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ENERGY Energy fills empty space,
but is there a lot to be tapped,
as some propound? Probably not

by Philip Yam, staff writer

S omething for nothing. That’s the

reason for the gurgling water, ul-
trasonic transducers, heat-mea-
suring calorimeters, data-plotting soft-
ware and other technological trap-
pocket of nothingness. It churns with
unseen activity even at absolute zero,
the temperature defined as the point at
which all molecular motion ceases.
Exactly how much “zero-point ener-
chauvinists in the field like ourselves,
we think the 21st century could be the
zero-point-energy age.”
That conceit is not shared by the ma-
jority of physicists; some even regard
pings—some seemingly of the backyard gy” resides in the vacuum is unknown. such optimism as pseudoscience that
variety—inside the Institute for Advanced Some cosmologists have speculated that could leech funds from legitimate re-
Studies in Austin, Tex. One would not at the beginning of the universe, when search. The conventional view is that
confuse this laboratory with the simi- conditions everywhere were more like the energy in the vacuum is minuscule.
larly named but far more renowned one those inside a black hole, vacuum ener- In fact, were it infinite, the nature of the
in Princeton, N.J., where Albert Ein- gy was high and may have even trig- universe would be vastly different: you
stein and other physicists have probed gered the big bang. Today the energy would not be able to see in a straight
fundamental secrets of space and time. level should be lower. But to a few opti- line beyond a few kilometers. “The vac-
The one in Austin is more modestly ap- mists, a rich supply still awaits if only we uum has some mystique about it,” re-
pointed, but its goals are no less revolu- knew how to tap into it. These maver- marks Peter W. Milonni, a physicist at
tionary. The researchers here test ma- ick proponents have postulated that the Los Alamos National Laboratory who
chinery that, inventors assert, can ex- zero-point energy could explain “cold wrote a text on the subject in 1994
tract energy from empty space. fusion,” inertia and other phenomena called The Quantum Vacuum. “One
Claims for perpetual-motion machines and might someday serve as part of a has to be really careful about taking the
and other free-energy devices still persist, “negative mass” system for propelling concept too naively.” Steve K. Lamo-
of course, even though they inevitably spacecraft. In an interview taped for reaux, also at Los Alamos, is harsher:
turn out to violate at least one law of PBS’s Scientific American Frontiers, “The zero-point-energy community is
thermodynamics. Energy in the vacu- which aired in November, Harold E. more successful at advertising and self-
um, though, is very much real. Accord- Puthoff, the director of the Institute for promotion than they are at carrying out
ing to modern physics, a vacuum isn’t a Advanced Studies, observed: “For the bona fide scientific research.”
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82 Scientific American December 1997

of them obvious only to a physicist. 100 microdynes (one nanonewton) of
QUANTUM FLUCTUATIONS, One is the Lamb shift, which refers to a force. That “corresponds to the weight
ripples that form the basis for en- slight frequency alteration in the light of a blood cell in the earth’s gravitation-
ergy in a vacuum, pervade the emitted by an excited atom. Another is al field,” Lamoreaux states. The result
fabric of space and time. a particular kind of inescapable, low- falls within 5 percent of Casimir’s pre-
level noise that registers in electronic diction for that particular plate separa-
and optical equipment. tion and geometry.
The concept of zero-point energy de- Perhaps the most dramatic example,
rives from a well-known idea in quan- though, is the Casimir effect. In 1948 Zero for Zero-Point Devices
tum mechanics, the science that ac- the Dutch physicist H.B.G. Casimir cal-
counts for the behavior of particles
near the atom’s size. Specifically, zero-
point energy emerges from Heisen-
culated that two metal plates brought
sufficiently close together will attract
each other very slightly. The reason is
D emonstrating the existence of
zero-point energy is one thing; ex-
tracting useful amounts is another.
berg’s uncertainty principle, which lim- that the narrow distance between the Puthoff’s institute, which he likens to a
its the accuracy of measurements. The plates allows only small, high-frequen- mini Bureau of Standards, has exam-
German physicist Werner Heisenberg cy electromagnetic “modes” of the vac- ined about 10 devices over the past 10
determined in 1927 that it is impossible uum energy to squeeze in between. The years and found nothing workable.
to learn both the position and the mo- plates block out most of the other, big- One contraption, whose Russian in-
mentum of a particle to some high de- ger modes. In a way, each plate acts as ventor claimed could produce kilowatts
gree of accuracy: if the position is an airplane wing, which creates low of excess heat, supposedly relied on
known perfectly, then the momentum is pressure on one side and high pressure sonoluminescence, the conversion of
completely unknown, and vice versa. on the other. The difference in force sound into light. Bombarding water with
That’s why at absolute zero, a particle knocks the plates toward each other. sound to create air bubbles can, under
must still be jittering about: if it were at While at the University of Washing- the right conditions, lead to bubbles that
a complete standstill, its momentum ton, Lamoreaux conducted the most collapse and give off flashes of light.
and position would both be known pre- precise measurement of the Casimir ef- Conventional thinking explains sonolu-
cisely and simultaneously, violating the fect. Helped by his student Dev Sen, minescence in terms of a shock wave
uncertainty principle. Lamoreaux used gold-coated quartz launched within the collapsing bubble,
surfaces as his plates. One plate was at- which heats the interior to a flash point.
Energy and Uncertainty tached to the end of a sensitive torsion Following up on the work of the late
pendulum; if that plate moved toward Nobelist Julian Schwinger, a few work-

L ike position and momentum, energy

and time also obey Heisenberg’s
rule. Residual energy must therefore ex-
the other, the pendulum would twist. A
laser could measure the twisting of the
pendulum down to 0.01-micron accu-
ers cite zero-point energy as the cause.
Basically, the surface of the bubble is
supposed to act as the Casimir force
ist in empty space: to be certain that the racy. A current applied to a stack of plates; as the bubble shrinks, it starts to
energy was zero, one would have to take piezoelectric components moved one exclude the bigger modes of the vacuum
energy measurements in that volume of Casimir plate; an electronic feedback energy, which is converted to light. That
space forever. And given the equivalence system countered that movement, keep- theory notwithstanding, Puthoff and
of mass and energy expressed by Ein- ing the pendulum still. Zero-point-ener- his colleague Scott Little tested the de-
stein’s E = mc2, the vacuum energy must gy effects showed up as changes in the vice and changed the details a number
be able to create particles. They flash amount of current needed to maintain of times but never found excess energy.
briefly into existence and expire within the pendulum’s position. Lamoreaux Puthoff believes atoms, not bubbles,
an interval dictated by the uncertainty found that the plates generated about offer a better approach. His idea hinges
This zero-point energy (which comes
from all the types of force fields—elec- VIRTUAL PARTICLES can spontaneously flash into existence from the energy of quan-
tum fluctuations. The particles, which arise as matter-antimatter twins, can interact but
tromagnetic, gravitational and nuclear)
must, in accordance with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, disappear within an interval
makes itself felt in several ways, most set by Planck’s constant, h.

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Scientific American December 1997 83

on an unproved hypothesis: that zero- ly be indicators of zero-point energy ity exists in any practical sense. In fact,
point energy is what keeps electrons in (rather than, one would assume, wish- physicists quite often “renormalize”
an atom orbiting the nucleus. In classi- ful thinking). equations to get rid of infinities, so that
cal physics, circulating charges like an Work in cavity quantum electrody- they can ascribe physical meaning to
orbiting electron lose energy through namics is experimentally challenging in their numbers. An example is the calcu-
radiation; what keeps the electron zip- its own right, however, so it is not clear lation of the electron’s mass from theo-
ping around the nucleus is, to Puthoff, how practical an energy supply from retical principles, which at face value
zero-point energy that the electron con- “shrinking atoms” could be. The Austin leads to an unrealistic, infinite mass.
tinuously absorbs. (Quantum mechanics institute is testing a device that could be The same kind of mathematical sleight-
as originally formulated simply states interpreted as manipulating the vacu- of-hand might need to be done for vac-
that an electron in an atom must have um, although Puthoff declines to pro- uum-energy calculations. “Somehow
some minimum, ground-state energy.) vide details, citing proprietary nondis- the notion that the energy is infinite is
Physicists have demonstrated that a closure agreements with its designers. too naive,” Milonni says.
small enough cavity can suppress the In fact, several signs indicate that the
natural inclination of a trapped, excited How Much in Nothing? amount of energy in the vacuum isn’t
particle to give up some energy and drop worth writing home about. Lamoreaux’s
to a lower energy state [see “Cavity
Quantum Electrodynamics,” by Serge
Haroche and Jean-Michel Raimond;
U nderlying these attempts to tap the experiment could roughly be consid-
vacuum is the assumption that ered to have extracted 10–15 joule. That
empty space holds enough energy to be paltry quantity would seem to be damn-
Scientific American, April 1993]. Ba- tapped. Considering just the fluctuations ing evidence that not much can be ex-
sically, the cavity is so small that it can in the electromagnetic force, the mathe- tracted from empty space. But Puthoff
exclude some of the lower-frequency matics of quantum mechanics suggest counters that Casimir plates are macro-
vacuum fluctuations, which the excited that any given volume of empty space scopic objects. What is needed for prac-
atom needs to emit light and drop to a could contain an infinite number of tical energy extraction are many plates,
lower energy level. The cavity in effect vacuum-energy frequencies—and hence, say, some 1023 of them. That might be
controls the vacuum fluctuations. an infinite supply of energy. (That does possible with systems that rely on small
Under the right circumstances, Put- not even count the contributions from particles, such as atoms. “What you lose
hoff reasons, one could effectively ma- other forces.) This sea of energy is large- in energy per interaction, you gain in
nipulate the vacuum so that a new, low- ly invisible to us, according to the zero- the number of interactions,” he asserts.
er ground state appears. The electron point-energy chauvinists, because it is Milonni replies by noting that La-
would then drop to the lower ground completely uniform, bombarding us moreaux’s plates themselves are made
state—in effect, the atom would become from all directions such that the net of atoms, so that effectively there were
smaller—and give up some energy in the force acting on any object is zero. 1023 particles involved. The low Casi-
process. “It implies that hydrogen or But just because equations produce mir result still indicates, by his figures,
deuterium injected into cavities might an infinity does not mean that an infin- that the plates would need to be kilo-
produce excess energy,” Puthoff says. meters long to generate even a kilogram
This possibility might explain cold-fu- of force. Moreover, there is a cost in ex-
sion experiments, he notes—in other tracting the energy of the plates coming
words, the occasional positive results together, Milonni says: “You have to
reported in cold-fusion tests might real- pull the plates apart, too.”
Another argument for a minuscule
vacuum energy is that the fabric of
space and time, though slightly curved
VACUUM FIBER FLUCTUATIONS near objects, is pretty much flat overall.
CAN Draw a triangle in space and the sum of
its angles is 180 degrees, as it would be
on a flat piece of paper.
TORSION (The angles of a triangle
CASIMIR EFFECT is the motion of two
PENDULUM COMPENSATOR on a sphere, conversely,
parallel plates because of quantum fluctu-
ations in a vacuum. The plates are so sum to more than 180
close together that only small fluctuations degrees.) Because energy
PIEZOELECTRIC fit in between; the bigger modes are ex- is equivalent to matter,
STACK cluded (above). They exert a total force and matter exerts a grav-
greater than that by the smaller modes itational force, cosmol-
and hence push the plates together. The ogists expect that an en-
effect was observed by Steve K. Lamo- ergy-rich vacuum would
DAMPING reaux, now at Los Alamos National Lab- create a strong gravity
DISK AND oratory, who relied on a torsion pendu-
field that distorts space

MAGNET lum (left). A current applied to the piezo-

electric stack tried to move the Casimir and time as it is seen to-
SOLENOID PLUNGER day. The whole universe
TO POSITION PLATES plate on the pendulum; the compensator
CASIMIR plates held the pendulum still. The volt- would be evolving in a
PLATES age needed to prevent any twisting served different manner.
as a measure of the Casimir effect. That argument ties into

84 Scientific American December 1997 Exploiting Zero-Point Energy

portedly tapped with a machine
that made use of ultrasonically gen-
erated bubbles (right). Such devices
are tested by Harold E. Puthoff (be-
low), director of the Institute for
Advanced Studies in Austin, Tex.
So far no apparatus has been found
to produce a net gain in energy.


Such disagreements in science should be possible to lessen an object’s

are not unusual, especially con- inertia and hence, for a rocket, reduce
sidering how little is really the fuel burden. Puthoff and his col-
known about zero-point ener- leagues have been trying to prove this
gy. But those would-be utility inertia-origin hypothesis—a sensitive
moguls who think tapping zero- pendulum should be able to detect a
point energy is a worthwhile zero-point-energy “wake” left by a mov-
pursuit irritate some mainstream ing object—but Puthoff says they have
the cosmological constant, a concept scientists. “I was rather dismayed at the not managed to isolate their system well
that Einstein first developed, then dis- attention from what I consider a kook enough to do so.
carded. In the equations that describe community,” Lamoreaux says of his More conventional scientists decried
the state of the universe, the cosmologi- celebrity status among zero-point aficio- the channeling of NASA funds to a meet-
cal constant—which incorporates zero- nados after publishing his Casimir ef- ing where real science was lacking. “We
point energy—is in a sense a term that fect result. “It trivializes and abuses my hardly talked about the physics” of the
can counteract gravity. Astronomical work.” More galling, though, is that proposals, complained Milonni, adding
observations suggest the constant must these “pseudoscientists secure funding, that during one of the breakout sessions
be nearly zero. Consequently, if the vac- perhaps governmental, to carry on with “there was a guy talking about astral
uum energy really is large, then some their research,” he charges. projection.”
other force that contributes to the con- Puthoff’s institute receives a little gov- Certainly, there should be room for
stant must offset it. And as physicist ernment money but gets most of its funds far-out, potentially revolutionary ideas,
Steven Weinberg of the University of from contracts with private firms. Oth- but not at the expense of solid science.
Texas notes in his 1992 book Dreams ers are backed more explicitly by public “One has to keep an open mind, but the
of a Final Theory, that offset feels un- money. This past August the National concepts I’ve seen so far would violate
natural: calculations that sidestep the Aeronautics and Space Administration energy conservation,” Milonni con-
infinity terms produce a vacuum energy sponsored a meeting called the “Break- cludes. In sizing up zero-point-energy
120 orders of magnitude greater than through Propulsion Physics Workshop.” schemes, it may be best to keep in mind
the nearly zero value of the cosmologi- According to participants, zero-point the old caveat emptor: if it sounds too
cal constant, so that other force must energy became a high priority among good to be true, it probably is. SA

be opposite but identical in magnitude those trying to figure out which “break-
to the vacuum energy out to 120 deci- throughs” should be pursued.
mal places. The propulsion application depends
Puthoff replies that the connection on a speculation put forth in 1994 by Further Reading
between the cosmological constant and Puthoff, Bernhard Haisch of Lockheed
zero-point energy is more complex than Palo Alto Research Laboratory and Al- Demonstration of the Casimir Force
is often realized. “Obviously, the zero- fonso Rueda of California State Univer- in the 0.6 to 6 µm Range. S. K. Lamo-
point-energy problem and the cosmolog- sity at Long Beach. They suggested that reaux in Physical Review Letters, Vol. 78,
No. 1, pages 5–8; January 6, 1997.
ical constant, though related, are really inertia—the resistance that objects put Quantum Fluctuations of Empty Space:
different problems,” Puthoff argues, up when they are accelerated—stems A New Rosetta Stone in Physics? Har-
noting that predictions of quantum me- from the drag effects of moving through old E. Puthoff. Available at http://www.
chanics have proved correct time and the zero-point field. Because the zero- on
again and that instead something is still point field can be manipulated in quan- the World Wide Web.
missing from cosmologists’ thinking. tum experiments, Puthoff reasons, it

Exploiting Zero-Point Energy Scientific American December 1997 85