By Irina Slav
Gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful, brightest explosions in the universe. They last only seconds but release immense amounts of energy—as much, in fact, as the sun will emit throughout its existence. According to scientists, there may be a way to imitate the process that leads to this explosion in what could be an energy industry game-changer. Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are believed to occur when a black hole is formed. The first was observed in 1967, but it was only in 1991 that the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory with the Burst and Transient Source Experiment (BATSE) was launched. BATSE has been discovering roughly one gamma-ray burst daily. Now, the most powerful gamma-ray burst may have given scientists the key to replicating it.
GRB 190114C, Science Alert writes, came from 4.5 billion light-years away and generated energy of some trillion electron volts. You don’t need to be versed in electricity measures to grasp the magnitude of the burst: if it’s got a trillion of anything in it, it’s bound to be powerful.
Earlier this year, scientists from Columbia University and Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez in Chile reported that they had discovered a way to harvest energy from black holes by separating and rejoining magnetic lines along the event horizon—the so-called point of no return where black holes suck in everything and not even light can return.
This disconnection and reconnection process, the researchers said, could accelerate plasma particles around the black hole to negative energy. This, in turn, would generate massive amounts of energy that could be extracted.
Now, a team from the International Center for Relativistic Astrophysics Network (ICRANet), an organization headquartered in Italy, says it had uncovered the mechanism that leads to gamma-ray bursts.
They’re calling it a binary-driven hypernova, which is a system of two stars, one carbon-oxygen star and a neutron star. The carbon-oxygen star is nearing the end of its life, and when it becomes a supernova, which is how stars die, it ejects material that the neutron star absorbs, which causes it to pass the critical mass point and turn into a black hole. The process of this happening causes gamma-ray bursts.
That’s the theory, but the team, led by Rahim Moradi, has also described how the process can be replicated. This comes down to particle acceleration along magnetic lines, which extracts rotational energy from the black hole’s ergosphere: a region where the space-time continuum is rotating so fast that every object spins in the same direction as the black hole.
“The novel engine presented in the 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,” explains one of the authors of the research, Remo Ruffini, as quoted by Science Alert.
It probably sounds far-fetched and too theoretical to have any practical implications. Yet black holes have captured the imagination of scientists ever since their existence was only theorized. Then they were proven to exist. Some half a century ago, a British mathematical physicist, Roger Penrose, described a future where humans or aliens would be able to harvest the energy of a black hole by dropping an object in its ergosphere and accelerating it to negative energy. Last year, scientists from the University of Glasgow devised a proof-of-concept for the process.
In other words, what seemed like a fantasy decades ago turned out to be an actual phenomenon and what sounded an impossible way to use this phenomenon to extract energy fifty years ago is hypothetically possible now. Perhaps replicating a gamma-ray burst may become possible too.