Zero Point Energy Would Solve Many Problems Of Physics At One Stroke
by Michael Odenwald in Verein Deutscher Inginieure, Dusseldorf July 19, 1991
It sounds like a fable: heaters heat and automobiles roll and create not a gram of pollution driven by a mysterious energy. This same power will make laptop computers more powerful than today's super computers and will revolutionize other technologies. The fantastic thing here is: this super energy which is supposed to do all these things originates in empty space.
US researchers Harold Puthoff, Ken Shoulders and Bill Church from the Institute of Advanced Studies in Austin, Texas forecast this utopia. The basis of their ideas is vacuum energy, a power which fills the entire universe and probably underlies all material existence. If the theories of the three researchers prove out they would eliminate all worries about energy forever. They would also solve some of the greatest puzzles of cosmology and particle physics including the question of the nature of gravitation.
In the telescopes of the astronomers the universe appears majestically quiet and empty, only spotted here and there by massive world islands. Quantum theory, on the other hand, shows a different, much more bizarre view of the cosmos. It deals with the microcosm of subatomic particles. At the level of particles, like electrons, protons and neutrons, space is not empty, but a boiling sea of energy that fills the space between atoms and molecules as well as between the stars. Particles jump like spray in a foaming ocean, like lightning leaping out of an insubstantive energy bath into the material world. With equal rapidity these particles fall back into the sea of energy and disappear (physicists speak of "virtual particles", because they have no existence in the world of real particles). In this minute instant of their existence, these ghost particles send out a weak pulse of electromagnetic waves. To be sure, the radiation from individual particles dissipates in an extremely short distance. But because these elements of radiation are generated constantly and everywhere, space is filled by an enormous amount of energy.
The energy density of the vacuum exceeds that in the nucleus of an atom. The American physicists John Wheeler and Richard Feynman have calculated that the energy in the vacuum of a single light bulb is sufficient to bring all the water in the oceans of the world to the boiling point. At the same time this tremendous energy cannot be felt. The reason: it permeates the universe equally in all directions. Thus, matter is held in balance between equal forces.
Nevertheless, this vacuum energy leaves its trace in certain physical phenomena. According to classical physics, every oscillator, like a pendulum, eventually comes to rest because of friction. Quantum theory, on the other hand, states that an oscillator never comes completely to rest, but will continue to oscillate in microscopically small random motions around its rest point, even when it has been cooled to absolute zero so that molecular heat motion is not a consideration. Cause of the unpredictable vibration is the so-called zero point energy.
The source of the vibrations, in turn, are the energetic fluctuations of the vacuum. These provide the virtual particles with their electromagnetic radiations. Particles that are embedded in this ocean of radiation are caused to tremble by the constant impacts of the virtual particles. (This trembling has serious consequences in many physical systems. For example, the unavoidable noise of a microwave receiver. Even the most perfect cannot suppress this noise, since it is caused by the zero point energy that creates the radiations in this wavelength.
As early as 1940, US physicist William Lamb discovered that fluctuations of the electromagnetic field can easily disturb the paths of electrons around the atomic nucleus. This results in the "Lamb displacement" (photons that are created by the shifting of electrons into a different path show a frequency displaced from the normal value.)
The simple fact that an electron orbits the atomic nucleus on a stable path is a great puzzle of physics. Classical theory describes the atom like a small planetary system: electron planets orbit the sun of the atomic nucleus. Electromagnetic fields work on charged particles. The particles are forced out of their path and react by radiating light. The photons (light particles) carry off the energy picked up from the electromagnetic field. One would therefore expect electrons which are forced into their orbital paths by the nucleus charge, to send out radiations and fall in a spiral path into the nucleus like a satellite falling to earth. Quantum theory does not explain why this does not happen. It describes the characteristics of the particles and declares that they only jump back and forth between specific energy levels in the electron orbits. Since they cannot drop below the lowest energy level, they do not fall into the nucleus. Even the quantizing of the electron paths does not explain the physical background for their stability.
Harold Puthoff, physicist at the Texas think tank, believes he has the answer: again he sees the ZPE at work. According to his idea, electrons do radiate energy while orbiting the atomic nucleus, but they absorb an equal amount of energy from the electron fluctuations, and so the atom is saved from collapse. Writing in the New Scientist, Puthoff said, "The equilibrium between these two processes leads to the values for the parameters which define the fundamental energy condition. Therefore there exists a dynamic equilibrium in which the zero point energy stabilizes the electron in the its orbital condition. It appears that the stability of matter itself depends upon the fundamental ocean of the electromagnetic fluctuations."
Also, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle appears in a new light. This principles states that it is impossible to determine all the conditions of a physical system at the same time, for example, the position and velocity of a particle. If the velocity of an electron is determined, its position remains unclear: although a discrete particle, it appears smeared over a larger area. Only statistics helped quantum physicists out of their dilemma. This makes it possible at least to calculate the probability with which a particle with a certain energy can be found in a certain position. For a long time this indeterminacy was considered a characteristic of matter itself. Actually, it is the ZPE which causes the particles to tremble. Their exact position must therefore necessarily appear unclear, says Puthoff. The uncertainty principle is therefore a direct effect of vacuum fluctuations.
Puthoff even has a new slant on gravitational theory. Einstein saw gravity as a warping of space caused by the mass of objects in space. Galaxies, stars, and planets cause depressions in 4 dimensional space, like marbles on a taughtly stretched rubber surface. If the marbles approach each other, they roll in the direction of the indentations caused by their weight. "This shows how gravity functions, but it doesn't explain the mechanism behind it," says the US physicist. Again, Puthoff's famous theory, as written up in the Physical Review, sees the power of the vacuum at work. As two bodies approach each other one will screen off the second from the radiation field of the ZPE coming from it's direction. And vice versa. Out of all the other directions these bodies continue under the influence of the pressure of the fluctuations. The result: they move toward one another.
It now appears no longer necessary to unite gravitation in an all encompassing theory with the other three fundamental powers of nature - the electromagnetic as well as the strong and weak nuclear forces. The creation of a unified field theory has hitherto caused physicists tremendous difficulties. Although the theory of electromagnetic fields could be tied to radioactive decay and the power that holds the atomic nucleus together, gravity did not fit into any of the mathematical concepts which grew into increasingly abstract Babylonian towers of physics, and were consequently unsuccessful.
As a result of the ZPE, gravitation is not seen to be a fundamental power but is only a secondary effect, resulting from the alternating functioning of other fields. In this form gravity is already a component of the unified field theory. At the same time it becomes clear why gravity is so weak, always pushing and never pulling and -in contrast with electromagnetic fields - it cannot be shielded: vacuum fluctuations penetrate space itself. The recently deceased Russian physicist, Andrei Sakarov, also saw gravitation as a result of the inter-workings of the vacuum energy and matter. This should make it possible to calculate the value of the gravitational constant G by parameters derived from the theory of ZPE. Puthoff followed Sakarov's ideas with some success. So particles that are coupled through vacuum fluctuation fields experience an attractive force on the order of gravitation.
As far back as the 60's, physicist Timothy Boyer of New York city college combined formulas of classical physics with the random fields of ZPE. It was his goal to reproduce the entire quantum theory with this approach. The result: Boyer's "Stochastic Electrodynamics" produced in many cases the same results as Max Planks' Quantum Electrodynamics, among others in regard to the radiation of black bodies, with "harmonic oscillators", with Van der Walls forces as well as the Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. "If the physicists had taken this path around 1900 they would have done much better with this classical approach than with Plank's quantum theory", commented Boyer's colleague Peter Milonni of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The way this cosmic power could be used to generate energy is shown by the effect named after the Dutch Physicist, Hendrix B. Casimir. Two smooth metal plates held apart a very small distance must attract each other very powerfully. The reason: in the space between the plates there are far fewer vacuum fluctuations than in the space outside. The pressure of the radiation, therefore, pushes the plates together - as it also pushes heavenly bodies together (accordingly gravity is a macro demonstration of the Casimir effect). At the meeting of the plates an enormous amount of heat is generated - the vacuum energy is translated into useful energy. Of course this can only be done once with each pair of plates, because to separate the plates to start a new cycle would require the application of the energy liberated in the previous cycle. Expert Ken Shoulders came up with a different solution. He wants to use a cold electrically charged plasma (in a plasma the nuclei and the electrons are separated) to generate energy. The Casimir effect is supposed to compress the plasma which would generate heat. The repulsion of the nuclei drives the dense gas apart, and a new cycle begins.
Shoulders discovered another phenomenon that could be based on the Casimir effect. "If electrons are packed together with sufficient force they no longer repel each other but form clusters. These electron clusters require no electrical conductors. For instance, they run in small rills of a ceramic body - in fact, a thousand times faster than in a semiconductor," declared the Texas researcher. An energetic spark discharge is sufficient to generate these clusters. Ultrafast chips and greatly miniaturized instruments are possible uses of such dense clusters. One thinks of extremely flat TV screens with the electronic components integrated in the screen, very tiny x-ray generators which could be inserted into the body of the patient to radiate tumors, or one hundred horsepower motors that are only slightly larger than the crankshaft.
But where does the ZPE come from? "There are two thoughts on this. One says that it is simply a part of the boundary conditions of our universe the same as the background radiation resulting from the big bang", explained vacuum expert Puthoff. The other requires a stronger imagination: the quantum fluctuations drive the trembling (to which Puthoff ascribed Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle) of all the material particles in the universe. The sum of these motions, however, could generate the zero point fields which in turn generate the virtual particles and their radiation field, which again causes the physical particles to vibrate - something like a cat chasing its own tail. Puthoff calls this phenomenon, which possibly keeps the whole cosmos running, a "self-generating cosmological feedback", which began with an elementary random fluctuation: the big bang.