New Internationalist

Making a Clean Killing

November 2004

True tales of a mixed up world…

Sci-fi fans may be familiar with antimatter – the strange mirror to matter – which is often used as a power source in the famous Star Trek series. Recently, investigations by Keay Davidson of the San Francisco Chronicle reveals that the US military is a big fan of Star Trek.

The US Air Force has been quietly researching antimatter for the past few decades and more recently under a special division called ‘Revolutionary Munitions’. Their revolutionary mandate ranges from investigating the viability of antimatter-powered engines to the development of antimatter bombs smaller than a Star Trek phaser (laser weapon).

But the real stunner is the Air Force’s work on antimatter super-weapons which would make nukes look like radioactive firecrackers. It is estimated that one-millionth of a gram of positrons (the antimatter equivalent of electrons which form part of an atom) contains as much energy as 37.8 kilograms of TNT. Not only can they make planet-wrecking bombs smaller and more deadly, but the Air Force is very keen to emphasize their commitment to the environment by stressing that the bombs will be ‘cleaner’. No more messy radioactive fallout fouling up the countryside, these weapons can wipe out entire nations but leave oilfields and land intact for easy occupation.

Developing ‘clean’ nukes has always been the holy grail of the military, and antimatter seems to fit the bill. Though it is still a long time off, the military has clearly set out to boldly go where the mass killing potential is highest – ‘cleanly’ of course. Revolutionary Munitions is also exploring the possibility of using antimatter to power space travel.

One of the Trekkie scientists aiding these efforts is Washington State University physicist Kelvin Lynn. He is very optimistic about the prospects for antimatter-propelled space travel, saying: ‘I think we need to get off this planet, because I’m afraid we’re going to destroy it.’

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 373 This column was published in the November 2004 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 373

New Internationalist Magazine issue 373
Issue 373

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