Hole Shebang

Physicists Outline Plan to Harvest Energy From Black Holes

Columbia University scientists say that in the future, a black hole could power an entire off-Earth civilization.

Jan 13 by Victor Tangermann
University of Virginia
Image by University of Virginia

Powering future human civilizations in deep space will be no easy feat.

But thanks to new research, there might be a highly efficient way to harness the highly energetic particles emanating from black holes to help human colonists keep the lights on.

According to a new study by researchers from Columbia University and Universidad Adolfo Ibanez in Chile, we could theoretically extract energy from black holes by harvesting charged plasma particles escaping from the event horizon, the boundary beyond which no light can escape.

“Black holes are commonly surrounded by a hot ‘soup’ of plasma particles that carry a magnetic field,” Luca Comisso, research scientist at Columbia University and first author on the study, explained in a statement.

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“Our theory shows that when magnetic field lines disconnect and reconnect, in just the right way, they can accelerate plasma particles to negative energies and large amounts of black hole energy can be extracted,” he added.

In an off-Earth civilization in the distant future, this could serve as an invaluable source of energy when setting up an off-Earth civilization, according to to Comisso.

It’s not the first time researchers have suggested generating power from a black hole. A recent paper published in June in the journal Nature Physics suggested that we could dip an object into the black hole’s event horizon, charging it with negative energy. By cutting it loose, we could harvest the resulting energy in the form of recoil.

Comisso and his team’s theory doesn’t stray too far from that idea. It builds on the fact that plasma particles would be propelled in two different directions, going both against and with the spin of a black hole. Depending on the polarity of this plasma being shot against the black hole’s spin, basically, they believe we could harvest it as a source of energy.

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Black holes lose energy by accreting negatively charged particles. In other words, “it is like a person could lose weight by eating candy with negative calories,” Comisso said. “This might sound weird, but it can happen in a region called the ergosphere, where the spacetime continuum rotates so fast that every object spins in the same direction as the black hole.”

In this region, magnetic field lines break and reconnect repeatedly at such extreme rates, plasma particles are shot out at almost the speed of light. And that’s the process the researchers want to take advantage of to extract massive amounts of energy.

“We calculated that the process of plasma energization can reach an efficiency of 150 percent, much higher than any power plant operating on Earth,” Felipe Asenjo, professor of physics at the Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez and co-author, said in the statement.

“Achieving an efficiency greater than 100 percent is possible because black holes leak energy,” he explained, “which is given away for free to the plasma escaping from the black hole.”

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READ MORE: Could we harness energy from black holes? [Columbia University]

More on black holes and energy: You Could Generate Power by Dangling Crap Into a Black Hole


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