Exciting headways into mining black holes for energy!

Based on the paper Penrose process for a charged black hole in a uniform magnetic field

It has been over half a century since Roger Penrose first theorized that spinning black holes could be used as energy powerhouses by masterfully exploiting the principles of special and general relativity [1, 2]. Although we might not be able to harness energy from a black hole to reheat that cup of lukewarm coffee just yet, with a slew of amazing breakthroughs [4, 5, 6], it seems that we may be closer than ever before to making the transition from pure thought experiment to finally figuring out a realistic powering mechanism for several high-energy astrophysical phenomena. Not only can there be dramatic increases in the energies of radiated particles using charged, spinning black holes as energy reservoirs via the electromagnetic Penrose process rather than neutral, spinning black holes via the original mechanical Penrose process, the authors of this paper also demonstrate that the region outside the event horizon (see below) from which energy can be extracted is much larger in the former than the latter. In fact, the enhanced power of this process is so great, that it is one of the most suitable candidates for explaining various high-energy astrophysical phenomena such as ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays, particles [7, 8, 9] and relativistic jets [10, 11].

Stellar black holes are the final stages in the life cycle of stars so massive that they collapse upon themselves, unable to withstand their own gravitational pull. They are characterized by a point-like singularity at the centre where a complete breakdown of Einstein’s equations of general relativity occurs, and surrounded by an outer event horizon, within which the gravitational force is so strong that not even light can escape it. Just outside the event horizon of a rotating black hole is a region called the ergosphere, bounded by an outer stationary surface, within which space-time is dragged along inexorably with the black hole via a process called frame-dragging. This effect predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, makes it impossible for an object to stand still with respect to an outside observer.

The ergosphere has a rather curious property that makes the word-line (the path traced in 4-dim space-time) of a particle or observer change from being time-like outside the static surface to being space-like inside it. In other words, the time and angular coordinates of the metric swap places! This leads to the existence of negative energy states of particles orbiting the black hole with respect to observer at infinity [2, 12, 13]. It is this very property that enables the extraction of rotational energy from the ergosphere as explained below.

According to Penrose’s calculations, if a massive particle that falls into the ergosphere were to split into two, the daughter who gets a kick from the black hole, would be accelerated out with a much higher positive energy (upto 20.7 percent higher to be exact) than the in-falling parent, as long as her sister is left with a negative energy. While it may seem counter-intuitive to imagine a particle with negative energy, note that no laws of relativity or thermodynamics are actually broken. This is because the observed energy of any particle is relative, and depends upon the momentum measured in the rest frame of the observer. Thus, a positive kinetic energy of the daughter particle left behind would be measured as negative by an observer at infinity [3].

In contrast to the purely geometric mechanical Penrose process, if one now considers black holes that possess charge as well as spin, a tremendous amount of energy stored in the electromagnetic fields can be tapped into, leading to ultra high energy extraction efficiencies. While there is a common misconception that a charged black hole tends to neutralize itself swiftly by attracting oppositely charged particles from the ambient medium, this is not quite true for a spinning black hole in a magnetic field (due to the dynamics of the hot plasma soup in which it is embedded). In fact in this case, Wald [14] showed that black holes tend to charge up till they reach a certain energetically favourable value. This value plays a crucial role in the amount of energy that can be delivered to the outgoing particle through the electromagnetic Penrose process. The authors of this paper explicitly locate the regions from which energy can be extracted and show that these are no longer restricted to the ergosphere, as there are a whole bunch of previously inaccessible negative energy states that can now be mined. They also find novel disconnected, toroidal regions not coincident with the ergosphere that can trap the negative energy particles forever (refer to Fig.1)! The authors calculate the effective coupling strength between the black hole and charged particles, a certain combination of the mass and charge parameters of the black hole and charged particle, and the external magnetic field. This simple coupling formula enables them to estimate the efficiency of the process as the magnitude of the energy boost that can be delivered to the outgoing particle is directly dependent on it. They also find that the coupling strength decreases as energy is extracted, much the same way as the spin of a black hole decreases as it loses energy to the super-radiant particles in the mechanical analogue.

While the electromagnetic Penrose process is the most favoured astrophysically viable mechanism for high energy sources and phenomena such as quasars, fast radio bursts, relativistic jets etc., as the authors mention “Just because a particle can decay into a trapped negative-energy daughter and a significantly boosted positive-energy radiator, does not mean it will do so..” However, in this era of precision black hole astrophysics, state-of-the-art observatories, the Event Horizon Telescope capable of capturing detailed observations of emission mechanisms in real time, and enhanced numerical and scientific methods at our disposal, it appears that we might be on the verge of detecting observable imprints left by the Penrose process on black holes, and perhaps tap into a source of energy for advanced civilisations!


  1. Gravitational collapse: The role of general relativity
  2. Extraction of Rotational Energy from a Black Hole
  3. Penrose process for a charged black hole in a uniform magnetic field
  4. First-Principles Plasma Simulations of Black-Hole Jet Launching
  5. Fifty years of energy extraction from rotating black hole: revisiting magnetic Penrose process
  6. Magnetic Reconnection as a Mechanism for Energy Extraction from Rotating Black Holes
  7. Near-horizon structure of escape zones of electrically charged particles around weakly magnetized rotating black hole: case of oblique magnetosphere
  8. GeV emission and the Kerr black hole energy extraction in the BdHN I GRB 130427A
  9. Supermassive Black Holes as Possible Sources of Ultrahigh-energy Cosmic Rays
  10. Acceleration of the charged particles due to chaotic scattering in the combined black hole gravitational field and asymptotically uniform magnetic field
  11. Acceleration of the high energy protons in an active galactic nuclei
  12. Energy-extraction processes from a Kerr black hole immersed in a magnetic field. I. Negative-energy states
  13. Revival of the Penrose Process for Astrophysical Applications
  14. Black hole in a uniform magnetic field



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Aruna Rajagopal

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