In the Star Trek 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
    Commented 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). Commented 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. Commented Jun 30, 2020 at 15:26
  • Also related: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/1920/… Commented 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
    Commented Jul 1, 2020 at 12:55

6 Answers 6


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
    Commented 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
    Commented 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
    Commented 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
    Commented 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. Commented 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. Commented Jul 1, 2020 at 15:46

After reading various older Star Trek Books including The Final Reflection dilithium is not the fuel source, but a focusing lens. Starships could travel up to Warp 4 without the dilithium crystals. A mining accident confirmed the focusing feature of the crystals on matter/anti-matter process, thus allowing faster Warp speeds up to Warp 7 and beyond.

  • The Final Reflection by John M Ford
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    So how does that tie in to the actual question asked: "How did Cochrane obtain dilithium for the first warp flight?" Also, your answer would benefit from a direct quote from The Final Reflection. Commented Feb 7 at 6:53
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    @LogicDictates - is the tie-in not simply that "he didn't need to" ?
    – komodosp
    Commented Feb 7 at 11:32
  • @komodosp - It could very well be -- if I had to guess, I'd say that is what this answer is hinting at -- but I don't think we should be required to guess what the answer's position is on that crucial point. Moreover, even if it did clearly state that Cochrane didn't need dilithium to achieve warp flight, it wouldn't be a complete answer in my eyes without explaining what he used instead, with relevant evidence. Commented Feb 7 at 12:14

Dilithium crystals are used to regulate matter/antimatter reactions aboard starships. However, in First Contact, there is no direct evidence that the Phoenix used them... but it DID involve 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, it's very likely that dilithium crystals weren't used until a later time (during the 50 years humanity was busy recovering from the Third World War, eradicating poverty, disease, etc. - at least according to Counselor Troi from the First Contact movie).

During the first 50 years, humanity was primarily focused on self-repair and recovery (growing out of its infancy). Evidently, it wasn't focused solely on 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 it's possible that humanity started using dilithium when they broke the warp two barrier, or prior to that.

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


He didn't use dilithium because he didn't need it. Dilithium isn't a power source. Dilithium is used to regulate a matter/anti-matter reaction. The actual fuel source in Star Trek is the energy created by a matter/anti-matter reaction between deuterium and anti-deuterium. The dilithium regulates that reaction. Zefram Cochrane's warp ship used a nuclear reactor from the warhead of the missile that was repurposed. The power source was nuclear not matter/anti-matter.

  • The part of your answer that's most directly relevant to the question -- that fact that Cochrane didn't use dilithium, and relied on nuclear power instead -- was already made in Valorum's answer, and thus didn't really need to be made again, especially without the addition of any new evidence to further reinforce that point. Commented Sep 19, 2023 at 3:33
  • He didn't use dilithium INSTEAD OF nuclear power. That would imply that dilithium is used as a power source. It isn't. That was a key point of my answer. Valorum's comment said nuclear power was used to create the "energy required" instead of dilithium "as the power source". Dilithium is not a power source.
    – James
    Commented Sep 19, 2023 at 5:21
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    If your intention was to correct a perceived flaw in Valorum's answer, then it would've made more sense to post this as a comment beneath that answer, rather than as a separate answer in itself. Commented Sep 19, 2023 at 6:02
  • Because my answer stands on its own as an answer to the original question without really directly relating to the error in someone else's answer. I commented on Valorum's answer as well to directly point out the mistake.
    – James
    Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 7:07
  • I'd have an easier time buying that this isn't a further attempt to comment on Valorum's answer if you didn't spend half of it emphasising that dilithium isn't a power source, and that it's merely used to regulate a matter/antimatter reaction. The question never suggested otherwise. On the contrary, it quotes Memory Alpha's explanation of what dilithium is used for, which is consistent with your explanation. Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 22:24

If warp drive was possible without dilithium crystals then Starfleet would have never went all in on dilithium warp drive. The fact of the matter is, warp drive requires dilithium in order to produce the warp field by mixing matter and anti matter in a safe manner. The conventional technology of mixing the two in a magnetic confinement resulted in a large explosion hence it was required by Starfleet to use dilithium crystals. The Romulan singluarity drive required a large containment vessel, hence the typcial warbird is three times the size of a Galaxy class starship. The signularity drive containment can fit an entire starship in it! The power produced by the warbird can never exceed that of the Galaxy class. So as to how Cochrane did his warp experiment is still up for debate. How was he able to generate that much plasma to generate a warp field is anyone's guess.

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    There are many ways to achieve warp. The Federation presumably likes dilithium matter/anti-matter as a power source for a range of reasons, not least that they have a ready supply in their back yard. Other races might not be as lucky
    – Valorum
    Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 21:35
  • As it’s currently written, your answer is unclear. Please edit to add additional details that will help others understand how this addresses the question asked. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 21:49
  • This is incorrect. It has been stated that dilithium doesn't exist on earth so they couldn't have used dilithium. They didn't need dilithium. Dilithium controls the matter/anti-matter reaction and they didn't use a matter/anti-matter reactor. They used a nuclear fusion reactor.
    – James
    Commented Dec 8, 2023 at 23:43

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