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So, in most sci-fi worldbuilding, there inevitably is a need for powerful energy sources to do all the magic, which simple energy sources such as burning coals, energy from the earth and possibly even Nuclear Fusion is not enough.

Thus, I ask, what are the most powerful theoretical energy sources?

Here are my notes:

  • No need to be present in modern times, can be in the future and theoretical, as long as it is still "hard" in nature.

  • Calculations are optional, but helpful.

  • Assume that any resources necessary to make such energy sources is there. In other words, virtually unlimited resources to build such a device.

  • Would like unusual or uncommon sources of energy. I would not be happy to see answers like antimatter or ZPE.

  • Any size for the power source is fine. From portable to stellar. Whatever size you want.

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    $\begingroup$ Depends on what you want to power and by what metric you calculate its usefulness. Efficiency would likely be a black hole generator. Power output per second probably a black hole or antimatter. CONSISTENT power output...? And a black hole generator is so hard to carry around what with a generator of a few days weighing more than mount Everest. But it could be useful for large space ships $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Jan 1, 2020 at 11:41
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    $\begingroup$ Best power source is obviously a cat with buttered toast strapped to its back. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Jan 1, 2020 at 15:33
  • $\begingroup$ The Penrose Process could be suitable, you get more energy out of a spinning black hole than you put in, but a <a href="youtu.be/ulCdoCfw-bY?t=314">mirrored dyson sphere will get you back even more</a> $\endgroup$
    – gbjbaanb
    Jan 1, 2020 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry you don't like antimatter, after all it has the highest theoretical energy possible, as far as I understand. $\endgroup$
    – Gnudiff
    Jan 1, 2020 at 23:14
  • $\begingroup$ This video[youtu.be/t-O-Qdh7VvQ] by Minutephysics should help. $\endgroup$ Jan 2, 2020 at 5:56

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I would highly suggest that you read the Isaac Asimov book, The Gods Themselves. In this story, humans transport matter between a few parallel dimensions where the fundamental laws of nature are different. I don't remember the specifics, but here's the basic idea:

In Universe A, our physical laws prevent certain Isotopes from forming. However, in universe B, their physical laws allow these isotopes to form, while prohibiting the existence of isotopes present in universe A. By transporting an isotope from Universe B into Universe A, an Isotope begins to decay, as it is subjected to different physical laws and thus cannot sustain itself. The process of decay gives off energy, and seemingly, we have an infinite source of energy.

Problem: turns out that transporting matter from Universe B to A comes with the side effect of changing the physical laws of our universe. Stuff gets weird, and there is the concern that our physical laws changing might make our sun go supernova.

The solution? Why, to find a third Universe! By finding a universe with another set of physical laws and interacting with it, we are able to, in essence, reset the physical laws of our universe to their default values, thus preventing any sort of cataclysm.

This is a very haphazard explanation, however, and it's definitely not as nuanced as the book. I would highly suggest that you give it a read in your spare time.

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    $\begingroup$ Plus one for the reference to one of Asimov's best novels. Very highly recommended. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 1, 2020 at 12:08
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Why, thank you sir! I see you are a man of culture as well $\endgroup$
    – KaiGuyMBK
    Jan 1, 2020 at 12:15
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think that is hard, but I must say that really is awesome. Asimov never fails with oddball concepts. $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2020 at 13:40
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    $\begingroup$ Why bother finding universe with other laws of physics, calculating profitable reactions and putting our universe at risk when you can find one with exactly same laws but made of antimatter? Researches will be pleasantly surprised with ability to live in it until finding out that space dust is destroying and heating up their spaceship shielding, making quite a tragic yet fun scene to read about. $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2020 at 19:47
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    $\begingroup$ The question banned things like antimatter so this is actually a very good solution. $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2020 at 22:35
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Black Holes, if they indeed evaporate, are effectively perfect mass-energy converters. The trouble is that black holes small enough to emit this energy rapidly enough to be useful don't seem to occur in nature. In theory, they could be produced artificially, by focusing high energy beams onto the smallest point on which they can be focused, but you need the energy in the first place, so why not just use it directly?

A tiny amount of Neutronium, liberated from the gravity well that formed it, will explode most enthusiastically. Much like creating and maintaining artificial black holes, though, using Neutronium as an energy source requires tricks and logistics and some way to prevent it from exploding prematurely, and we don't have any idea what could do that.

If you can somehow cage micro black holes or Neutronium, all you need do is open the cage to get levels of energy that make nukes look like firecrackers. I expect it will cost more energy to maintain such a cage than you'd get out of it, especially over longer durations.

Among the most powerful explosions in the Universe are Quasars, but I have no idea how one could meaningfully harness one of those. A dramatically scaled down version could be a smaller black hole that you dump gas onto. The energy that results will not be as efficient as the black hole's death radiation, or even antimatter, but it could be fairly impressive if properly set up. I'm not familiar enough with the numbers to predict how much one could expect to get from such a system compared to Fusion.

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  • $\begingroup$ What do you do when you run out of mass to transform into energy? $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2020 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ To create a black hole, you need to get a mass of at least some hundred tons into a space that's comparable to a proton in size, and you must do that within less than a second. Why? Because a black hole that only has 1 second left to live still weights 228 tons, and tries to explode with the force of 5 teratons of TNT. And the more mass you put in, the easier it becomes to make a black hole. The orders of magnitude of the involved numbers are mind-numbing. Most certainly, this can not be done by "focusing high energy beams onto the smallest point on which they can be focused". $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2020 at 22:56
  • $\begingroup$ @cmaster-reinstatemonica Well, if you can reflect those five teratons of TNT back into an area the size of a proton, you can get another second of power production from your continuously-exploding black hole! ;) $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Jan 2, 2020 at 2:48
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A reasonably plausible energy source: total matter conversion through black hole evaporation.

Black holes can bend the space around them and cause the creation of virtual particles, whose energy comes at the expense of the black hole's mass. The smaller a black hole is, the more it bends the space (even if the bent volume goes quickly down), and the faster it evaporates, until it goes "bang". This energy flux is equivalent to the black hole actually having a temperature, going up with the black hole's mass going down. This temperature is called Hawking temperature, and the thermal radiation it gives off is Hawking radiation, to all intent and purposes a kind of black body radiation.

So: create or obtain somehow a suitable black hole with a time-to-bang in the order of months to years. Bombard it with protons, creating an electrically charged black hole (what is called a Reissner–Nordström singularity). The black hole can now be manipulated and controlled using electric fields (of course, enormous electrostatic fields). Supply it with sufficient mass to balance the mass lost in radiation, to keep it at the same distance from the bang (you will need to shoot the mass fast enough to overcome the hole's radiation pressure) and reflect unwanted wavelengths back to their source.

You now have a radiating point in space, that can power a radiation conversion rig and supply energy in the process, while consuming mass.

While you can increase the radiation flux by pushing the black hole closer to explosion, it would be better and more efficient to have several black holes in parallel (this also allows more time, in case anything goes wrong, to implement remediation measures or, at worst, effect an escape).

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  • $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_hole_starship arxiv.org/pdf/0908.1803.pdf $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2020 at 23:41
  • $\begingroup$ A 1 year lasting BH has a mass of 7200 metric tons and is 10^-19 in size. Helium is 1.4*10^-10. That makes this BH 9 magnitudes smaller than an atom while outputting immense pressure outwards in Hawking radiation. This begs the question of how you can feed it, even shooting single atoms in a stream straight at it might have limits. Paradoxically this BH might be almost impossible to feed and maintain. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    May 5, 2021 at 8:47
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Solar energy. From many stars. At once.

There are a billion trillion stars. That should be plenty. Solar panels are pretty hard science.

  1. Install solar panels around many stars. You could choose stars with optional radiant frequencies.

  2. Power is transmitted back thru portals or wormholes. Portals are science less hard than solar panels, yes but standard handwaving for SF.

  3. Confluence of portals transmits energy.

  4. Or (simpler!) you could just have the unfiltered radiance itself come thru the portals which would be less fussy as all the collection apparatus would be on your side where it would be easier to repair. Letting a distant star's radiation thru to where you live could get a little chancy, with odds of "mishap" increasing with every additional star added to collection.

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  • $\begingroup$ Probably the best we can do in real life. But: while megastructures around stars solves energy scarcity, some kind of technological solution is still required to have things like warp engines (WE). Stark Trek tells us that antimatter is all you need to have WE (they don't mention negative energy or how they mine/produce antimatter). Have a star as your power plant doesn't guarantee that your civ knows how to concentrate it to make the magic happens. At that point is when we throw in some fantasy at our Worldbuilding. $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2020 at 22:20
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    $\begingroup$ @HatoruHansou "they don't mention negative energy or how they mine/produce antimatter" IIRC, in Star Trek, they use "dilithium crystals" to convert ordinary matter into antimatter. $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Jan 2, 2020 at 2:47
  • $\begingroup$ @nick012000, thanks. I totally missed that one. $\endgroup$ Jan 2, 2020 at 5:42
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    $\begingroup$ For a well-fleshed-out example of this, check out Peter Hamilton's Salvation series! In that universe, portals are cheap and common. The energy needs of humanity are met by dropping portals into stars, and directing the flow of plasma into hollowed out asteroids filled with energy collectors. $\endgroup$
    – Josh Eller
    Jan 2, 2020 at 13:57
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    $\begingroup$ This isn't a new energy technology so much as it is an exercise in logistics challenges for mid-level deities. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Jan 9, 2020 at 20:12
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Nuclear Fusion is not enough.

Why not? It could be still nuclear fusion, but in a small practical device. A set of ultrasound speakers create dense bubbles in a gas or a liquid, a set of lasers ignite the bubbles. The timing and the orientations of speakers and lasers are so complex and delicate that the devices need to be re-tuned at regular intervals. The technology and the knowledge of the proper tuning is controlled to a small group of people who are thus very powerful.

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  • $\begingroup$ The maximum energy density of fusion fuel and power density of a practical fusion reactor is quite sharply limited by physics, which is presumably what the OP was thinking about. $\endgroup$ Jan 2, 2020 at 13:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Starfish Prime In this case an additional secret could be concentrating the energy created by many devices, something along the lines of the z machine, but with a huge number of reactors involved and a very difficult tuning. $\endgroup$
    – FluidCode
    Jan 2, 2020 at 13:56
  • $\begingroup$ Stringing together multiple devices can increase the total amount of power, but it can't increase the power density at all (and in fact will probably reduce it slightly). There are fundamental physical limits to the amount of oomph a fusion reactor of a given volume or mass can provide which you can't trivially sidestep $\endgroup$ Jan 2, 2020 at 14:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Starfish Prime If stringing together multiple devices is not supposed to increase the power density why are the trying to create nuclear fusion using the z machine? $\endgroup$
    – FluidCode
    Jan 2, 2020 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ Lets be careful to distinguish the power density of the region of the reactor that is undergoing fusion from the reactor as a whole (which is why my original comment specifically referred to a fusion reactor). The z-machine may develop high power densities at the business end of the system, but the whole ensemble is pretty large and hence the power density of the whole thing is low. $\endgroup$ Jan 2, 2020 at 14:40
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I also vote for a black hole. BUT NOT EVAPORATING IT. It is dangerous anyway.

Simply throwing matter into the acretion disk can convert some 40% of the mass into electromagnetic radiation. This is by far the most effective substance to energy converter known and the most bright objects in the universe (see quasars). It looks even brighter if you happen to look along the rotational axis (see polar jets).

(Except, of course, direct annihilation with antimatter, but antimatter sources are scarce these days.)

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  • $\begingroup$ I'd suggest putting a Dyson Sphere around the black hole (well outiside the event horizon, of course). To make it easier to capture that energy. Works as a correctional facility too. Get them bandits past the event horizon, problem solved. Because black holes destroy information!!! $\endgroup$ Jan 2, 2020 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Mindwin do they? I still think we can make cheaper correctional facilities. $\endgroup$
    – fraxinus
    Jan 3, 2020 at 10:23
  • $\begingroup$ that's not about cost, it is about certainty of oblivion. Once past the horizon, it's not coming back. $\endgroup$ Jan 3, 2020 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Mindwin costs aside, it is the weakest link that determines the security. A long and complex travel gives a lot of oportunities for the bandit to escape. For all practical purposes, hanging them just outside the court building and cremating them afterwards is way more secure than the space travel. And it is also faster. $\endgroup$
    – fraxinus
    Jan 3, 2020 at 16:53
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Related to the direction of black holes mentioned prior, "Vacuum Energy" would likely be the most plentiful but also most diffuse energy source. It's also one of current the Mysteries of the Universe so it will at least not rile up too many hard science purists

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vacuum_energy

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    $\begingroup$ This is basically ZPE, which the OP specifically discouraged. The problem with ZPE is that it's basically useless for doing work, or else empty space would be doing random work all the time, including the empty spaces inside your body. $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2020 at 23:35
  • $\begingroup$ @LawnmowerMan one thing about vacuum energy is that there are two largely differing numbers for how much energy VE contains. As a thought that works until we know for certain, imagine if both numbers are correct but quantum weirdness determines which one it is. Then you use a series of measurements to increase the chances that in area 1 the calculation ends up very low and in adjacent area 2 the calculation ends up with a high number, then you somehow extract energy from the quantum soup as it flows from high to low. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    May 5, 2021 at 9:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Demigan you're talking about Maxwell's Demon. All the energy you can extract with the demon will go towards paying the demon's operating costs and then some. $\endgroup$ May 5, 2021 at 18:47
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    $\begingroup$ @LawnmowerMan yes and no. Maxwells demon was for tracking and calculating particles in our universe and operating a gate to decrease entropy. In this case you don't track particles but pick two adjacent area's with an unknown vacuum energy content and "force" them into a high or low energy content, similar to how you can "force" a particle to behave as either a quantum probability wave or a real particle by measuring it or not measuring it (and a slew of "I measured it but I did/did not destroy the measurement before reading"). $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    May 5, 2021 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Demigan well, you can't force a particular state without expending energy. You are simply waving your hand claiming that you can extract more energy than you spend, which is ultimately the claim that Maxwell was making: that he could turn information into work at a profit. Good luck with that. If it could really work, you'd already have a free-energy device. $\endgroup$ May 6, 2021 at 3:29
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Antimatter (go with me on this)
Ok, I know you said you didn't want to see this, but let me explain. The biggest issue with antimatter is that it is incredibly difficult to create and contain. You end up putting more energy into the this process than you can get out of it. To get around this issue we just need a source that we don't have to create and is self contained until we extract it (which is where the unusual source bit you asked for comes in). (If, on the other hand, you don't want to use antimatter simply because its an overused trope, then my sincere apologies! Please feel free to skip the rest :)

According to the multi-verse theory, it is entirely possible that there exists a parallel universe, matching our own in all physical laws, but made up entirely of antimatter. (Possibly the most likely parallel universe to exist. Also explains where all of our antimatter went...) So, in the distant future, we discover a way to connect to this universe (via some kind of wormhole or something), pull bits of antimatter over, annihilate them with our own matter and boom, all the energy we could ever want. (Also potential catastrophic meltdown and universal annihilation, so be sure to put up some caution signs!)

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Pulsars emit intense radiation bursts from their poles as they spin. Build a containment unit with energy harvesters at both poles of the pulsar.

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Sphalerons: as the Wikipedia article on them has it:

According to physicist Max Tegmark, the theoretical energy efficiency from conversion of baryons to antileptons would be orders of magnitude higher than the energy efficiency of existing power-generation technology such as nuclear fusion. Tegmark speculates that an extremely advanced civilization might use a "sphalerizer" to generate energy from ordinary baryonic matter.

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