Solar sails, for example, have seen a bit of a resurgence, and that propulsion method focuses on drawing power remotely.
You know, kind of like Count Dooku's interstellar sloop from Attack of the Clones. The solar sail concept forgoes massive onboard power generation for propulsion purposes and instead focuses on drawing power from solar energy or energy beamed at the vessel from far, far away. Recently the Breakthrough Starshot initiative has revisited this idea, with their plan to send a tiny nano craft via solar sail technology to Alpha Centauri.
Lastly, let’s not forget about the truly fringe forms of power generation, the kind that might power a stellar mega-structure or perhaps a planet-sized super weapon.
It just so happens that recent studies of a celestial body known as “Tabby's Star”, might actually demonstrate that this could be a real (but highly improbable) thing! Specifically, a series of ongoing measurements has led some researchers to hypothesize that, while unlikely, it may be possible that this star is the site of an alien mega-structure.
Wait, what the heck is an alien mega-structure? Well, some researchers are speculating, that the hypothetical structure surrounding Tabby's star is some form of Dyson sphere. For those who don't know, a Dyson sphere, first envisioned in 1937, is a mega-structure that encapsulates most of a star and in doing so captures some of its energy. The concept has made its way into several books and TV shows, to include Star Trek: The Next Generation, where it showed up in episode 130.
As crazy as they sometimes are, sci-fi power sources are bound to be with us for a long time. In a way, it's natural. How else are you going to power an interstellar cruiser, or a mech the size of a skyscraper?
Things get interesting when fact meets fiction and our collective imaginations pave the way for tomorrow's great discoveries. It is then that we have the opportunity to shape our future and bring our fantastic dreams into the real world.
-- Oliver Thiermann is the founder and CEO at theArcShapeR. Team leader by day and content creator by night, he always keeps an eye out for innovative ways to bring readers and writers together. Ollie is also an epic nerd, who hungers for all things Fantasy and Sci-Fi related.