While dilithium crystals were popular during TOS, they moved out of the spotlight during the movies (with the exception of the fourth one when Leonard Nimoy put these aboard a Klingon Bird of Prey) but had a comeback during TNG and the subsequent series.
In the Star Trek universe 78 years had passed and dilithium crystals were again a crucial part of a ship’s warp power infrastructure, a component of the ship’s warp cores to be specific.
While undoubtedly essential to achieve warp power in TOS, too, the exact role of dilithium crystals in the chain of power distribution or infrastructure of the TOS Enterprise
remained somewhat inconclusive and everybody’s best guess.
I recommend to consider the words of mirror universe Charles Tucker III in “In A Mirror, Darkly” who felt like a “steamboat” mechanic trying to figure out the working principle of an “interplanetary spacecraft” when he examined the technology of the TOS USS Defiant
, interphased roughly a century back in time and into Star Trek’s mirror universe.
It’s fair to assume that technology evolves over an extended time period, thus the TOS Enterprise’s
use of dilithium crystals to power the warp drive may or should have been rather crude, complex and convoluted compared to the beautiful simplicity shown during the TNG era.
The TOS Enterprise’s most basic auxilary or reserve power supply came from “batteries”.
This was still the basic power supply of the Enterprise
in Star Trek II after all other power systems had failed. It remained inconclusive whether these batteries were only meant to provide energy to the basic ship’s systems or also a means of ignition “to start” a starship.
The TOS Writers Guide
specified: “In case of total failure of all engine power sources, the vessel’s gravitational and life-support systems can be switched to battery power, with a full-load capacity of about one week.” (note there are multiple engine power “sources” next to batteries, not just one!)
After the first three (di)lithium crystal “circuits” had gone in “Mudd’s Women” battery power was at least cut in to support the remaining fourth crystal (before this one ceased to function, too). Apparently battery power was sufficient to beam aboard Mudd’s Women and allow multiple transports (!) from and to the surface of Rigel 12.
Obviously, the transporter system works fine just with battery power (as it did in Star Trek II to beam down to the Genesis Cave after Khan had crippled the Enterprise
), provided you are in a low altitude orbit of only a few hundred miles or kilometers and not a few thousand.
Additionally, the “batteries” seemed to play some role to power the impulse engines:
Kirk: Position, fourteen hours out of Rigel 12. We're on auxiliary impulse engines. Fuel low, barely sufficient to achieve orbit over the planet. Lithium replacements are now imperative. … We're down to battery power, and we're low on that.
Scott: It'll get us to Rigel 12, sir, but it'll be a shaky orbit.
Apparently, “battery power” got them to Rigel 12. If the impulse engines were just ion rockets (i.e. you accelerate your exhaust particles by means of electricity) you’d need energy to accelerate the fuel and apparently there had been talk of “ion drive” during the initial preconception phase of Star Trek (to state you’ll need an exotic form of propulsion to achieve interstellar flight as “ion drive” wouldn’t do the job). Thus, battery power would play a role to keep you moving with a literal “ion drive”.
However, back in July 1969 the inhabitants of Omaha state would have witnessed the crash of a rather large UFO.
Ion drives need the vacuum of space to function in the first place, in an electrically charged atmosphere they’d cease to work and relying only on impulse ion drive the USS Enterprise
would most likely have crashed in “Tomorrow Is Yesterday” as the warp engines were inoperative (still amazing it didn’t that low in our atmosphere but that’s another story).
One of the biggest setbacks of ion drives in sci-fi scenarios is that they only provide little thrust and their acceleration effect builds up gradually over a long period of time. If there’s one thing no ion drive, real or theoretical, can give you, it’s instant boost.
In the first part of this treatise, I tried to show that nuclear fusion technology is in widespread use during the very beginning of TOS. Aboard a spaceship, nuclear fusion power would make sense to power the systems of a ship and to provide impulse thrust for sublight travel and/or maneuvering.
Assuming “battery power” were a 23rd Century colloquialism for (nuclear) fusion power Scotty’s remark would make a lot of sense. The nuclear fusion reactors to power the systems would rely on the same reactants or fuel as the nuclear fusion impulse propulsion engines (suggested in TNG for the Enterprise-D
Thus the Enterprise
in “Mudd’s Women” could have been running low both on fuel to power the essential systems and
to propel the ship at sublight speeds. Kirk was facing a dilemma not to dissimilar from the “tri-lemma” the Romulan commander faced in “Balance of Terror”.
Another strong hint for nuclear fusion impulse engines came from “Obsession” where Scotty tried to clean the impulse engines from radioactive residue, which “clean” ion drives do not produce.
Apparently, since the nuclear fusion fuel (tritium and deuterium) is the same stuff you may need as matter for the matter-antimatter annihilation, their supplies must have been close to exhaustion at the end of “Mudd’s Women”.
But thanks to the dilithium crystals enabling warp power, the warping of space probably enabled resupply of fresh matter (especially in a solar system) for both the nuclear fusion reactors and
the matter-antimatter reactors of the Enterprise
According to “The Alternative Factor” and Kirk, the dilithium crystals are “the very heart of the power of my ship.” And, oddly enough, “without full crystal power, our orbit will begin to decay in ten hours.”
You’d assume that if our International Space Station
can maintain a low inclination orbit with 20th Century technology that a starship of the 23rd Century would even have lesser problems – unless the Enterprise
had previously exhausted its fuel supplies (an untold story we’d like to hear?) and was in desperate need to “re-energize” (i.e. collect new fresh matter by warping space, something you apparently can’t do without dilithium?) or to use the dilithium crystals as sparking plugs to ignite the (off-line) fusion reactors.
But then it would appear odd, that the Enterprise’s
fusion reactors were off-line instead of stand-by, during “alert status at all battle stations”.
In “The Naked Time” the Enterprise
was orbiting a planet in the process of contraction and used warp power to compensate for the exotic gravity effect of Psi 2000. When they learned that Riley had switched off the warp engines they changed to impulse engines that had equally been switched off, until Scotty apparently managed put to these or the (unseen) RCS thrusters back to work but just enough to stabilize the deteriorating orbit and buy some time.
In “Court-Martial” they deliberately shut down the impulse engines for the session abord the Enterprise
, maintaining orbit by momentum with the hope of being done before their orbit decayed. As it turned out, Finney had sabotaged the “primary energy circuits” (necessary for impulse drive) but the transporter room was still usable. Eventually power “returned” so the “port impulse engines” could be “activated” (are those “primary energy circuits” the same as the “primary EPS relays” seen aboard the Defiant
in “In A Mirror, Darkly”?).
In “The Apple” the Enterprise
was caught in a tractor beam, pulling the ship towards the planet. Because the antimatter was rendered inert, warp power was not available but the impulse engines seemed to work just fine. There was power to the phasers, the transporter had been rendered inoperative.
And last but not least, the Excalbians converted the Enterprise
into a matter-antimatter time bomb in “The Savage Curtain”, the ship in orbit relied entirely on “emergency battery power only”.
Battery power is necessary for life support and artificial gravity (a concept that may have appeared to audiences of 1960’s to be even more exotic than warp drive). Battery power enables transporter beaming, albeit probably only in low inclination orbits. It does play some role in the use of the impulse engines (suggested my “Mudd’s Women”) and could be part of the “primary energy circuits” that are apparently necessary to (re)start the impulse engines.
In Star Trek II the Enterprise
would have been able to fire a few phaser shots at the Reliant
, after battery power would have charged the phaser banks.
In “The Doomsday-Machine” Scotty charged the phaser banks of the USS Constellation
without warp power and obviously did the same in “The Apple” for the Enterprise
However, “Elaan of Troyius” suggests that without warp power you have to make a choice between either using deflector shields or
phasers (talk about Scotty being an insubordinate brat at times, making decisions for the captain
In regard to TOS it remains inconclusive whether charging the phasers was (already then) possible through batteries or a different source of energy other than warp power.
The fact that “battery power” apparently played a role in the continous operation of the impulse engines in “Mudd’s Women” and that it enabled transport beam capability could suggest “batteries” just to be a colloquialism for nuclear fusion reactors.
However Star Trek II makes a clear distinction between “batteries” and “energizers”. Had these been one and the same thing “in-universe” why the distinction 15 years after the events of “Space Seed”?
Alternately, “batteries” and “energizers” might be the same thing (i.e. nuclear fusion reactors), but then there would be a noticable difference on how to draw energy from a “battery” opposite on how to draw energy from an “energizer” to justify such a distinction.
Obviously drawing energy from the “batteries” (to power the transporter room) does not require the use of dilithium crystals as evidenced in “Mudd’s Women”...
This hint could enable us to solve the riddle of those enigmatic “energizers”.
Continued in the next season of Bob Comsol's Treknological Treatises, stay tuned
Feel free to comment. Have I overlooked dialogue evidence? Are alternate conclusions feasible? Did I take a wrong turn somewhere?
This odd monologue of mine serves the purpose of writing down observations and attempt to draw correct and sensical conclusions from these observations. In my personal experience I've found it helpful to write down such observations and then look at
what's been written to form a theory.