In the illustrated Handbook (based on the official Star Trek Fact Files 1997 - 2002) I read: "Following the model established by Zefram Cochrane, Federation vessels' warp engines accomplish the transition into subspace by using a matter-antimatter reaction to generate a series of warp fields that exert force against one another." It goes on to state just how this works: "In the simplest terms, the warp core works by burning deuterium to create gases, which are then forced together with antimatter in the form of antihydrogen. The reaction is controlled by dilithium crystals to create a plasma stream that is split in two and routed to the warp nacelles. In the nacelles, the plasma is used to energize the warp field coils, made of verterium cortenide."

From numerous episodes we learn that naturally occurring dilithium is extremely rare and is mined on only a few planets, such as Coridan, Troyius and Rura Penthe. So I wonder, how did Cochrane obtain dilithium to make the first warp flight? Or, what can we speculate is the most probable alternative mechanism that could still make the first warp drive function, lacking dilithium? By the same token, based on the description given above, I can ask the same question about the crystals verterium and cortenide. I guess the latter materials are somewhat less essential, but they appear also not too readily available, cf. e.g. ST VOY s 2, ep 20.

Of course, I want to exclude the very paradoxical explanation that he obtained the material(s) from the Enterprise in First Contact.

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    If it follows the same patterns as real materials, "verterium cortenide" would probably be a single compound, not two different crystals.
    – David Z
    Jun 30, 2020 at 7:50
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    Note that there's nothing in the lore that requires the use of a dilithium regulated matter-antimatter annihilation reaction to power a warp drive, and there's concrete evidence that there are other ways to do it (the Romulans use some sort of singularity-based power plant for theirs for example). The fact that it's the only widely used approach just indicates that it's the best option from an engineering perspective (though that's questionable in it's own right for other reasons). Jun 30, 2020 at 12:57
  • Also, as David Z speculated, verterium cortenide is a "usually synthetically generated compound, the only known substance to be capable of generating warp fields, when supplied with energy, in form of plasma, from the warp core. Warp coils are made of this material," according to Wikipedia. Jun 30, 2020 at 15:26
  • Also related: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/1920/… Jun 30, 2020 at 15:31
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    TIL Warp engines are steam-powered (since the "gas" produced by burning deuterium would be heavy water).
    – chepner
    Jul 1, 2020 at 12:55

3 Answers 3


Cochrane didn't need dilithium to use as the power source for his warp experiment. He used a 'nuclear power core' to create the energy required.

The nuclear core in the missile: it was the same fuel his theoretical warp engine required, was it not? Why not beat that damned sword into a plowshare and use the bomb to make an actual ship that he could test?

... [later]

He spoke swiftly, happily, of how the nuclear core contained in an old warhead could be harnessed for something he called a “warp engine,” and he traced in the dirt some mathematical equations to prove it.

First Contact - Official Novelisation

Admittedly the Enterprise may have helped him with some modern/replicated tech to replace the bits were damaged in the Borg's raid, but that doesn't create a bootstrap paradox because Cochrane already had the means to go to warp before they intervened. Their intervention allowed a pre-existing event to take place.

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    @Harper: I'm not entirely familiar with this part of Star Trek's history, but based on their reaction to seeing the Borg ("It's the ECON!"), I'm somewhat skeptical that they had a fully functional government at this point.
    – Kevin
    Jun 30, 2020 at 15:39
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    @Harper-ReinstateMonica - There's probably enough nuclear materials to create a crude nuclear bomb at 100 universities around the world.
    – Valorum
    Jun 30, 2020 at 15:39
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    @Harper-ReinstateMonica at the time Cochrane was working on his warp drive, World War III had just ended and there weren't a lot of governments left. No one "let" him have anything, there was just no one to stop him, and plenty of surplus nukes lying around.
    – Seth R
    Jun 30, 2020 at 18:16
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    @AsteroidsWithWings - it doesn't appear to be a bootstrap paradox. We know that Cochrane was able to create a warp-capable spaceship. The Borg's temproral incursion changed the timeline and the Enterprise's incursion seems to have (largely) changed it back again
    – Valorum
    Jun 30, 2020 at 18:22
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    @AsteroidsWithWings The expert doesn't make the claim - a non-expert does, and the expert then makes (and then laughs at) a quick quip/joke. The timestamp is about 26:30 into VOY: Relativity. We know that the Timeline can be permanently changed (allowing for the possibility of the original Phoenix flight to have occurred without Borg presence), as shown in TNG: Time Squared. Essentially, you can then have a non-bootstrapped lead-in to what later becomes a temporal loop, like launching a particle into a synchrotron with a linear accelerator, and then keeping it looping. Jun 30, 2020 at 23:08

It may be worth noting that Lithium crystals were what was said in dialog in the first episodes of Star Trek "Where No Man has Gone Before" for example. It was later that it was turned into science fiction with fictional Dilithium.

And further one only needs dilithium if you are heating the warp plasma with an antimatter reaction. If the plasma can get up to temperature with a more conventional fuel like fusion - the warp coils do not care. As is often pointed out - TNG era Romulan ships use a microblack hole to heat the plasma. And TOS Romulan ships apparently used impulse to power the warp drive (and they clearly do have warp capability).

So one is forced to conclude that primitive warp coils and primitive warp plasma work at whatever energy and technology was there - which is not established at all in First Contact. TNG era warp plasma and coils have no doubt been optimized for what their technology is capable of powering - so we should not make the hurdle higher than necessary for the ship in First Contact.

Regardless "First Contact" does not make much sense from a design perspective. For example the Warp nacelles don't really need Bussard hydrogen collectors for a 1 minute trip.

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    This is what I thought too. Dilithium is not a requirement per se for a warp drive, only a prevailing or preferred fuel by the mid-Kirk era. It's like in our own world - most cars run on gasoline or diesel but it's possible to make a car that runs on ethanol, kerosene, jet fuel, bunker oil, or pretty much anything that can burn. Just because very few people today own a car that runs on jet fuel does not mean that a team or society with access to only jet fuel couldn't build a car. It might be more expensive, or even much more expensive, but not impossible. Jul 1, 2020 at 15:46

Dilithium Crystals are used to regulate mater/anti-matter reaction onboard starships. However, in First Contact, there is no direct evidence that the Phoenix used them... but it DID have a matter-antimatter power generation:


At one point during the writing of First Contact, the writers of the film considered what might power the matter-antimatter reaction chamber aboard the Phoenix, in lieu of dilithium crystals. Co-writer Ronald D. Moore later recalled, "We had talked about it being from something modified from the thermonuclear warhead – that somehow setting off the fission reaction was what kicked it off." (Star Trek Monthly issue 45, p. 46)

So, its very likely that Dilithium Crystals weren't used until a later time (during the 50 years Humanity and Earth were busy recovering from Third World war, eradicating poverty, disease, etc. - at least according to Councilor Troi from First Contact movie).

The first 50 years, Earth was primarily focused on self-repair and recovery (humanity growing out of its infancy), but evidently it wasn't focused on solely that as development of the Warp program was proceeding at a regular pace too during that period, but it seemed to have picked up more speed in the next 40 years (eventually leading to the launch of the NX-01), and its possible that Humanity started using Dilithium when they broke Warp 2 barrier, or prior to that.

So, I'd say that whatever test ships Humanity used to reach immediately beyond Warp 1, they realized they would need a substance to help control M/AM reactions for sustained flights (Cochranes' Warp flight was fairly brief and it wouldn't necessarily require Dilithium crystals... but if you wanted to use Warp drive for sustained exploration, you'd definitely need a better/efficient way to regulate M/AM reactions).

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