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Energy from the Vacuum
Device without a theory, and Theory without a device
A lot of powerful people don’t want this to be real. That doesn’t mean it is real, but it makes it the kind of subject that I want to know about.
There are persistent stories of people who invent perpetual motion machines only to disappear or to die mysteriously or become insane. Foster Gamble, in particular, has been on the trail of free energy technologies for several years. Infinite Energy magazine explores ideas from the provable to the highly speculative. In other words, it’s a big field, and today I focus on just the research of Garret Moddel (Univ of Colo) and Daniel Sheehan (UC San Diego). Moddel has published detailed descriptions of a device he uses to reproducibly get electric power out of a device based on the Casimir effect. Spoiler: His device is microscopic and produces just a few trillionths of a watt. But he is quick to point out that if the device can be scaled up, it produces almost as much energy as a solar panel, but without the sun. Sheehan has worked many years on extensions to classical thermodynamics that permit violations of the Second Law. I’ll describe just one of these.
The Casimir Effect
Begin with one of the most unusual and counterintuitive effects in mainstream physics.
You can put a negatively charged object next to a positively charged object, and the two objects attract. This is a capacitor. No surprise here.
Suppose you charge just one object. The positive charge on A pulls the electrons from B so that they come a little closer to the surface. The near side of B becomes negative and the far side is positive, to make up for it. We say there is an “induced dipole”. Because the negative charges on B are closer to A than the positive charges, there is a net attraction, and once again the objects are pulled toward each other (not as strongly as if both objects were charged).
Now suppose you put plates A and B very close to each other, but without touching. There are momentary fluctuations because of random motion of the electrons in each. When, by chance, the inside surface of plate A is positive for a tiny fraction of a second, plate B will tend to be negative at the same time, and vice versa. This is because electric fields from the fluctuations in each plate affect the other plate’s electrons. This is a bootstrap effect. On average there is no net charge on either plate, but because they are fluctuating in sync with one another, there is a net pull between the plates. This is the Casimir Effect, predicted by Hendrik Casimir in 1948 and verified experimentally only in 1997 by Steven. K. Lamoreaux at University of Washington, Seattle.
The van der Waals force between two molecules is based on the same phenomenon. It is better known and easier to observe, because molecules are routinely very close together, whereas the Casimir effect requires plates that are very close together, and hence they must be perfectly flat on an atomic scale. In Lamoreaux’s measurement, the two plates were separated by about a micrometer, which is the size of a bacterial cell, or the width of a few thousand atoms. The force that Lamoreaux measured was the weight of a billionth of a gram, the gravitational pull on a dust particle.
There is a quantum aspect to the Casimir effect that makes it change from attractive to repulsive to attractive as the plates approach each other very closely. In quantum mechanics, electric fields are quanta of radiation, and radiation has a wavelength, and wavelength resonates with the distance between plates.
Moddel’s device comprises a Casimir gap adjacent to a more conventional capacitor, all with layers just a few atoms thick. It works, and produces a voltage that can be tapped for power, and the voltage persists.
The diagram below is telling us that in the regime at the upper left, current is flowing from the lower voltage to the higher in Moddel’s device, corresponding to an electrical resistance that is negative. You can connect a separate wire, outside the device, to run the current through a lightbulb or a motor with (normal) positive electrical resistance, and tap the system for usable electricity.
As you can see from the figure, the size is less than a micrometer, just a few thousand atoms across. The working device looks like the points of two needles that are so close to touching that you can’t see the gap even with a microscope. That’s because the separation is less than the wavelength of visible light. The power is small in proportion to the size. But Moddel calculates that it corresponds to 70 watts per square meter — plenty of power to make a practical device in a shoebox-sized generator. Unlike solar panels, the devices could be stacked and packed close together.
Here is a plot from Moddel’s lab. The upper left quadrant represents “negative electrical resistance”, equivalent to an energy source.
To translate to a practical device, the engineering challenge is to fabricate large surfaces that are very uniform and very flat so they can be brought in close proximity without touching. This seems to me an engineering challenge, but not a huge one compared to what is at stake.
Moddel admits that he doesn’t have a clear idea why the device works. He proffers an explanation in terms of ambient light waves that are shut out of the Casimir cavity because they the wrong wavelength for resonance with that size cavity.
But given that the size of the cavity is ~100 nm and the wavelength of ambient infrared rays is about 100 times larger than that, he must be talking about virtual photons, which are quantum fluctuations that can have much higher energy than the room temperature background. Thus, Moddel speculates that the ultimate source of the energy that is tapped by his device comes from quantum zero point energy.
Zero Point Energy
A fundamental principle of quantum mechanics is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty. In one version of the Uncertainty Principle, you can’t measure energy accurately over short periods of time (ΔEΔt > ħ/2), including the prediction that you can’t know that energy is zero over short periods. So you might think you have a completely empty volume of space, but if you blink for a tiny fraction of a second, a particle might appear and disappear before you could document the violation of conservation of energy.
What we call a vacuum is a chaotic free-for-all of appearing and disappearing particles. Particle physicists calculate the average energy latent in a teaspoonful of empty space and it is enormous.
Conventionally, these particles that blink in and out of existence are called “virtual” particles, but their effects are real and measurable; in fact they form the basis of the multiplicity of Feynman diagrams that are used to calculate probabilities in particle physics. And Hawking Radiation results when one virtual particle of a pair inside a black hole escapes from the event horizon, leaving its twin behind.
It is this thinking that continually inspires Moddel and other Zero Point Energy researchers: Maybe it’s possible to grab one of these virtual particles and transform it into useful work before it recombines with its antiparticle and disappears.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics
Energy cannot be created or destroyed. That’s the First Law, and Moddel’s device doesn’t have to violate the First Law. The Second Law is about “useful” energy, and it is less fundamental. Moddel’s device probably does violate the Second Law.
Thermodynamics was formulated in the 19th Century, before quantum mechanics, and there are proofs from statistics of atoms, behaving according to Newton’s laws. Most physicists believe that the Second Law remains true in 20th Century physics, but not all.
The original Second Law was formulated with respect to
Gravity poses a paradox for thermodynamic theory because a spread-out cloud of uniform gas is supposed to be in an equilibrium state of highest entropy; but if that gas cloud condenses under mutual gravitation, it can heat up and create a state of even higher entropy. The limit is reached only when the gas disappears into a black hole, and the subject of the “entropy of a black hole” has stirred controversy among the most brilliant minds in physics, notably Stephen Hawking.
And the zero point energy described above is a quantum phenomenon that does not have a clear place in the story of the Second Law.
The very notion of temperature is actually a deep hypothesis about physics which is not obviously true. Say we put a hot object A in contact with a cold object B. The two will exchange heat until some truce is reached, and at that point we say that A and B are the same temperature. Now put B in contact with another material until B and C equilibrate. We say that B and C are the same temperature.
For the concept of “temperature” to have a meaning, it must be true that if we put C in contact with A then no heat will flow in either direction. In our experience, this seems to be true. The fact that temperature is a meaningful concept is an experimental fact about the world, and not something that we might know a priori on grounds of theory or logic.
Epicatalysis is a word coined by Daniel Sheehan just a few years ago to describe situations in which the concept of temperature breaks down.
Begin with the idea of a catalyst: a material which promotes a chemical reaction, so that the constituents come to chemical/thermal equilibrium faster than they would without the catalyst.
Epicatalysis takes place when there are two catalysts, one of which is more efficient at high temperatures, the other more efficient at low temperatures.
Sheehan cites the example of Hydrogen gas H2, which can dissociate into two free atoms H + H, or recombine back into H2. At high temperatures, the H’s prefer to split apart (for reasons of greater entropy) while at low temperatures the H’s combine to the form most familiar to us, H2. Rhenium is a metal that does a better job at high temperatures, and tungsten works better at low temperatures.
Now place a rhenium plate and a tungsten plate in hydrogen gas. The normal situation we might imagine is that hydrogen gas exists at some temperature, with its mix of H + H and H2 appropriate for that temperature. The gas will come to equilibrium with both plates and both plates will equilibrate at the same temperature.
But suppose the hydrogen gas is partially evacuated. The pressure is so low and the two plates so close together that the hydrogen bounces back and forth between the plates while rarely encountering another molecule or atom of hydrogen gas. In this situation, the gas is too rarified to find an equilibrium temperature on its own, so it is dependent on the two surfaces to form an equilibrium. Slow-moving hydrogen atoms H that bump into the rhenium are more likely to stick, more likely to be catalyzed at the surface and turn into H2, more likely to give up their chemical energy to the rhenium as heat and make the rhenium hotter, so that it does its job better. Simultaneously, the fast-moving H2 is more likely to stick to the tungsten wall, more likely to break apart there, more likely to take heat from the tungsten in the process of breaking apart into separate H atoms. So the tungsten is maintained at a lower temperature, the rhenium at a higher temperature. Presumably, one could use the two plates as heat sinks for a traditional Carnot engine and turn the temperature difference into work, even as the hydrogen gas bouncing between the two metals assures that the temperature difference is maintained. This is a perpetual motion machine.
In practice? Sheehan reports (as of 2019) that this phenomenon has yet to be realized in the laboratory. My guess is that the problem in the above scenario is that the separate H atoms are moving more slowly than the H2 molecules, for the same reason that the two metals are at different temperatures. The H atoms that give up heat to the rhenium when they recombine were also moving more slowly when they stuck to the surface originally, so that they tended to take heat from the rhenium. The H2 molecules that take heat from the tungsten when the atoms separate originally struck the tungsten at higher velocity, giving up heat to the tungsten. The Second Law may not be violated if these two effects cancel out.
Many people have speculated that such technologies are not only possible, but that they have been developed and deployed by an elite group of powerful individuals or for advanced military applications, but kept secret from the public. Nicola Tesla claimed to have developed zero-point energy technologies, and some say they were stolen by his patron, J. P. Morgan, and that blueprints were confiscated after his death (1943) when the FBI impounded his notebooks. There is obviously a lot of motivation for the fossil fuel industry not to want such technologies to replace their products. And since the gold standard was abolished in 1972, the only thing backing the US dollar is the world market in petroleum. Free energy could threaten the world’s reserve currency. In addition, the same ZPE technologies that could run our cars and heat our houses without pollution might also be converted too easily to make mega-bombs that no one wants to think about.
The fact that these technologies are bubbling up in the mainstream scientific literature suggests that something is afoot.