Roman Candle “Drive”

A bunch of people were discussing variations of the Alcubierre drive on the SF writers group on LinkedIn. While “warp” drives aren’t mathematically impossible (as far as anyone can tell), they do require something called negative energy, which is currently only known to exist in cases like the Casimir effect, which isn’t particularly useful from an engineering standpoint.

My contribution to the discussion was an oddball variant of the Alcubierre drive that looks like it would be a lot of fun to write about. I put together the following snippet to give you the flavor:

Warp drive gave us the solar system, but not the stars.

Ah yes, our beautiful, kludgy, ephemeral roman candle spaceships. Light up a puny chemical rocket for your delta vee. Discharge your great banks of ceramic capacitors to ionize plasma. Cloak it around your ship with magnets to make imaginary waveguides spawning negative energy in abundance.

In an instant, the grand old Alcubierre effect takes charge, curving the very universe around you. Away you go, as close to old man cee as a split hair, spitting electrical sparks in all directions, flaring incandescently in purple and magenta and white like an aurora on amphetamines – until your magical plasma dissipates or is knocked askew.

Then repeat, if you are still alive.

Just remember: coast into the Jovians with their vast magnetic field, and do not pass too close to other ships unless you are both certain that you do not have opposite electrical charge.


Just a quick description of the above: a number of years ago I coined the term “second order metamaterial” (or “meta-squared material”) to describe a situation where a metamaterial is used to simulate another metamaterial. You can read the original article here.

For this fictional warp drive, I assumed that we could use meta-squared materials to create negative energy in the right shape (envelope) around a spacecraft.

Some fun fictional limitations come into being as a result:

  • The ship is surrounded by very hot plasma, shaped into specific form by electrical fields. The plasma can easily be pushed out of shape by space dust, particles from the ship’s chemical rockets, or magnetic fields (i.e. the Earth’s Van Allen belts, or Jupiter’s intense magnetic field).
  • As a result, the ship also builds up a massive static electrical charge, which can result in it going “zap” if it comes too close to something with the opposite charge. This doesn’t mix well with the chemical rockets that actually provide the motive force.
  • So no traveling close to planets, and only lunatics would engage in space piracy!
  • Travel would consist of brief bursts of immense speed, followed by hours of cleaning up the resulting mess, recharging capacitors (or replacing burned out ones), and regenerating the plasma envelope.
  • When in motion, the ship would be surrounded by something like this or this.
  • The engine room would look something like Doctor Frankinstein’s lab. People working in it would probably prefer to be sitting inside of a faraday cage.

Fun stuff, eh?

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