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Monday, April 27, 2009

Science In Fiction: Hardgoods Replicator

What: A hard-goods replicator

Who invented it: Gene Rodenberry may get credit, but it may have been in some texts before Star Trek introduced the idea.

What it does: (I had to look up the technical description)... For the Star Trek replicator:

When a request is made at a
replicator terminal, the wave-guide conduit system on the ship relays
a small amount of bulk material to the replicator, which uses it to
create the materials called for in the pattern. The object is then
beamed in at the terminal.
Quoted from HERE.

In other works the replicator is used to synthesize everything from food to clothing to weapons on a ship.

What Fiction is This In? This is increasingly a standard trope in science fiction. And for good reason. Most ships in fiction are traveling for anywhere from a few days (short haulers) to several years (exploratory missions) and carrying a supplies of food for each person would really cramp hold space.

One year supply of food for one person (click to enlarge) -->

What is the science behind this? The basic idea behind is a replicator is that waste material, or some bulk general feed material, is broken down to it's component atoms and then rebuilt into whatever you need.

In theory this isn't a bad idea. All things are made up of the same basic elements. The trouble is breaking apart those atoms and then reattaching them differently in a neat and easy way.
Do we have anything like this? You mean more complex than a recycling plant? Yes.

Currently the closest thing available on the market is 3D Printing. A 3D printer is fed a computer file pattern and then "prints" layers of the model in various materials. Resin powders, polymers, and plastics are all used at this point.

The limitations are pretty obvious. A 3D printer does not make food. You can't glue layers of protein together to make a burger. And it can't print a shirt. A string might be possible at some complex level, but a sewn garment would be tricky. You could probably get around it by making the clothing seamless, but then you have other complications because the forms currently printed are compact.

Check out the printing press HERE. And the Wiki article HERE for more details.

Will we ever get one? Probably not. At least, not the kind you find in Star Trek.

Breaking atoms apart is *REALLY* hard to do. Think Large Hadron Collider hard to do. To break the bonds between molecules (ignoring atoms altogether) you have to heat, freeze, or otherwise manipulate the bond in some horrific way. This takes an enormous amount of energy.

Getting molecules to then re-bond according to a set pattern... I'm not sure you could do that electronically.

So, if you want something that's going to mechanically make you a tasty dinner you need to find a way around those limitations. Or, for the sake of fiction, ignore chemistry and physics.

The Big Question: In your own writing how do you provide for the basics of life?

Do you have the characters buy food? Live on ration bars? Grow a garden? Or do you just skirt the whole topic and hope readers will never ask where the bathroom is?


  1. Good old homegrown food for me here. That is, when I let my characters eat. %-)

  2. These are always such fun posts, L! I love it! My characters live in the normal world (if you can consider it normal) and buy most of their food at the store. :)

    Congrats on your win over at Tess's blog!

  3. Mine mostly buy their own food.

    This post is just what I need for my current wip! I'm taking notes...