A Blueprint for a Quantum Propulsion Machine

As Feigel puts it: "mechanical action of quantum vacuum on magneto-electric objects may be observable and have a significant value."
Of course, nobody is getting a free lunch here. "Although the proposed engine will consume energy for manipulation of the particles, the propulsion will occur without any loss of mass," says Feigel. He even suggests, with masterful understatement, that this might have practical implications.

So basically, you can create thrust by interacting with virtual particles that don't actually exist. It's not quite a zero-point generator, but it still relies on pushing against fiction.

I guess it works basically the same way as turning electricity into thrust by pushing against a planetary magnetosphere, but without the planet?

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17 Responses:

  1. pavel_lishin says:

    Lisa, in this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!

    • strspn says:

      I'm guessing the paper was designed by the author to see how carefully people can read. While eqn. 10 contemplates a change in linear velocity, almost all of the remainder of the paper discusses changes in angular momentum alone, which are already well amenable to mass gyroscopes. Even the penultimate paragraph is not talking about anything more exiting than rotational angular "propulsion":

      To correct the attitude of a satellite, several degrees per day are required[28]. This corresponds to a tangential velocity of 1 micrometer/sec at 1m radius. This value may be obtained with a magneto-electric constant of \Chi^0_me ~= 10^−3 and ~= 1nm particles, assuming that roughly half of the satellite mass is composed of magneto-electric material (see eqs. (8) and (11) taking \rho ~= 1g/cm2). Materials with magneto-electric constants up to 10^−4 at nanometric scale have been already reported, for instance FeGaO3 in a weak (~= 100 O e) external magnetic field[29]. One may reasonably assume that this gap will be closed in the future due to investigations in new composites[19] and advances in micro-patterning techniques[30.]

      Sadly, the meaning of "quantum effect," has been drifting -- especially in cryptography and telecommunications -- from "small-scale physics anomaly," to "way to get funded for maybe another two or three years."

  2. mackys says:

    Let's just assume for a second, purely for the sake of argument, that this could work.

    Has anyone done the thrust per joule of energy calculations? Cuz I know that railguns based on Lorentz force are some of the most power-hungry objects in existence. Huge-ass capacitor banks have to be charged for hours just to fire one time. And Casimir force only has measurable effects down at the 10-20nm level - we're talking atomic scales here.

    I have a feeling that even if this does work, the amount of thrust you can generate will be so tiny (and the input energy will be so huge), that it'll make paying people to throw ping-ping balls backward off a train car look realistic in comparison.

    Neat idea. Totally impractical.

    • ultranurd says:

      It would probably have a really high specific impulse, right? Although I'm not sure you can really use that term if you're not actually expelling any mass to get the reaction force...

      If you're accelerating very slowly across interstellar distances you'd get an energy efficiency win, but it's certainly not going to get you out of a gravity well.

      Also, I really like the term "quantum wheel".

      • mackys says:

        > It would probably have a really high specific impulse, right?

        In theory, the Isp of this thing is infinite. That's because it's reactionless, and the mass ejected is 0. So if it works at all (i.e. if it produces a non-zero amount of thrust) then anything/0 = infinity.

        • ultranurd says:

          I wonder how/if it would scale up. The nanoparticles, and presumably the collection of them, have to be small to get the effect... but you could you put those rotating nanomass clouds all on a MEMS array, and then put a bunch of those on a plate?

          I hope someone plays with making one work, at any rate.

          • mackys says:

            > I hope someone plays with making one work, at any rate.

            Despite my skepticism, I do too. If nothing else, one of these would make a pretty awesome desk toy.

    • lionsphil says:

      Maybe deep space probes? Getting energy to them is easy (solar panels); mass is not. Forces can be very small over long times as there's basically no friction and plenty of course pre-planning.

      • mackys says:

        Well, call me a skeptic, but I would bet that with the amounts of energy involved, we could put Bussard ramdrives on our deep space probes and they'd still consume way less energy per light-year than this thing. And get where they're going a million times faster.

      • gfish says:

        Solar panels are only really practical in the inner solar system. All the outer system probes are powered with RTGs. But unless this thing has some real oomph, why not just use ion drive? That's a proven technology and (probably) takes way less power. Sure, it still need a propellant, but it only uses like a kilogram per month.

        That said, I think a device which violates Newton's laws would be a valuable investment rather or not it was practical as a drive system.

    • As far as I understand, it's basically a photon engine. Also known as "flashlight". You don't lose any mass and convert energy directly into impulse, generating electro-magnetic waves carrying the opposite impulse (since they don't have any rest mass, the conversion is 100% effective, indeed). Anything else would violate the conservation principles.

      So this guy is either a pseudoscientific freak (which seems quite likely), or he might mean that he found an way to emit powerful broadband EM radiation with nice efficiency.

    • ... but still, where would we get so much energy? p = E/c.

  3. rexar says:

    Meanwhile, when actual scientists do things like this, nobody seems to take note of it.

  4. _candide_ says:

    Aaaactually? This is stating the obvious.

    If you hit the vacuum with enough energy … say, in the form of light … you'll "knock" virtual particles out of the vacuum. Then the virtual particles will quicky disappear (usually by annihilating each other and recreating the photon that created them in the first place). If the light has more energy than the mass-energy of the two virtual particles, the virtual particles become real.

    Nothing new there.

    The thing is, the propulsion that you get from this comes solely from the light exiting the back of the ship. Energy has momentum, too (as another comment pointed out).

    It sounds as if this guy's paper is replacing the light with a very strong electric and/or magnetic field (that isn't light). I'm not so sure that this would differ any from just using an optical propultion engine, like I described above. Nor am I sure that it would be any more efficient.

    And, as another comment also pointed out, you'd need a buttload of light to propel a ship.