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According to Memory Alpha, Romulans do not use dilithium for their propulsion but artificial quantum singularities.

In the 24th century, an artificial quantum singularity served as the primary power source for large Romulan spacecraft, such as the D'deridex-class Warbird. Once activated, the singularity core could not be shut down. (TNG: "Face of the Enemy", "Timescape"; DS9: "Visionary")

From the Memory Alpha article on Romulan technology

They therefore should not have been affected by The Burn, would've retained their full fleet and full warp capabilities and they could've easily taken over some sectors. However, there has been no mentioning of this. Is there any explanation I've missed why Romulans are not the predominant military power in the 31st century?

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    While I think it's a good question, I think it comes under future works seeing as the series is still in progress. It might be explained later, with anything from Romulans no longer exist (Re:Nemisis) to the Burn also affecting quantum singularities.
    – Jontia
    Nov 10, 2020 at 11:20
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    @Jontia Maybe it might be possible to be answered later, maybe I've missed something. Just keep wondering what's up with them and this is the best place to ask.
    – Shade
    Nov 10, 2020 at 12:23
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    @Shade: This episode is brand new, and this is like 800 years after any notable information from previous works. Can you even speculate about what countries will exist on Earth (IRL) in 800 years?? It's the same thing. We don't know, but it's likely we will learn in future works. Therefore, it's a future works question. Nov 10, 2020 at 16:30
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    @Shade: EU is all over the place for Star Trek, and even if it existed, it would almost certainly be ignored by ST:D. And we have every reason to believe that this will come up within the series. If there's good reason to believe that something will come up in future works, the future works policy kicks in. Your entire question essentially asks for speculation. You are literally asking for an explanation of ST:D while there's still ST:D episodes to be released. Nov 10, 2020 at 17:41
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    @SpacePhoenix the burn appears to have caused dilithium to explode, rather than destroying subspace. More details seem likely to come up as the series progresses, but sub-space has not been destroyed.
    – Jontia
    Nov 10, 2020 at 21:54

2 Answers 2

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This answer tries to establish that Dilithium was part of the Romulan propulsion drive, too. Even if it weren't, it seems that the Romulan society as we know it no longer exists at that time - but that's out of scope for this answer.

The singularity is the power source, but Dilithium is a controlling agent

Now this is a bit fuzzy, since in a few episodes, it is stated that ships "run on" dilithium - but it seems that ships need antimatter as fuel, and dilithium to control the reaction.

And in case of the romulans, it's the power source that has been changed, it stands to reason that dilithium plays the same or a similar role in their propulsion systems.

Dilithium is not the power source, but a controlling agent

This is a bit fuzzy since it has been stated a few times that ships "run on" dilithium. But more specifically, ships need dilithium to run, but not as the power source itself.

It seems that in case of a warp drive, you need a stable dilithium matrix and some antimatter, which is the actual fuel. This is confirmed a few times throughout TNG:

LAFORGE: This is my gift to the Victory's Captain Zimbata.
DATA: Most unusual.
LAFORGE: I served with him an ensign. Sure wish he'd been in command of this Victory. Wind and sail, that's the proper way to move a ship.
DATA: But, Geordi, your Starfleet specialty is antimatter power, dilithium regulators
LAFORGE: That's exactly why this fascinates me, Data.

(TNG: Elementary, Dear Data)

More specifically, Dilithium seems to help "aligning" the matter/antimatter flow:

WESLEY: Him Mom. You're back early.
CRUSHER: Yes.
(She looks at the computer monitor he's studying)
WESLEY: Physical sciences class. We're studying Doctor Channing's theory on dilithium crystals.
CRUSHER: Tell me about it.
WESLEY: Really? You never seemed that interested in warp theory before. Doctor Channing thinks it's possible to force dilithium into even more useful crystals. If as shown here, matter and antimatter could be aligned even more efficiently.

(TNG: Lonely Among Us)

It's stated outright that Dilithium is not fueling the drive in one episode of TNG:

RIKER [OC]: Now, what are the possibilities of warp drive?
LAFORGE: Not good. There are only a few dilithium fragments left in the holding clamps. Even if we had crystals that were intact, there's no anti-matter to fuel the drive.
RIKER [OC]: Any recommendations?
LAFORGE: No, sir.
WESLEY: We haven't got a prayer.

(TNG: Peak Performance)

It's specifically stated that the singularity is the power source of Romulan star ships

O'BRIEN 2: They've hit the fusion reactor. Main power's down. Defence systems are offline.
(Our O'Brien collapses in agony.)
KIRA: Try to re-route phasers through the emergency power couplings.
O'BRIEN 2: Miles, you've got your answer. The quantum singularity that's been orbiting the station. It's the Romulans. Are you listening? The Romulans use a confined singularity to power their warp core. That's what we've been detecting. That's what's causing the time shifts. You must go back and tell them to put up the shields and stand by for an attack.
O'BRIEN: I can't. I can't get through another shift. It's the radiation poisoning.
(He gives the armband to his future self)
O'BRIEN: You go. Just activate it. It's set for the return trip.
O'BRIEN 2: Me? I don't belong there.
O'BRIEN: I'm you, you're me, it doesn't matter. Just go. Go!

(DS9: Visionary)

Similar things are mentioned in TNG: Face of the Enemy.

Romulans are intereted in dilithium, too

Even though it's never explained what they use it for, "Star Trek: Nemesis" tells us that there are Dilithium mines on Remus:

DATA: As you can see one side of Remus always faces the sun. Due to the extreme temperatures on that half of their world, the Remans live on the dark side of the planet. ...Almost nothing is known about the Reman homeworld, although intelligence scans have proven the existence of dilithium mining and heavy weapons construction. ...The Remans themselves are considered an undesirable caste in the hierarchy of the Empire.

(Star Trek: Nemesis)

Apart from these mines, there is also the fact that Romulans successfully stole the schematics for a dilithium chamber in TNG: The Drumhead. In both cases, it's never elaborated upon what they are actually using it for, but to me, the picture emerges that they need it as much as anybody else in the galaxy.

Lorca told us

This is what Captain Lorca told us:

LORCA: Gentlemen. Every starship in the galaxy, Klingon or Federation, runs on dilithium crystals. If we can't protect Corvan, the war is lost. So, can you fix the Lieutenant's inability to get our ship to go where it's supposed to go?

(DIS: The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry)

There are many reasons not to believe this quote - it could be hyperbole, it could be referring to Klingon vs Federation only, Lorca is not trustworthy and so on - but I still included it because it's the only quote I found that deals specifically with dilithium and space travel in general.

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  • Lorca’s statement means nothing, because it’s not clear that the Romulans even had warp drive in his era. The Romulan Bird of Prey that the Enterprise encountered a decade later was stated to be running on impulse power. ex-astris-scientia.org/inconsistencies/history-romulan.htm
    – Mike Scott
    Nov 30, 2020 at 10:16
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    I didn't know that! there are a lot of other additional reasons why Lorca and his statement are not trustworthy. I decided to include it anyway because it's the only reference I found that deals with the relationship between dilithium and space travel in general.
    – Philipp
    Nov 30, 2020 at 10:35
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    That would also explain why the Romulan Drive couldn't be used for the Federation although it would've been available as the Romulans are part of the Federation now.
    – Shade
    Nov 30, 2020 at 15:12
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    @MikeScott The NX-01 Enterprise encountered the Romulans a century before DIS, so yeah, they had warp drive
    – Izkata
    Jan 10, 2021 at 7:32
  • Warp Drive physics works as follows. A subspace field is created by running super hot plasma through warp coils. If you use antimatter for heat you need Dilithium to convert the resulting gamma rays into heat. If you use a mini-black hole you presumably are using the accretion disc friction from orbiting it to heat the plasma. That process generates a lot of x-rays maybe gamma rays too - but nowhere near matter annihilation - so given the scarcity of Dilithium I can't see why one would bother. Antimatter isn't cheap so there's every incentive to find an alternative way to heat plasma. Sep 24, 2021 at 6:47
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Now we are learning a bit more, in Discovery 3x07. Because they unified with the Vulcans and ...

We have to patch this ... I give it a try. We can assume that they gave up their technology because the Romulans were too weak and the Vulcans saved them by doing the reunification.

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    To be honest, such an assumption is a massive stretch. Given the purpose of the federation wide research program revealed in the episode, the reunification details shown in S03E07 make the lack of Romulan propulsion tech all the more baffling. It is a solution to the problem.
    – Jontia
    Nov 29, 2020 at 22:17
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    Let be honest. We're searching for explanations because the main head of the Discovery show doesn't care about this facts.
    – GBMan
    Nov 30, 2020 at 8:48
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    Can we please keep the Discovery bashing to a minimum, or at least wait for the remainder of the season before labeling this a plot hole?
    – Philipp
    Nov 30, 2020 at 8:52

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