Points of Disinterest: Episode 11

They said it could never happen. They said that if you tried to do it you would just end up disappointed. In true heroic style Christopher Wilson ignored them!

Wilson has succeeded in producing Zero Point Energy. He made energy out of nothing. He probably used more energy to make the energy out of nothing but hey, he did what he shouldn’t have been able to do. At Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology, Wilson used a superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID for short. No, really) to make a mirror that could vibrate at nearly a quarter the speed of light. This allowed them to observe for the first time the “dynamical Casimir effect”. Confused yet?

Lets back up. Zero Point Energy refers to a odd phenomenon of quantum physics. Pairs of particles (like photons) and their anti-particles are constantly popping into existence out of nothing, colliding with each other and annihilating themselves. This happens so fast that you can’t normally detect them. The main way to prove this is happening is to place two plates very close together at a distance smaller than the wavelength of the particles. The plates are forced together by what is called the Casimir effect.

Photons are energy though, and if you were able to prevent them from annihilating each other you would suddenly have energy. In effect, that’s what Wilson has done. From nothing, something. Even if you made a perfect vacuum in a jar, these particles would still pop into and out of existence in that jar. The jar is never really empty no matter what you do. Manipulating this field of particles called quantum foam is also called vacuum engineering. ZPE refers to a point where you should have zero, but you find this energy coming in and out of existence, thus zero point energy.

Now that doesn’t mean we’ll be whipping up perpetual motion machines anytime soon but then we weren’t supposed to be vacuum engineering anytime soon either. What will be interesting is to see if some of the ideas about this quantum foam are true. For example, some have theorized that gravity and inertia are results of matter interfering with the vacuum energy. If you manipulate the zero point field of particles, can you generate or even negate gravity? What about inertia? I’d put that as a long shot, but it would be really cool to finally be able to say to my kids “You know when I was a kid, we used to watch all those sci-fi movies and ask ‘How are they making gravity on their ships? No one knows how to do that!’ Well, we were wrong!”

If you want to read more. . .
Chalmers scientists create light from vacuum

Casmimir effect

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