The physics behind renewable propulsion systems of the future
Grady Winston’s guest post may cause a few to raise their eyebrows, wondering about the reason for speculating on such futuristic concepts as zero-point energy, or energy that comes free to all because it just happens to be there for the taking. This is an informational report, based on work from physicists. So to naysayers, just remember what some of the first startled reactions were to far-out concepts such as wireless telephony. Thanks for the post, Grady.
Up until now, students planning to go into energy-related careers have been encouraged to study subjects such as geology or nuclear engineering. However, the preferred qualification may soon be a physics degree. This is due to a concept recently proposed by 19-year-old Aisha Mustafa, a student at Sohag University in Egypt. Her idea involves using what is known as “zero point energy” to propel a spacecraft, without the need for rockets or other conventional forms of propulsion.
Limitations of Traditional Forms of Power
Historically, transporting people or cargo has meant using finite power sources. In centuries past, this was provided by animals, which were used to pull carts, wagons, or chariots. In the 19th and 20th centuries, steam and petroleum engines were developed. Atomic energy has been used to generate electricity since 1954, when the first commercial nuclear plant went online in the USSR.
Each of these forms of power depends on non-renewable resources. As human civilization expands, its energy requirements grow ever greater. This poses an increasing risk of environmental damage and depletion of the earth’s supplies of coal, oil, and uranium.
Alternative Fuel Sources
Awareness of this has led to the development of various alternative types of power in recent decades. These include biofuels, which use bacteria to convert human and animal excrement into energy, and fuel cells, which depend on a chemical reaction between oxygen and hydrogen. Honda Motor Company has already built cars that use fuel cell engines. But they’re of limited use without an infrastructure to support them.
Solar, wind, fusion, natural gas and batteries also have their proponents. While each has its merits, all of them have limitations. Solar panels are relatively inefficient and require sunlight. Wind energy systems require wind to generate electricity. Natural gas, while much greener than oil, still emits hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. Fusion power will remain the stuff of science fiction until the technology to create it is developed. Batteries, in their current form at least, can only drive a vehicle a maximum distance of 100 miles or so before they must be recharged. None is a suitable candidate to propel spacecraft.
Mustafa’s Solution: Limitless Energy for Free
Mustafa’s idea is to avoid these problems by tapping into a completely different source of power: the energy created by quantum fluctuations. The simplest way to explain her proposal is to realize that there is no such thing as “empty” space. Every point in the endless vacuum beyond earth’s atmosphere is filled with what scientists call “virtual” particles, which pop in and out of existence trillions of times a second. Each one creates only a tiny amount of force. But together they are strong enough to move objects, as was proven in the Casimir experiments in 1996.
This power source is inexhaustible. It’s a fundamental part of physical reality everywhere in the universe, so a spacecraft making use of it will never run out of fuel. It uses no limited resources, causes no pollution and is literally free for the taking. Dutch physicist Hendrick Casimir first predicted it in the late 1940s. He built on the work of earlier physicists like Einstein, Neils Bohr and Walter Heisenberg. It has been proven to exist by multiple experiments.
How it Works
Mustafa has come up with a basic idea of how to harness this type of energy using Casimir Plates. Two flat, reflective silicon plates will be placed close together and then handled to interact with the quantum particles. Energy is generated from the particles by moving the plates, causing a net force which moves the spacecraft. By having a system of plates around any type of space craft or satellite, movement can be achieved by creating force in multiple directions. This provides a more controllable way to traverse space and a much more cost-effective means as well, allowing ships to accelerate and decelerate on command.
Similarity to Other Ideas
Mustafa’s proposal is similar in some ways to the idea of using a “solar sail” as an interstellar drive. This idea exploits the fact that the sun emits billions of photons into space continuously, and, as James Maxwell discovered back in 1873, light emits a pushing force on whatever it strikes. Scientists at NASA and other agencies have proposed constructing a massive piece of ultra-thin reflective fabric in orbit. It would need to be the size of the state of Texas, which covers 268,820 square miles, to harness enough of the solar energy to propel even a small spaceship at an appreciable speed.
This idea isn’t new. Arthur C. Clarke wrote about it in his story “Sunjammer” in 1960. As bold as the notion is though, it’s far from problem-free. Besides the enormous engineering challenges involved in constructing the sail, it would be vulnerable to meteorites and other particles that could tear its delicate material to shreds.
It would also become less efficient the further it got from the sun. This problem could be mitigated somewhat by the use of solar power collectors near the planet Mercury, which would aim laser-like beams of energy towards the sail as it traveled towards the edge of the solar system. However, once it was in motion the crew would face the challenge of making it slow down as it reached its destination.
These difficulties point to another strength of Mustafa’s proposal. Not only could it create a propulsive force, it could also be used to maneuver and even slow a starship down, by manipulating the positions of the Casimir plates which power it.
Don’t Look for it to Happen This Year
Of course none of these ideas are going to become reality until decades or even centuries from now. Scientists and engineers must first work out the millions of tiny details needed to turn Mustafa’s idea from a proposal on paper into a practical propulsion system. Nonetheless, her achievement demonstrates that green sources of power are available. We need only the will and the commitment to harness them, for the good of the earth and of all humanity.
About the Author:
Grady Winston is an avid writer and internet entrepreneur from Indianapolis. He has worked in the fields of technology, business, marketing, and advertising implementing multiple creative projects and solutions for a range of clients.
Image credits: Heyuguys, Thestargarden