Could black holes be the key to the future of our energy production? Some scientists think so. And the secret to harvesting their energy lies in gamma-ray bursts, the most powerful transient objects in the known universe. These bursts, which are thought to be the product of the formation of a black hole, are the strongest and brightest explosions in existence. In the few finite seconds that one of these bursts lasts, they can create as much energy as our solar system’s sun will produce during the entirety of its 10-billion-year lifespan.
“Their luminosity in the gamma-rays, in the time interval of the event, is as large as the luminosity of all the stars of the observable Universe!,” Italian astrophysicist Remo Ruffini of the International Center for Relativistic Astrophysics Network (ICRANet) explained. “Gamma-ray bursts have been thought to be powered, by an up-to-now unknown mechanism, by stellar-mass black holes.”
While the smallest of gamma bursts is almost unfathomably powerful, just recently, scientists detected the most powerful gamma-ray burst ever recorded. Known as GRB 190114C, this historically enormous flare created approximately a trillion electron volts (1 TeV), which scientists detected emanating from a mind-blowing 4.5 billion light-years away. A gamma-ray burst of this type is so powerful that it actually has the ability to warp space-time, sending ripples through the universe known as gravitational waves.
While there is still relatively little known about gamma-ray bursts and, indeed, black holes themselves, the scientific community is making leaps and bounds in studying these far-flung phenomena.
Some of the most recent, most cutting-edge studies in this realm involve the unbelievable amounts of energy generated by these events. Very excitingly, in theory, this energy can be harvested. The energy which is generated by a rotating black hole “can be extracted from the ergosphere, a region that sits just on the outside of the event horizon,” a recent article from Science Alert explains. The viability of this possibility has not only been demonstrated theoretically but also experimentally. Now, thanks to the revelation that is GRB 190114C, a group of scientists has made a compelling case that we now have observational evidence for it as well.
The scientific team, which includes the aforementioned Ruffini, published their findings in the scientific journal Astronomy & Astrophysics under the compelling title “The newborn black hole in GRB 191014C proves that it is alive.” The paper theorizes a mechanism capable of creating this kind of ultra-powerful gamma-burst, put in (almost) layman’s terms by Science Alert: “[The mechanism is based on] the acceleration of particles along magnetic field lines inherited from the black hole’s parent neutron star. That magnetic field extracts rotational energy from the black hole’s ergosphere.”
“The novel engine presented in the new publication,” Ruffini explained of he and his colleagues’ new publication, “makes the job through a purely general relativistic, gravito-electrodynamical process: a rotating black hole, interacting with a surrounding magnetic field, creates an electric field that accelerates ambient electrons to ultrahigh-energies leading to high-energy radiation and ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays.”
While this most recent finding is a breakthrough in the field, the interest in harvesting energy from black holes is anything but new. Earlier this year, another study from Columbia University indicated that energy could potentially be extracted from black holes through reconnection of magnetic field lines. One of the authors of that study, physicist Luca Comisso, has stated these kinds of findings suggest that black holes could be part of humanity’s energy landscape in the (very distant) future.
“Thousands or millions of years from now, humanity might be able to survive around a black hole without harnessing energy from stars,” Comisso was quoted by Columbia News. “It is essentially a technological problem. If we look at the physics, there is nothing that prevents it.”