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It's official - we are set to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Experts are building a factory to produce antimatter - the fuel that drives the fictional Starship Enterprise.

Scientists who grew up on a diet of Star Trek technology are now dedicating their lives to making the dream come true.

Antimatter was first captured by Swiss investigators more than ten years ago. But the huge machine involved in the breakthrough used so much electricity it blacked out Geneva.

But now teething problems have been overcome - and researchers are moving into Warp Drive.

Already, Doctor "Bones" McCoy's magical Tricorder device is on the horizon, helping brain tumour victims with non-invasive treatment. And the phenomenal Transporter Beam is also being worked out on the drawing board of the 21st century.

Now the quest to harness enough antimatter to drive a starship has begun in earnest.

Antimatter is a favourite of science fiction writers, and featured in the cult TV series Star Trek as the power source of the Enterprise, crewed by Captain Kirk, Mr Spock, Scotty and Doc McCoy.

It is the opposite of matter, having an opposite electric charge. When matter and antimatter meet, they annihilate each other in an enormous flash of energy.

Scientists at CERN in Geneva, who are pioneering research into fundamental physics, are designing the world's first antimatter factory. Known as the Anti-proton Decelerator, or AD, it will make atoms of anti- hydrogen at a rate of more than 2000 an hour.

Billions would be needed to drive a starship engine, which hasn't even been designed yet.

That's good news for self-styled flying saucer inventor David Burns from Menstrie, who has drawn up plans for a 1000- ft spacecraft capable of taking 2000 passengers from Edinburgh to Los Angeles in minutes.

His design hinges on being able to tap into the earth's electromagnetic energy - but no engine has yet been invented which is capable of doing this.

Last night he said: "There needs to be more research. All it takes is money, brains and will-power. It will go at a terrific speed close to the speed of light, using electromagnetism and a plasma engine. There is nothing on Earth that would touch it - if we could only build it."

Professor Frank Close of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire said science had a long way to go before coming close to a real Starship Enterprise.

He added: "An astro cruiser would need over a billion billion billion anti particles. But it took only a hundred years for X-rays to bring us to genetic engineering. If there is to be an antimatter industry some day, this is where it begins."

The worlds of science fiction and science fact are colliding more often. Dr David Ireland, a nuclear physicist at Glasgow Uni- versity, said people are actually working on a version of Star Trek's amazing Transporter Beams.

"Using some fairly abstract ideas of quantum mechanics, you can possibly transmit signals at greater than the speed of light and possibly reassemble something out of nothing.

"There is a theoretical possibility for that. But it is so unlikely it will almost certainly never happen. Who would be the first to try it?"

Then again, the technology behind Doc McCoy's magic-box Tricorder is already in use - though the equipment takes up a whole room at present.

The next generation Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopes (MRS) - enhanced versions of the current Magnetic Resonance Imagers - will be able to spot cancers throughout the body.

With no anaesthetic or invasive surgery, which carries a one per cent threat to the life of the patient, doctors using the MRS will be able to examine tumours inside the body.

But it will take a quantum leap of technology to transform today's bulky equipment into tomorrow's space-age hand-held device.

At present, the MRS, like MRI equipment, fills an entire room. The scanner uses a powerful magnet with a bore of one metre and weighing eight tons. Its power of 1.5 teslars produces a magnetic field measuring 30,000 times the power of the Earth's magnetic field to pinpoint every chemical in the human body.

Professor John Griffiths, of St George's Hospital Medical School in London, says that although the equipment costs millions of pounds to build, actually using it costs just a fraction of the amount spent on traditional surgical methods.

Primarily, it is being used to identify deadly brain tumours, which is good news for the 180 men and 150 women who develop them in Scotland every year.

Last year, 151 men and 120 women died from this cancer - and it is an illness which often affects young people. It accounts for 26 per cent of all cancers suffered by females under 15.

But soon, instead of a lengthy wait for patients eager to have their problem identified and dealt with, the MRS scan will be able to offer instant results.
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Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:McLean, Jim
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Sep 11, 1998
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