Can the Vacuum be Engineered for Spaceflight Applications?
Overview of Theory and Experiments
H.E. Puthoff, Ph.D.
(This paper was originally presented at the NASA Breakthrough Propulsion
NASA Lewis Research Center, Cleveland, OH, August 12-14, 1997.)
Quantum theory predicts, and experiments verify, that empty
space (the vacuum) contains an enormous residual background energy known as
zero-point energy (ZPE). Originally thought to be of significance only for
such esoteric concerns as small perturbations to atomic emission processes, it
is now known to play a role in large-scale phenomena of interest to
technologists as well, such as the inhibition of spontaneous emission, the
generation of short-range attractive forces (e.g., the Casimir force), and the
possibility of accounting for sonoluminescence phenomena. ZPE topics of
interest for spaceflight applications range from fundamental issues (where
does inertia come from, can it be controlled?), through laboratory attempts to
extract useful energy from vacuum fluctuations (can the ZPE be "mined" for
practical use?), to scientifically-grounded extrapolations concerning "engineering
the vacuum" (is "warp-drive" space propulsion a scientific possibility?).
Recent advances in research into the physics of the underlying ZPE indicate
the possibility of potential application in all these areas of interest.
The concept "engineering the vacuum" was first introduced
by Nobel Laureate T. D. Lee (1988) in his book Particle Physics and
Introduction to Field Theory. As stated there: "The experimental method to
alter the properties of the vacuum may be called vacuum engineering.... If
indeed we are able to alter the vacuum, then we may encounter some new
phenomena, totally unexpected." Recent experiments have indeed shown this to
be the case.
With regard to space propulsion, the question of
engineering the vacuum can be put succinctly: "Can empty space itself provide
the solution?" Surprisingly enough, there are hints that potential help may in
fact emerge quite literally out of the vacuum of so-called "empty space."
Quantum theory tells us that empty space is not truly empty, but rather is the
seat of myriad energetic quantum processes that could have profound
implications for future space travel. To understand these implications it will
serve us to review briefly the historical development of the scientific view
of what constitutes empty space.
At the time of the Greek philosophers, Democritus argued
that empty space was truly a void, otherwise there would not be room for the
motion of atoms. Aristotle, on the other hand, argued equally forcefully that
what appeared to be empty space was in fact a plenum (a background filled with
substance), for did not heat and light travel from place to place as if
carried by some kind of medium?
The argument went back and forth through the centuries
until finally codified by Maxwell's theory of the luminiferous ether, a plenum
that carried electromagnetic waves, including light, much as water carries
waves across its surface. Attempts to measure the properties of this ether, or
to measure the Earth's velocity through the ether (as in the Michelson-Morley
experiment), however, met with failure. With the rise of special relativity,
which did not require reference to such an underlying substrate, Einstein in
1905 effectively banished the ether in favor of the concept that empty space
constitutes a true void. Ten years later, however, Einstein's own development
of the general theory of relativity with its concept of curved space and
distorted geometry forced him to reverse his stand and opt for a richly-
endowed plenum, under the new label spacetime metric.
It was the advent of modern quantum theory, however, that
established the quantum vacuum, so-called empty space, as a very active place,
with particles arising and disappearing, a virtual plasma, and fields
continuously fluctuating about their zero baseline values. The energy
associated with such processes is called zero-point energy (ZPE), reflecting
the fact that such activity remains even at absolute zero.
THE VACUUM AS A POTENTIAL ENERGY SOURCE
At its most fundamental level, we now recognize that the
quantum vacuum is an enormous reservoir of untapped energy, with energy
densities conservatively estimated by Feynman and Hibbs (1965) to be on the
order of nuclear energy densities or greater. Therefore, the question is, can
the ZPE be "mined" for practical use? If so, it would constitute a virtually
ubiquitous energy supply, a veritable "Holy Grail" energy source for space
As utopian as such a possibility may seem, physicist Robert
Forward (1984) at Hughes Research Laboratories demonstrated proof-of-principle
in a paper "Extracting Electrical Energy from the Vacuum by Cohesion of
Charged Foliated Conductors." Forward's approach exploited a phenomenon called
the Casimir Effect, an attractive quantum force between closely-spaced
metal plates, named for its discoverer, H. G. B. Casimir (1948) of Philips
Laboratories in the Netherlands. The Casimir force, recently measured with
high accuracy by S. K. Lamoreaux (1997) at the University of Washington,
derives from partial shielding of the interior region of the plates from the
background zero-point fluctuations of the vacuum electromagnetic field. As
shown by Los Alamos theorists Milonni et al. (1988), this shielding results in
the plates being pushed together by the unbalanced ZPE radiation pressures.
The result is a corollary conversion of vacuum energy to some other form such
as heat. Proof that such a process violates neither energy nor thermodynamic
constraints can be found in a paper by a colleague and myself (Cole & Puthoff)
under the title "Extracting Energy and Heat from the Vacuum."
Attempts to harness the Casimir and related effects for
vacuum energy conversion are ongoing in our laboratory and elsewhere. The fact
that its potential application to space propulsion has not gone unnoticed by
the Air Force can be seen in its request for proposals for the FY-1986 Defense
SBIR Program. Under entry AF86-77, Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (AFRPL)
Topic: Non-Conventional Propulsion Concepts we find the statement: "Bold,
new non-conventional propulsion concepts are solicited.... The specific areas
in which AFRPL is interested include.... (6) Esoteric energy sources for
propulsion including the zero point quantum dynamic energy of vacuum space."
Several experimental formats for tapping the ZPE for
practical use are under investigation in our laboratory. An early one of
interest is based on the idea of a Casimir pinch effect in non-neutral plasmas,
basically a plasma equivalent of Forward's electromechanical charged-plate
collapse (Puthoff, 1990). The underlying physics is described in a paper
submitted for publication by myself and a colleague (Puthoff & Piestrup,
1997), and it is illustrative that the first of several patents issued to a
consultant to our laboratory, K. R. Shoulders (1991) contains the descriptive
phrase "... energy is provided... and the ultimate source of this energy
appears to be the zero-point radiation of the vacuum continuum."
Another intriguing possibility is provided by the
phenomenon of sonoluminescence, bubble collapse in an ultrasonically-driven
fluid which is accompanied by intense, sub-nanosecond light radiation.
Although the jury is still out as to the mechanism of light generation,
Nobelist Julian Schwinger (1993) has argued for a Casimir interpretation.
Possibly related experimental evidence for excess heat generation in
ultrasonically-driven cavitation in heavy water is claimed in an EPRI Report
(George & Stringham, 1996) by E-Quest Sciences, although attributed to a
nuclear micro-fusion process. Work is under way in our laboratory to see if
this claim can be replicated.
Yet another proposal for ZPE extraction is described in a
recent patent (Mead and Nachamkin, 1996). The approach proposes the use of
resonant dielectric spheres, slightly detuned from each other, to provide a
beat-frequency downshift of the more energetic high-frequency components of
the ZPE to a more easily captured form. We are discussing the possibility of a
collaborative effort between us to determine whether such an approach is
Finally, an approach utilizing micro-cavity techniques to
perturb the ground state stability of atomic hydrogen is under consideration
in our lab. It is based on a paper of mine (Puthoff, 1987) in which I put
forth the hypothesis that the nonradiative nature of the ground state is due
to a dynamic equilibrium in which radiation emitted due to accelerated
electron ground state motion is compensated by absorption from the ZPE. If
this hypothesis is true, there exists the potential for energy generation by
the application of the techniques of so-called cavity quantum
electrodynamics (QED). In cavity QED, excited atoms are passed through
Casimir-like cavities whose structure suppresses electromagnetic cavity modes
at the transition frequency between the atom's excited and ground states. The
result is that the so-called "spontaneous" emission time is lengthened
considerably (for example, by factors of ten), simply because spontaneous
emission is not so spontaneous after all, but rather is driven by vacuum
fluctuations. Eliminate the modes, and you eliminate the zero-point
fluctuations of the modes, hence suppressing decay of the excited state. As
stated in a review article on cavity QED in Scientific American (Haroche
& Raimond, 1993), "An excited atom that would ordinarily emit a low-frequency
photon cannot do so, because there are no vacuum fluctuations to stimulate its
emission...." In its application to energy generation, mode suppression would
be used to perturb the hypothesized dynamic ground-state absorption/emission
balance to lead to energy release (patent pending).
An example in which Nature herself may have taken advantage
of energetic vacuum effects is discussed in a model published by ZPE
colleagues A. Rueda of California State University at Long Beach, B. Haisch of
Lockheed-Martin, and D. Cole of IBM (1995). In a paper published in the
Astrophysical Journal, they propose that the vast reaches of outer space
constitute an ideal environment for ZPE acceleration of nuclei and thus
provide a mechanism for "powering up" cosmic rays. Details of the model would
appear to account for other observed phenomena as well, such as the formation
of cosmic voids. This raises the possibility of utilizing a "sub-cosmic-ray"
approach to accelerate protons in a cryogenically-cooled, collision-free
vacuum trap and thus extract energy from the vacuum fluctuations by this
THE VACUUM AS THE SOURCE OF GRAVITY AND INERTIA
What of the fundamental forces of gravity and inertia that
we seek to overcome in space travel? We have phenomenological theories that
describe their effects (Newton's Laws and their relativistic generalizations),
but what of their origins?
The first hint that these phenomena might themselves be
traceable to roots in the underlying fluctuations of the vacuum came in a
study published by the well-known Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov (1968).
Searching to derive Einstein's phenomenological equations for general
relativity from a more fundamental set of assumptions, Sakharov came to the
conclusion that the entire panoply of general relativistic phenomena could be
seen as induced effects brought about by changes in the quantum-fluctuation
energy of the vacuum due to the presence of matter. In this view the
attractive gravitational force is more akin to the induced Casimir force
discussed above, than to the fundamental inverse square law Coulomb force
between charged particles with which it is often compared. Although
speculative when first introduced by Sakharov, this hypothesis has led to a
rich and ongoing literature, including contributions of my own (Puthoff, 1989,
1993) on quantum-fluctuation-induced gravity, a literature that continues to
yield deep insight into the role played by vacuum forces.
Given an apparent deep connection between gravity and the
zero-point fluctuations of the vacuum, a similar connection must exist between
these self-same vacuum fluctuations and inertia. This is because it is an
empirical fact that the gravitational and inertial masses have the same value,
even though the underlying phenomena are quite disparate. Why, for example,
should a measure of the resistance of a body to being accelerated, even if far
from any gravitational field, have the same value that is associated with the
gravitational attraction between bodies? Indeed, if one is determined by
vacuum fluctuations, so must the other.
To get to the heart of inertia, consider a specific example
in which you are standing on a train in the station. As the train leaves the
platform with a jolt, you could be thrown to the floor. What is this force
that knocks you down, seemingly coming out of nowhere? This phenomenon, which
we conveniently label inertia and go on about our physics, is a subtle feature
of the universe that has perplexed generations of physicists from Newton to
Einstein. Since in this example the sudden disquieting imbalance results from
acceleration "relative to the fixed stars," in its most provocative form one
could say that it was the "stars" that delivered the punch. This key feature
was emphasized by the Austrian philosopher of science Ernst Mach, and is now
known as Mach's Principle. Nonetheless, the mechanism by which the stars might
do this deed has eluded convincing explication.
Addressing this issue in a paper entitled "Inertia as a
Zero-Point Field Lorentz Force," my colleagues and I (Haisch, Rueda & Puthoff,
1994) were successful in tracing the problem of inertia and its connection to
Mach's Principle to the ZPE properties of the vacuum. In a sentence, although
a uniformly moving body does not experience a drag force from the (Lorentz-invariant)
vacuum fluctuations, an accelerated body meets a resistance (force)
proportional to the acceleration. By accelerated we mean, of course,
accelerated relative to the fixed stars. It turns out that an argument can be
made that the quantum fluctuations of distant matter structure the local
vacuum-fluctuation frame of reference (Puthoff, 1989, 1991). Thus, in the
example of the train the punch was delivered by the wall of vacuum
fluctuations acting as a proxy for the fixed stars through which one attempted
The implication for space travel is this: Given the
evidence generated in the field of cavity QED (discussed above), there is
experimental evidence that vacuum fluctuations can be altered by technological
means. This leads to the corollary that, in principle, gravitational and
inertial masses can also be altered.
The possibility of altering mass with a view to easing the
energy burden of future spaceships has been seriously considered by the
Advanced Concepts Office of the Propulsion Directorate of the Phillips
Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base. Gravity researcher Robert Forward
accepted an assignment to review this concept. His deliverable product was to
recommend a broad, multi-pronged effort involving laboratories from around the
world to investigate the inertia model experimentally.
After a one-year investigation Forward (1996) finished his
study and submitted his report to the Air Force, who published it under the
title Mass Modification Experiment Definition Study. The Abstract reads
".... Many researchers see the vacuum as a central
ingredient of 21st-Century physics. Some even believe the vacuum may be
harnessed to provide a limitless supply of energy. This report summarizes an
attempt to find an experiment that would test the Haisch, Rueda and Puthoff (HRP)
conjecture that the mass and inertia of a body are induced effects brought
about by changes in the quantum-fluctuation energy of the vacuum.... It was
possible to find an experiment that might be able to prove or disprove that
the inertial mass of a body can be altered by making changes in the vacuum
surrounding the body."
With regard to action items, Forward in fact recommends a
ranked list of not one but four experiments to be carried out to
address the ZPF-inertia concept and its broad implications. The
recommendations included investigation of the proposed "sub-cosmic-ray energy
device" mentioned earlier, and the investigation of an hypothesized "inertia-wind"
effect proposed by our laboratory and possibly detected in early experimental
work (Forward & Miller, 1967), though the latter possibility is highly
speculative at this point.
ENGINEERING THE VACUUM FOR "WARP DRIVE"
Perhaps one of the most speculative, but nonetheless
scientifically-grounded, proposals of all is the so-called Alcubierre Warp
Drive (Alcubierre, 1994). Taking on the challenge of determining whether Warp
Drive a la Star Trek was a scientific possibility, general relativity
theorist Miguel Alcubierre of the University of Wales set himself the task of
determining whether faster-than-light travel was possible within the
constraints of standard theory. Although such clearly could not be the case in
the flat space of special relativity, general relativity permits consideration
of altered spacetime metrics where such a possibility is not a priori
ruled out. Alcubierre's further self-imposed constraints on an acceptable
solution included the requirements that no net time distortion should occur (breakfast
on Earth, lunch on Alpha Centauri, and home for dinner with your wife and
children, not your great-great-great grandchildren), and that the occupants of
the spaceship were not to be flattened against the bulkhead by unconscionable
A solution meeting all of the above requirements was found
and published by Alcubierre in Classical and Quantum Gravity in 1994.
The solution discovered by Alcubierre involved the creation of a local
distortion of spacetime such that spacetime is expanded behind the spaceship,
contracted ahead of it, and yields a hypersurfer-like motion faster than the
speed of light as seen by observers outside the disturbed region. In essence,
on the outgoing leg of its journey the spaceship is pushed away from Earth and
pulled towards its distant destination by the engineered local expansion of
space itself. For follow-up on the broader aspects of "metric engineering"
concepts, one can refer to a paper published by myself in Physics Essays
(Puthoff, 1996). Interestingly enough, the engineering requirements rely on
the generation of macroscopic, negative-energy-density, Casimir-like states in
the quantum vacuum of the type discussed earlier. Unfortunately, meeting such
requirements is beyond technological reach without some unforeseen
breakthrough (Pfenning and Ford, 1997).
Related, of course, is the knowledge that general
relativity permits the possibility of wormholes, topological tunnels
which in principle could connect distant parts of the universe, a cosmic
subway so to speak. Publishing in the American Journal of Physics,
theorists Morris and Thorne (1988) initially outlined in some detail the
requirements for traversible wormholes and have found that, in principle, the
possibility exists provided one has access to Casimir-like, negative-energy-density
quantum vacuum states. This has led to a rich literature, summarized recently
in a book by Matt Visser (1996) of Washington University, St. Louis. Again,
the technological requirements appear out of reach for the foreseeable future,
perhaps awaiting new techniques for cohering the ZPE vacuum fluctuations in
order to meet the energy-density requirements.
We began this discussion with the question: "Can the vacuum
be engineered for spaceflight applications?" The answer is: "In principle, yes."
However, engineering-wise it is clear that there is a long way to go. Given
the cliché "a journey of 1000 miles begins with the first steps," it is also
clear that we can take those first steps now in the laboratory. Given that
Casimir and related effects indicate the possibility of tapping the enormous
residual energy in the vacuum-fluctuation ZPE, and the demonstration in cavity
QED that portions of the ZPE spectrum can be manipulated to produce
macroscopic technological effects such as the inhibition of spontaneous
emission of excited states in quantum systems, it would appear that the first
steps along this path are visible. This, combined with newly-emerging concepts
of the relationship of gravity, inertia and warp drive to properties of the
vacuum as a manipulable medium, indicate yet further reaches of possible
technological development, although requiring yet unforeseen breakthroughs
with regard to the possibility of engineering vacuum fluctuations to produce
Where does this leave us? As we peer into the heavens from
the depth of our gravity well, hoping for some "magic" solution that will
launch our spacefarers first to the planets and then to the stars, we are
reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's phrase that highly-advanced technology is
essentially indistinguishable from magic. Fortunately, such magic appears to
be waiting in the wings of our deepening understanding of the quantum vacuum
in which we live.
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H. E. Puthoff, Ph.D.
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