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University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA
Introduction: In a recent breakthrough (Moddel, Weerakkody, Doroski, & Bartusiak, 2021a), we reported the successful demonstration of extraction of power from zero-point fluctuations. Since the advent of quantum mechanics, zero-point energy (ZPE) has tantalized the scientific community with its huge store of energy, which has appeared to be a fixture of nature but not something that could be extracted. Here, I describe why this energy has appeared to be inaccessible, and then provide the keys to unlocking it.
Background: In 1911 Planck presented his second theory for the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation resulting from material at a particular temperature to account for observed spectra. It included two terms, a temperature dependent term, and a second, temperature independent term that became known as the quantum vacuum or ZPE radiation. Decades later, with the development of quantum theory, this ZPE was again proposed, but this time as a result of the quantum uncertainty principle, an explanation that can be easily understood. Today most of the physics community invokes the uncertainty principle as the justification for ZPE. Perhaps because it is seen as existing to satisfy a physical principle instead of, say, the result of a physical interaction, it is viewed as a fixture of nature. Such a fixture is unalterable and therefore not available for extraction. Beyond this mindset, I give three physical reasons ZPE should not be available for extraction.
Arguments against the possibility of zero-point energy extraction:
- Need for a difference to induce flow. Just as heat flow requires a temperature difference to drive it, so too would ZPE require a difference to drive it. Since ZPE is the universal ground state, it would appear impossible to provide a difference in its level.
- Equilibrium and detailed balance. In equilibrium all transitions between two sites or energy levels are balanced by the opposite transitions, a process called detailed balance. Since ZPE is considered to be in equilibrium, even if we could induce a flow, it would be balanced by an equal flow in the opposite direction, as part of the detailed balance concept.
- Perhaps most fundamentally, energy extraction from a system in equilibrium would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics, arguably the most sacrosanct principle in physics.
How to break through the arguments against the possibility of extraction: I pondered the arguments against extraction for years, and developed a device concept to circumvent them called a Casimir photoinjector.
Fig. 1 A Casimir photoinjector
We have designed, fabricated, and tested over a thousand of these devices, and found real energy extraction. After carrying out eight different types of verifications of the measured response, we found no artifacts that can explain away the results (Moddel, Weerakkody, Doroski, & Bartusiak, 2021a). We measured even larger effects on the resistance of the samples (Moddel, Weerakkody, Doroski, & Bartusiak, 2021b). It is still possible that another, non-ZPE cause for the observations will be found, but in the absence of that the following appear to be the keys to unlocking ZPE:
- A Casimir cavity is an optical cavity in which the density of vacuum ZPE modes is reduced compared to outside of the cavity. The commonly associated energy is due to the Casimir force, an attraction that appears between the mirrors of the cavity. We instead use this cavity to induce an asymmetry that produces a net flow of electrons through the Casimir photoinjector.
- It has been argued that a small amount of energy may be borrowed from the background ZPE for a very short time (Ford, 1991). We break the detailed balance by capturing the electrons in femtoseconds (10–15 seconds), before the borrowed energy can return to its source. This is accomplished with extremely fast transit of electrons though nanometer layers in the Casimir photoinjector, and essentially bilks the system out of some of its ZPE.
- More than any other factor, the possible violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics by the Casimir photoinjector is the main reason for the deep skepticism of our results by the physics community. By redefining equilibrium to incorporate spatial variations in ZPE, it may be possible to reconcile our results with the Second Law.
Ford, L.H (1991). Constraints on Negative-Energy Fluxes. Phys. Rev. D, 43, 3972.
Moddel, G., Weerakkody, A., Doroski, D., & Bartusiak, D., (2021a). Optical-cavity-induced current, Symmetry 13, 517.
Moddel, G., Weerakkody, A., Doroski, D., & Bartusiak, D. (2021b). Casimir-cavity-induced conductance changes. Physical Review Research, 3, L022007.
Garret Moddel is a professor of Electrical, Computer, and Energy Engineering at the University of Colorado. Along with developing new energy conversion technologies, his research group investigates psi phenomena. Currently he is serving as SSE Vice President, and was the organizations previous president, and prior to that, president & CEO of Phiar Corporation, a high-tech start-up company. Garret earned a BSEE degree from Stanford and MS and PhD degrees in Applied Physics from Harvard.