The world imagined in "Star Trek" has its share of sensational technologies, including warp drives, transporters, universal translators, phasers and holodecks. Perhaps the most improbable technology of them all, however, is the replicator, a device capable of instantly materializing almost any object imaginable with the simple push of a button (or, as is often the case, via voice command).
Imagine being able to generate a perfectly cooked steak and lobster dinner on a whim — without having to first track down an actual lobster or steer. Or imagine if you suddenly desired a new phone, or television, or chair, or anything else you can dream up, and you could produce one instantly, seemingly out of thin air. Needless to say, this technology would be about as close to magic as it gets. It would be a miracle machine.
Well, believe it or not, a team of scientists at the University of California, Berkeley have done it. They created a 3D printer that uses light and synthetic resin to replicate objects.
First, the printer scans a real object from different angles. Then, the printer projects that image into the tube of resin, which transforms into the object. The team was able to recreate a miniature version of Rodin's famous "The Thinker" statue.
While this invention is definitely groundbreaking, it can only create small objects using this specific resin.
How is it even possible?
This makes replicator technology possible for the following reason: It all comes down to Einstein's famous equation, perhaps the most famous equation in the history of physics: E=mc2.
This equation essentially tells us that matter is just another form of energy, and that mass and energy can be converted from one to the other. This makes replicator technology at least conceivable for the following reason: It means that any material object could both be broken down into pure energy or created out of pure energy.
The idea of being able to materialize any object "out of thin air," as the metaphor suggests, is a bit tougher to wrap one's mind around. First, understand that quantum mechanics tells us that there is not really such a thing as empty space. Even in a vacuum, ultra-tiny particles can be found constantly coming into existence for extremely short periods of time. Although these particles are quickly annihilated when they collide with a corresponding anti-particle made from antimatter, they nevertheless exist ... and in the moment when they do exist they seemingly emerge "out of thin air."
What about a high-powered laser?
While the team at Berkeley has discovered a way to replicate objects using light and resin, another team of scientists in Europe have been working for years on using intense lasers to replicate items, reported The Conversation.
Imagine if you had a super-intense laser (which shot pure electromagnetic energy) that was strong enough to rip these tiny particles away from their anti-particles so that they didn't collide. If they don't collide, then they won't get annihilated. So in other words, such a laser would make it possible to end up with real particles with mass just by shooting your laser (pure energy) into a void region of space.
And it just so happens that such a laser is in the works. A major European project is now building the most powerful laser ever generated, known as the Extreme Light Infrastructure, or ELI. This laser will be able to provide beams with a power of 10 PW (or 10 quadrillion watts), which is orders of magnitude (10 times, to be exact) more powerful than any existing laser facilities. Construction began in 2013 but has since been postponed indefinitely until out laser centers that are also part of the project are complete.
If and when ELI is complete, it should be strong enough to produce particles out of a vacuum. While generating a handful of particles is a long way from generating a convincing steak and lobster dinner, the technology at least makes "Star Trek"-like replicators conceivable as a real-life possibility. They can no longer be dismissed merely as a convenient fiction for sci-fi writers. That's kind of exciting, if not downright mind-bending.
As preeminent science-fiction writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke once famously said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Should practical replicators ever be invented, there might be no other technology that better justifies such a claim.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in July 2015.