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These scientists have a wildly futuristic plan to harvest energy from black holes

Could black holes be harvested to provide power for future off-planet colonies? It sounds — and, in some ways, certainly is — pretty far-fetched. But, according to researchers from Columbia University and Chile’s Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, it’s also possible. At least, theoretically.

“Imagine two parts of charged matter around a rotating black hole,” Felipe Asenjo, Professor of Physics at the Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, told Digital Trends. “If they are in the right place, and they are pushed apart at a speed that is close to the speed of light, then one part will fall into the black hole, while the other one will gain energy escaping from it.”

The idea, in essence, is to extract energy from black holes by gathering charged plasma particles as they try to escape from the event horizon, the threshold surrounding a black hole at which escape velocity is greater than the speed of light. To put it in even broader terms: The researchers believe that it would be possible to obtain energy directly from the curvature of spacetime. (And you thought that your new solar panels were exciting!)

“For natural practical uses, we can think that this process drives the very high-energy phenomena observed around black [holes],” Asenjo continued. “But for artificial practical uses, one can think the huge black hole [could be] a source of almost unlimited energy. If we recreate the separation of the two parts of charged matter, we are able to obtain [this] energy.”

So far, so theoretical

Luca Comisso, research scientist at Columbia University, noted that, so far, this is all very theoretical. “We worked out the math by using the theoretical frameworks of general relativity and plasma physics,” Comisso told Digital Trends. “Essentially, we figured out that the reconnection of magnetic field lines close to the event horizon of the black hole could extract black hole energy. Indeed, in these conditions, reconnection can produce negative energy particles, which extract energy from the black hole when they fall into the event horizon.”

To prove the robustness of this energy extraction system, the researchers next plan to carry out numerical simulations using supercomputers. Asenjo noted that the modeled system is so complex that it will require enormous computational capabilities to study it in a complete way. Fortunately, such technology exists.

What doesn’t yet exist are some of the other tools the hypothetical advanced civilization that might require this will hopefully one day develop. In other words, don’t expect this to be demonstrated for real any time soon. However, Comisso warned not to write it off as impossible.

“Of course this poses technological challenges, but as the history of humankind [teaches] us, what is impossible today might be possible tomorrow,” he said. “So I’m rather optimistic about that.”

A paper describing the work was published in the journal Nature Physics.

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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