by William B. Scott
Aviation Week & Space Technology,
3/01/2004, page 50
energy emerges from realm of science fiction,
may be key to
At least two large aerospace companies and one U.S. Defense Dept.
agency are betting that “zero point energy” could be the next
breakthrough in aerospace vehicle propulsion, and are backing those
bets with seed money for ZPE research.
If their efforts pay off, ZPE-driven powerplants might enable Mach 4
fighters, quiet 1,200-seat hypersonic airliners that fly at 100-mi.
altitudes as far as 12,000 mi. in about 70 min., and 12.6-hr. trips
to the Moon.
ONE OF THOSE companies, BAE Systems, launched “Project Greenglow”
in 1986 “to provide a focus for research into novel propulsion
systems and the means to power them,” said R.A. Evans, the
project leader, in a technical paper last year. Although funding
levels have been modest, Greenglow is exploring ZPE as one element
of the program’s “project-directed research,” according to John E.
Allen, a consultant to BAE Systems.
At least one large U.S. aerospace company is embarking on ZPE
research in response to a Defense Dept. request, but the company and
its customer cannot be identified yet. National laboratories, the
military services and other companies either now have or have had
low-level ZPE-related efforts underway.
The concept of zero point energy is rooted in quantum theory, and is
difficult for even the technically minded to grasp. But theories
validated by meticulous experiments have confirmed that so-called
“empty space” or what scientists call the “quantum vacuum” actually
is teeming with activity. Tiny electromagnetic fields continuously
fluctuate around their “zero-baseline” values, even when the
temperature drops to absolute zero (0º K) and all thermal effects
A leading researcher in this realm of new physics,
Hal E. Puthoff, director of the
Institute for Advanced Studies here, explains zero point energy this
“When you get down to the tiniest
quantum levels, everything’s always ‘jiggly.’ Nothing is
completely still, even at absolute zero. That’s why it’s called
‘zero point energy,’ because, if you were to cool the universe
down to absolute zero— where all thermal motions were frozen
out—you’d still have residual motion. The energy associated with
that ‘jiggling’ will remain, too.”
For most technologists, quantum theory
conjures up images of extremely minuscule particles and field
Why would aerospace companies and governments invest in
researching “jiggles” that defy measurement? Because those quantum
or vacuum fluctuations— the “jiggles” of zero point energy—if tapped
somehow, could produce stupendous amounts of energy and enable
deep-space voyages that are impossible for today’s propulsion
Spacecraft capable of interstellar travel will approach the speed of
light, and may have to extract energy from the vacuum of space.
However, researchers could be years or decades from achieving the
breakthroughs necessary to build such a propulsion system. Credit: NASA BPP/LES BOSSINAS
within the Solar system will only become technologically
practical if there is a breakthrough in terms of speed, coupled
with an adequate energy/fuel supply,” Evans said.
Energy densities (the amount of energy per unit volume) of the
quantum vacuum are comparable to those of nuclear energy—or even
greater. Consequently, its potential as an energy source is
Quantifying the potential of ZPE is difficult, and scientists
are reluctant to translate the huge numbers predicted by quantum
theory into terms easily grasped. Puthoff’s explanation is
particularly graphic, though:
“It’s ridiculous, but theoretically,
there’s enough [zero point] energy in the volume of a coffee cup
to more than evaporate all the world’s oceans,” Puthoff
said. “But that’s if you could get at all of it, and you
obviously can’t. So, when it comes to a practical amount of ZPE
[that might be extracted from the vacuum], you’re still talking
about maybe 1026 joules/cubic meter.
“The potential is practically limitless; way beyond what can be
conceived. But until we learn what ZPE embodiment to use [an
engineering process to extract ZPE], and to what frequency we
can effectively extract the energy, it’s really hard to make a
practical statement about how much you can actually use,” he
“So far, the embodiments are pitifully small.
[Experiments] have produced about the same amount of energy as a
butterfly’s wing—picowatts or so. But the potential is there.”
That staggering potential has kept researchers pursuing a “new
physics” that some critics classify as near-science fiction.
Still, respected scientists and government agencies believe the
quest is worth investing time, effort and money. In 1986, the
U.S. Air Force’s then-Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (RPL) at
Edwards AFB, Calif., solicited “Non-conventional Propulsion
Concepts” under a Small Business Innovation Research program.*
One of the six areas of interest was “Esoteric energy sources
for propulsion, including the zero point quantum dynamic energy
of vacuum space...”
In particular, the late Robert
Forward, a respected scientist consulting for RPL (now part of
the Air Force Research Laboratory system), recommended additional
research of the “Casimir effect,” which had suggested the existence
of ZPE decades earlier.
This phenomenon is attributed to H.G.B.
Casimir, a Dutch researcher, who, in 1948, confirmed the reality
of quantum vacuum energy by calculating the value of a small force
between two uncharged metal plates.
“IF YOU PUT TWO metal plates very
close together, they partially shield some ZPE frequencies,”
Puthoff explained. “That means the energy bouncing back and
forth between the plates is less than the energy outside, so the
plates get pushed together. Radiation pressure outside the
plates is greater than radiation pressure in the
somewhat-shielded area between the plates. The plates coming
together convert vacuum energy to heat.”
In 1997, Steve K. Lamoreaux, a
University of Washington atomic physicist at the time, conducted
precise measurements of the Casimir effect.
His results almost
perfectly matched the predictions of quantum electrodynamics theory,
according to a peer-reviewed paper in the Jan. 6, 1997, issue of
Physical Review Letters
A manned space probe powered by ZPE could, theoretically, make a
trip to Mars in 7-40 days. Credit: ERIK SIMONSEN
When NASA established the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics
(BPP) program in 1996 to research advanced forms of space
transportation, it focused on three objectives:
Propulsion that required no
Propulsion that attained the
maximum transit speeds physically possible
Breakthrough methods of
energy production to power such devices
Marc G. Millis, founder and former
project manager of the BPP effort, said the program sponsored
G. Jordan Maclay, chief scientist for Quantum Fields LLC,
was “to look at getting more empirical evidence to flesh-out what
this vacuum energy ‘stuff’ really is.”
Maclay performed a precise
measurement of attractive Casimir forces, and was working to
quantify repulsive forces when BPP funding was deleted from NASA’s
Fiscal 2003 budget (www.quantumfields.com).
The BPP program has been on hold since then.
Through private funding, Puthoff and his team have secured patents
based on converting ZPE to,
“miniature ball lightning—micron-size
lightning—using a very small traveling wave tube,” he said.
“It appeared to demonstrate the
principle [of ZPE extraction], but we were never successful in
scaling it up to useful levels. We’re now working on various
engineering embodiments to do that, but we’re not there yet.”
“As to where we stand on energy
exchange [research], the force levels and amount of energy are
piddly—real, but extremely small,” Millis added. “We’re still
[asking]: Is there any way to interact with this vacuum energy
to create forces without rocket propellant? Can we [develop] a
form of propulsion that needs no propellant... for very
So far, the answers have been “no” or,
at best, “maybe.”
But there are striking and encouraging parallels
between the evolvement of ZPE and the history of nuclear energy
research. Albert Einstein’s equations showed that an infinitesimal
amount of mass could be converted to a tremendous amount of energy
via nuclear reactions. Initially, scientists insisted something was
wrong; the numbers were just too large. They didn’t make sense. But
the mathematics were incontrovertible.
Then natural radioactivity was discovered, validating Einstein’s
However, energy releases found in nature were so small
that even Einstein believed radiation could never be harnessed as a
useful energy source.
“At that time, it looked like
[nuclear] fission was going nowhere,” Puthoff said. “The
big breakthrough came when [atomic physicist Enrico] Fermi did
his famous experiment at the University of Chicago. He found
that a material releasing lots of neutrons could act as a
catalyst and start a runaway reaction. Fission would take off
and cause a big effect—eventually the atomic bomb in the weapons
[arena] and nuclear reactors in the energy [production] area.”
Zero point energy has a similar history.
Predictions from quantum mechanics said ZPE existed, but the huge
numbers associated with it prompted questions about the mathematics’
validity and suspicions of errors in quantum theory.
“Then the Casimir effect was found
to be a natural embodiment of natural principles,” Puthoff
said. “The [general] reaction was: ‘OK, but it’s a small effect.
It’s never going to be useful for making energy’—just like what
was said about nuclear energy. So, we’re now at the stage of
looking for the equivalent of Fermi’s neutron-source
catalyst—something that ignites the ZPE process.”
If that “catalyst” is ever discovered,
and a ZPE powerplant is developed, how would it affect aeronautics
and space travel?
Allen, a BAE Systems consultant and
engineering professor at London’s Kingston University, explored that
question in a comprehensive paper published last year by Progress in
Aerospace Sciences (www.sciencedirect.com).
Entitled “Quest for a Novel Force: A Possible Revolution in
Aerospace,” the paper included a “what-if” study, based on “a
novel force engine.” Allen assumed four sizes of the powerplant,
referred to as a “mass-dynamic engine,” with thrusts in the
5-500-metric-tons (11,000-1.1-million-lb.) range. A likely source of
energy for them would be ZPE.
Allen is no stranger to cutting-edge projects, having been involved
in the preliminary designs of a transonic nuclear weapon (Blue
Danube), an early supersonic guided missile (Blue Steel), early
space shuttle work, and several advanced fighter and trainer
aircraft at Hawker Siddely. “I am familiar with bringing novelties
into successful aerospace hardware, and am well aware of the
qualities required to make a successful product,” he wrote.
Through a systematic process he calls “imagineering,” Allen
conceived of several air and space vehicles powered by mass-dynamic
A heavy-lift freighter capable
of carrying a 1,000-metric-ton payload more than 20,000 km.
(10,792 naut. mi.) at speeds of Mach 0.7-0.9
A Mach 4 vertical
takeoff/short-takeoff and landing fighter
A 600-1,000-seat airliner
powered by two 250,000-lb.-thrust engines
A Lunar craft that would climb
slowly to a 36-km. altitude to minimize aerodynamic effects,
then accelerate to a maximum velocity of 10-km./sec. (19,440
naut. mi./hr.) until slowing for a landing on the Moon.
“This trajectory provides a flight time of 12.6 hr.,” Allen
A quiet hypersonic “megaliner”
capable of climbing vertically to a 100-mi. altitude, then
flying a curved flight path at satellite-like speeds. Allen
selected a point-design of 1,200 passengers and a range of
12,000 mi. With upward accelerations limited to 0.5g, flight
time would be about 70 min
A Mars transporter that could
take a 20-person team to the red planet in 7-40 days,
depending on the separation distance between the Earth and
Allen’s analyses showed the performance
of these craft are within the realm of feasibility, if using a
breakthrough powerplant running on fuel with ZPE-like energy
But is harnessing ZPE feasible, and, if so, how soon? If the
expectations of cutting-edge scientists are any guide, a ZPE power
source with aerospace applications could be in sight.
“I’d say our confidence level [of a
breakthrough] is 50% or better. We have some ideas that we’re
exploring, but we’re not ready to talk about them,” Puthoff
hedged. “The big hurdle is finding an embodiment that will
permit scale-ups to useful levels of energy—finding the catalyst
for accelerating currently known processes. If our [research] is
successful, almost assuredly there’d be no problem with small
units—a few cubic centimeters of ZPE—providing enough energy to
As to when a breakthrough might occur, “We’re definitely not
stumbling around in the dark any more,” Puthoff
continued. “It’s been shown that zero point energy is real and
has real consequences. It’s definitely a technology that’s not
ready for prime time, but it’s definitely ready for serious
Based on an historical cycle of
breakthroughs in transportation technology, the human race is due
for another big leap in about 2012 (see p. 51). Last year, Allen
predicted one could occur,
“within a decade or two. This stage is
equivalent to where aeronautics was in the 1890s.”
Still, NASA’s Millis urges caution.
“I really don’t want to raise
people’s expectations too much,” he said. “To get overly excited
causes more damage [in the field of ZPE research] than skeptics
do. We need to make sure we’re not extending our claims beyond
what the evidence points us to today. To be impartial, I’d say
we’re not on the verge of grandiose breakthroughs. But we have
another embryonic field opening up to us."
(* Many of us participated in this famous
1986 SBIR solicitation, proposing to evaluate existing
non-conventional energy technologies -- a term coined by engineer
George Hathaway. - TV )