Zero Point Energy and Zero Point Field
Quantum physics predicts the existence of an
underlying sea of zero-point energy at every point in the universe.
This is different from the cosmic microwave background and is also
referred to as the electromagnetic quantum vacuum since it is the
lowest state of otherwise empty space. This energy is so enormous that
most physicists believe that even though zero-point energy seems to be
an inescapable consequence of elementary quantum theory, it cannot be
physically real, and so is subtracted away in calculations.
A minority of physicists accept it as real energy
which we cannot directly sense since it is the same everywhere, even
inside our bodies and measuring devices. From this perspective, the
ordinary world of matter and energy is like a foam atop the quantum
vacuum sea. It does not matter to a ship how deep the ocean is below
it. If the zero-point energy is real, there is the possibility that it
can be tapped as a source of power or be harnassed to generate a
propulsive force for space travel.
The propellor or the jet engine of an aircraft push
air backwards to propel the aircraft forward. A ship or boat propellor
does the same thing with water. On Earth there is always air or water
available to push against. But a rocket in space has nothing to push
against, and so it needs to carry propellant to eject in place of air
or water. The fundamental problem is that a deep space rocket would
have to start out with all the propellant it will ever need. This
quickly results in the need to carry more and more propellant just to
propel the propellant. The breakthrough one wishes for deep space
travel is to overcome the need to carry propellant at all. How can one
generate a propulsive force without carrying and ejecting propellant?
There is a force associated with the
electromagnetic quantum vacuum: the Casimir force. This force is an
attraction between parallel metallic plates that has now been well
measured and can be attributed to a minutely tiny imbalance in the
zero-point energy in the cavity between versus the region outside the
plates. This is not useful for propulsion since it symmetrically pulls
on the plates. However if some asymmetric variation of the Casimir
force could be identified one could in effect sail through space as if
propelled by a kind of quantum fluctuation wind. This is pure
The other requirement for space travel is energy. A
thought experiment published by physicist Robert Forward in 1984
demonstrated how the Casimir force could in principle be used to
extract energy from the quantum vacuum (Phys.
Rev. B, 30, 1700, 1984). Theoretical studies in the early 1990s (Phys.
Rev. E, 48, 1562, 1993) verified that this was not contradictory
to the laws of thermodynamics (since the zero-point energy is
different from a thermal reservoir of heat). Unfortunately the Forward
process cannot be cycled to yield a continuous extraction of energy. A
Casimir engine would be one whose cylinders could only fire once,
after which the engine become useless.
ORIGIN OF ZERO-POINT ENERGY
The basis of zero-point energy is the Heisenberg
uncertainty principle, one of the fundamental laws of quantum physics.
According to this principle, the more precisely one measures the
position of a moving particle, such as an electron, the less exact the
best possible measurement of momentum (mass times velocity) will be,
and vice versa. The least possible uncertainty of position times
momentum is specified by Planck's constant, h. A parallel uncertainty
exists between measurements involving time and energy. This minimum
uncertainty is not due to any correctable flaws in measurement, but
rather reflects an intrinsic quantum fuzziness in the very nature of
energy and matter.
A useful calculational tool in physics is the ideal
harmonic oscillator: a hypothetical mass on a perfect spring moving
back and forth. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle dictates that
such an ideal harmonic oscillator -- one small enough to be subject to
quantum laws -- can never come entirely to rest, since that would be a
state of exactly zero energy, which is forbidden. In this case the
average minimum energy is one-half h times the frequency, hf/2.
Radio waves, light, X-rays, and gamma rays are all
forms of electromagnetic radiation. Classically, electromagnetic
radiation can be pictured as waves flowing through space at the speed
of light. The waves are not waves of anything substantive, but are in
fact ripples in a state of a field. These waves do carry energy, and
each wave has a specific direction, frequency and polarization state.
This is called a "propagating mode of the electromagnetic field."
Each mode is subject to the Heisenberg uncertainty
principle. To understand the meaning of this, the theory of
electromagnetic radiation is quantized by treating each mode as an
equivalent harmonic oscillator. From this analogy, every mode of the
field must have hf/2 as its average minimum energy. That is a tiny
amount of energy, but the number of modes is enormous, and indeed
increases as the square of the frequency. The product of the tiny
energy per mode times the huge spatial density of modes yields a very
high theoretical energy density per cubic centimeter.
From this line of reasoning, quantum physics
predicts that all of space must be filled with electromagnetic zero-point
fluctuations (also called the zero-point field) creating a universal
sea of zero-point energy. The density of this energy depends
critically on where in frequency the zero-point fluctuations cease.
Since space itself is thought to break up into a kind of quantum foam
at a tiny distance scale called the Planck scale (10-33
cm), it is argued that the zero point fluctuations must cease at a
corresponding Planck frequency (1043 Hz). If that is the
case, the zero-point energy density would be 110 orders of magnitude
greater than the radiant energy at the center of the Sun.
CONNECTION TO INERTIA AND GRAVITATION
When a passenger in an airplane feels pushed
against his seat as the airplane accelerates down the runway, or when
a driver feels pushed to the left when her car makes a sharp turn to
the right, what is doing the pushing? Since the time of Newton, this
has been attributed to an innate property of matter called inertia. In
1994 a process was discovered whereby the zero-point fluctuations
could be the source of the push one feels when changing speed or
direction, both being forms of acceleration. The zero-point
fluctuations could be the underlying cause of inertia. If that is the
case, then we are actually sensing the zero-point energy with every
move we make (see
origin of inertia).
The principle of equivalence would require an
analogous connection for gravitation. Einstein's general relativity
successfully accounts for the motions of freely-falling objects on
geodesics (the "shortest" distance between two points in curved
spacetime), but does not provide a mechanism for generating a
gravitational force for objects when they are forced to deviate from
geodesic tracks. It has been found that an object undergoing
acceleration or one held fixed in a gravitational field would
experience the same kind of asymmetric pattern in the zero-point field
giving rise to such a reaction force. The weight you measure on a
scale would therefore be due to zero-point energy (see
The possibility that electromagnetic zero-point
energy may be involved in the production of inertial and gravitational
forces opens the possibility that both inertia and gravitation might
someday be controlled and manipulated. This could have a profound
impact on propulsion and space travel.
Primary Articles (see
Articles for additional articles)
Gravity and the Quantum Vacuum Inertia Hypothesis
Alfonso Rueda & Bernard Haisch, Annalen der Physik, in press (2005).
Analysis of Orbital Decay Time for the Classical Hydrogen Atom
Interacting with Circularly Polarized Electromagnetic Radiation
Daniel C. Cole & Yi Zou, Physical Review E, 69, 016601, (2004).
Inertial mass and the quantum vacuum fields
Bernard Haisch, Alfonso Rueda & York Dobyns, Annalen der Physik, 10,
Stochastic nonrelativistic approach to gravity as originating from
vacuum zero-point field van der Waals forces
Daniel C. Cole, Alfonso Rueda, Konn Danley, Physical Review A, 63,
Case for Inertia as a Vacuum Effect: a Reply to Woodward & Mahood
Y. Dobyns, A. Rueda & B.Haisch, Foundations of Physics, Vol. 30, No.
1, 59 (2000).
the relation between a zero-point-field-induced inertial effect and
the Einstein-de Broglie formula
B. Haisch & A. Rueda, Physics Letters A, 268, 224, (2000).
Contribution to inertial mass by reaction of the vacuum to accelerated
A. Rueda & B. Haisch, Foundations of Physics, Vol. 28, No. 7, pp.
Inertial mass as reaction of the vacuum to acccelerated motion
A. Rueda & B. Haisch, Physics Letters A, vol. 240, No. 3, pp. 115-126,
Reply to Michel's "Comment on Zero-Point Fluctuations and the
B. Haisch & A. Rueda, Astrophysical Journal, 488, 563, (1997).
Quantum and classical statistics of the electromagnetic zero-point-field
M. Ibison & B. Haisch, Physical Review A, 54, pp. 2737-2744, (1996).
Vacuum Zero-Point Field Pressure Instability in Astrophysical Plasmas
and the Formation of Cosmic Voids
A. Rueda, B. Haisch & D.C. Cole, Astrophysical Journal, Vol. 445, pp.
Inertia as a zero-point-field Lorentz force
B. Haisch, A. Rueda & H.E. Puthoff, Physical Review A, Vol. 49, No. 2,
pp. 678-694 (1994).
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