“Tea, Earl Gray, Hot” or the most energy ineffecient cuppa ever

This is crossposted from Chuck Adler’s new blog called Wizards, Aliens, and Starships where he will be posting about physics and math found in our favorite science fiction and fantasy tv shows, films, and books. Here, he reveals the most inefficient way to make a cup of tea.

Sometimes the best things in life are the simplest ones. Perhaps my favorite holiday gift ever was an electric kettle, a device whose only purpose in life is to boil water — but boil it efficiently, in a fraction of the time it would take for a kettle on the stove, and for a fraction of the energy, too. It’s simplicity itself — it has a coil which a current runs through. The coil gets hot, heats water in a chamber sitting above it, and voila! Boiling water. By my estimates, the electricity costs are about a tenth to a fifth of a cent for every cup of tea I brew.

The 23rd-century designers of the USS Enterprise seem to have lost this technology. To get a cup of tea, Captain Jean-Luc Picard stands next to a little box in his room, says “Tea, Earl Gray, hot”, and a cup of tea is beamed in. It seems to be an offshoot of transporter technology: you’re either beaming a cup made before from somewhere else, or assembling it whole from “pure energy” (whatever that means.) Either way, it seems to be a damn-fool way to make a cuppa.

E=mc squared, right? Each kilogram of matter takes 90,000 trillion joules of energy to create. The water in a cup of tea has a mass of about one-third of a kilo, so this is 30,000 trillion joules. But no technology is perfect: if the replicator is only 99.99% efficient, we are wasting 30 trillion joules into heat – enough to heat 100 million kilograms of water for tea… Just why are we doing it this way, again?

For more math and physics from Star Trek, Harry Potter, Dresden Files, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and more, check out Chuck’s new book: Wizards, Aliens, and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction