[The August 16, 1997 edition of CNI News reported on the recent invitation-only meeting of top physicists and space scientists at NASA's Lewis Research Center in Cleveland to discuss "Breakthrough Propulsion Physics." Among the presenters at that meeting was Dr. H.E. Puthoff, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Austin, Texas, and a top authority on "zero point energy" or ZPE.
In a note to CNI News following his return from the Cleveland meeting, Puthoff wrote, "... the goal was to determine which directions to take to accelerate the space program.... I proposed that ZPE research was the way to go, and I was pleased to find that in the breakout sessions... in which various working groups came up with prioritized lists for NASA, ZPE was at the top of most lists."
CNI News thanks Dr. Puthoff for granting us permission to print excerpts from the paper he presented at the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics workshop. The title of his paper is: "Can the Vacuum be Engineered for Spaceflight Applications? Overview of Theory and Experiments."]
by H. E. Puthoff, Ph.D.
August 12, 1997
Quantum theory predicts, and experiments verify, that empty space (the vacuum) contains an enormous residual background energy known as zero-point energy (ZPE). Originally thought to be of significance only for such esoteric concerns as small perturbations to atomic emission processes, it is now known to play a role in large-scale phenomena of interest to technologists as well... ZPE topics of interest for spaceflight applications range from fundamental issues (where does inertia come from, can it be controlled?), through laboratory attempts to extract useful energy from vacuum fluctuations (can the ZPE be "mined" for practical use?), to scientifically-grounded extrapolations concerning "engineering the vacuum" (is "warp-drive" space propulsion a scientific possibility?). Recent advances in research into the physics of the underlying ZPE indicate the possibility of potential application in all these areas of interest.
The concept "engineering the vacuum" was first introduced by Nobel Laureate T. D. Lee in his book Particle Physics and Introduction to Field Theory. As stated there: "The experimental method to alter the properties of the vacuum may be called vacuum engineering.... If indeed we are able to alter the vacuum, then we may encounter some new phenomena, totally unexpected." Recent experiments have indeed shown this to be the case.
With regard to space propulsion, the question of engineering the vacuum can be put succinctly: "Can empty space itself provide the solution?" Surprisingly enough, there are hints that potential help may in fact emerge quite literally out of the vacuum of so-called "empty space." Quantum theory tells us that empty space is not truly empty, but rather is the seat of myriad energetic quantum processes that could have profound implications for future space travel.... The energy associated with such processes is called zero-point energy (ZPE), reflecting the fact that such activity remains even at absolute zero.
We now recognize that the quantum vacuum is an enormous reservoir of untapped energy, with energy densities conservatively estimated by Feynman and others to be on the order of nuclear energy densities or greater. Therefore, the question is, can the ZPE be "mined" for practical use? If so, it would constitute a virtually ubiquitous energy supply, a veritable "Holy Grail" energy source for space propulsion.
As utopian as such a possibility may seem, physicist Robert Forward at Hughes Research Laboratories demonstrated proof-of-principle in a paper published in 1984, "Extracting Electrical Energy from the Vacuum by Cohesion of Charged Foliated Conductors." Forward's approach exploited a phenomenon called the Casimir Effect, an attractive quantum force between closely-spaced metal plates, named for its discoverer, H. G. B. Casimir of Philips Laboratories in the Netherlands....
Attempts to harness the Casimir and related effects for vacuum energy conversion are ongoing in our laboratory and elsewhere. The fact that its potential application to space propulsion has not gone unnoticed by the Air Force can be seen in its request for proposals for the FY-1986 Defense SBIR Program. Under entry AF86-77, Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (AFRPL) Topic: Non-Conventional Propulsion Concepts we find the statement: "Bold, new non-conventional propulsion concepts are solicited.... The specific areas in which AFRPL is interested include.... (6) Esoteric energy sources for propulsion including the zero point quantum dynamic energy of vacuum space." ....
What of the fundamental forces of gravity and inertia that we seek to overcome in space travel? We have phenomenological theories that describe their effects (Newton's Laws and their relativistic generalizations), but what of their origins?
The first hint that these phenomena might themselves be traceable to roots in the underlying fluctuations of the vacuum came in a 1967 study published by the well-known Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov. Searching to derive Einstein's phenomenological equations for general relativity from a more fundamental set of assumptions, Sakharov came to the conclusion that the entire panoply of general relativistic phenomena could be seen as induced effects brought about by changes in the quantum-fluctuation energy of the vacuum due to the presence of matter.... Although speculative when first introduced by Sakharov, this hypothesis has led to a rich and ongoing literature (including a contribution of my own in 1989) on quantum-fluctuation-induced gravity, a literature that continues to yield deep insight into the role played by vacuum forces.
Given an apparent deep connection between gravity and the zero-point fluctuations of the vacuum, a similar connection must exist between these self-same vacuum fluctuations and inertia. This is because it is an empirical fact that the gravitational and inertial masses have the same value, even though the underlying phenomena are quite disparate. Why, for example, should a measure of the resistance of a body to being accelerated, even if far from any gravitational field, have the same value that is associated with the gravitational attraction between bodies? Indeed, if one is determined by vacuum fluctuations, so must the other....
The implication for space travel is this: ...there is experimental evidence that vacuum fluctuations can be altered by technological means. This leads to the corollary that, in principle, gravitational and inertial masses can also be altered.
The possibility of altering mass with a view to easing the energy burden of future spaceships has been seriously considered by the Advanced Concepts Office of the Propulsion Directorate of the Phillips Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base. Gravity researcher Robert Forward accepted an assignment to review this concept....
After a one-year investigation Forward finished his study and submitted his report to the Air Force, who published it under the title Mass Modification Experiment Definition Study. The Abstract reads in part:
".... Many researchers see the vacuum as a central ingredient of 21st-Century physics. Some even believe the vacuum may be harnessed to provide a limitless supply of energy. This report summarizes an attempt to find an experiment that would test the Haisch, Rueda and Puthoff (HRP) conjecture that the mass and inertia of a body are induced effects brought about by changes in the quantum-fluctuation energy of the vacuum.... It was possible to find an experiment that might be able to prove or disprove that the inertial mass of a body can be altered by making changes in the vacuum surrounding the body."
Forward in fact recommends a ranked list of four experiments to be carried out to address the ZPF-inertia concept and its broad implications....
Perhaps one of the most speculative, but nonetheless scientifically-grounded, proposals of all is the so-called Alcubierre Warp Drive. Taking on the challenge of determining whether Warp Drive a la Star Trek was a scientific possibility, general relativity theorist Miguel Alcubierre of the University of Wales set himself the task of determining whether faster-than-light travel was possible within the constraints of standard theory. Although such clearly could not be the case in the flat space of special relativity, general relativity permits consideration of altered spacetime metrics where such a possibility is not a priori ruled out. Alcubierre's further self-imposed constraints on an acceptable solution included the requirements that no net time distortion should occur (breakfast on Earth, lunch on Alpha Centauri, and home for dinner with your wife and children, not your great-great-great grandchildren), and that the occupants of the spaceship were not to be flattened against the bulkhead by unconscionable accelerations.
A solution meeting all of the above requirements was found and published by Alcubierre in Classical and Quantum Gravity in 1994. The solution discovered by Alcubierre involved the creation of a local distortion of spacetime such that spacetime is expanded behind the spaceship, contracted ahead of it, and yields a hypersurfer-like motion faster than the speed of light as seen by observers outside the disturbed region. In essence, on the outgoing leg of its journey the spaceship is pushed away from Earth and pulled towards its distant destination by the engineered local expansion of spacetime itself.... Unfortunately, meeting such requirements is beyond technological reach without some unforeseen breakthrough....
We began this discussion with the question: "Can the vacuum be engineered for spaceflight applications?" The answer is: "In principle, yes." However, engineering-wise it is clear that there is a long way to go. Given the cliché "a journey of 1000 miles begins with the first steps," it is also clear that we can take those first steps now in the laboratory....
Where does this leave us? As we peer into the heavens from the depth of our gravity well, hoping for some "magic" solution that will launch our spacefarers first to the planets and then to the stars, we are reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's phrase that highly-advanced technology is essentially indistinguishable from magic. Fortunately, such magic appears to be waiting in the wings of our deepening understanding of the quantum vacuum in which we live.
[Abbreviated list of references:
Forward, R.L. (1984) "Extracting electrical energy from the vacuum by cohesion of charged foliated conductors", Phys. Rev. B, Vol. 30, No. 4, pp. 1700-1702.
Casimir, H.G.B. (1948) "On the attraction between two perfectly conducting plates", Proc. Kon. Ned. Akad. van Weten., Vol. 51, No. 7, pp. 793-796.
Cole, D.C., and Puthoff, H.E. (1993) "Extracting energy and heat from the vacuum", Phys. Rev. E, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 1562-1565.
Puthoff, H.E. (1990) "The energetic vacuum: Implications for energy research", Spec. in Sci. and Tech., Vol. 13, No. 4, pp. 247-257.
Sakharov, A. (1968) "Vacuum quantum fluctuations in curved space and the theory of gravitation", Sov. Phys.-Dokl., Vol. 12, No. 11, pp. 1040-1041.
Puthoff, H.E. (1989, 1993) "Gravity as a zero-point-fluctuation force", Phys. Rev. A, Vol. 39, No. 5, pp. 2333-2342; Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 3454-3455.
Haisch, B., Rueda, A., and Puthoff, H.E. (1994) "Inertia as a zero point field Lorentz force", Phys. Rev. A, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 679-694.
Forward, R.L. (1996) "Mass modification experiment definition study", J. Sci. Exploration, Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 325-354.
Alcubierre, M. (1994) "The warp drive: Hyper-fast travel within general relativity", Class. Quant. Grav., Vol. 11, pp. L73-L77.
Puthoff, H.E. (1996) "SETI, the velocity-of-light limitation, and the Alcubierre warp drive: An integrating overview", Phys. Essays, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 156-158.]
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