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CONDUCTED SEPTEMBER 2004
Question 1: Tell us a about yourself. What is your background, and where were you educated?
I am one of the rare Silicon Valley natives. Second generation computer engineer, learned to program when I was 10. BS/Comp. Sci. from UCSB, MS/Comp. Sci. from UCLA. But computers aren't the only thing I know.
My family has a tradition of researching anything of concern or interest to us—in any field. For example: my mother, to quell her fears of the unknown as she grows old, is currently getting a Master's in gerontology. Likewise, I studied nanotechnology and quantum physics in my spare time, to see what practical near-term applications could come out of these fields that have been getting so much press in recent years. I am careful not to style myself as an expert just because I've studied a little bit; I acknowledge there are things I do not know—so that I can learn them so they do not remain unknown. For example, the experiment this article is about is first and foremost an experiment: its primary objective is to further my own knowledge and maybe others'. It so happens that we might get a new power source as well, but that's not guaranteed.
Question 2: What is the Casimir effect?
A result of the fact that virtual particles - short-lived pairs of particles
constantly appearing and then annihilating each other.
Back in 1948, physicist Hendrik B. G. Casimir predicted that if you place two electrically neutral, perfectly parallel sheets of metal very close to each other—less than a micron, preferably less than a hundred nanometers—the longer wavelengths of virtual particle pairs would not be able to appear between the sheets. But they would continue to appear outside the sheets, thus producing a pressure that would force the sheets together. Technically, this could be said to exist even if the sheets are more than a micron apart, but the force only becomes significant with small separations (thus more wavelengths excluded, thus higher pressure).
It appears to have taken until the 1990s to actually prove this theory, though, mainly for want of instruments sensitive enough and machining capability with the necessary tolerances. But this has now been demonstrated by multiple experiments in different labs, and appears to be one of the more generally agreed-upon facets of quantum mechanics.
So, of course, many people have been trying to tap it for energy—but in the classical formulation of parallel metal plates, the Casimir force is conservative: you have to put as much energy in to separate the metal plates as you got out from them coming together. There have been useful experiments in using this to moderate some other energy source, or in using this to store energy, but to my knowledge, no one has been able to successfully demonstrate actual energy production from the Casimir force alone. (Many people claim to have done this, but every one I've seen shows all the signs of fraud, especially never actually managing to show the claimed success to independent outside observers. They could be deliberate frauds, or they could have deceived themselves into believing, but the fact remains that they don't apparently actually have what they say they have. I might not have succeeded yet, but then I don't yet claim that I have—or promise that I will when I don't yet know for sure.)
Question 3: Describe your vision for exploiting the Casimir effect for energy production. How did you conceive of this concept?
I conceived of it by studying the failures, and why they had failed. At first
I was thinking about parallel plates too, trying to come up with a way
I have attached a diagram, where the ring (the grey circle on the outside) rotates clockwise. The Casimir force at point B can be broken into two components, as illustrated: most of it tries to pull the point inwards (and is resisted by the structure of the ring, and thus can be ignored), but a small portion pulls the point clockwise. There is no counterclockwise force to balance this: point A, and the part of the circle immediately clockwise from it, is shielded by the non-metal material (designated by black; I haven't settled on what material to use here, but ideally it should be some kind of blackbody). The shields are fixed in place relative to the square metal core, but again, the ring is free to rotate around the rest of the device. (Leaving the ring free proved to be one of the most difficult requirements when figuring out how to manufacture this.)
Note especially that there is no external energy input save for the Casimir force itself. This is deliberate, so I can not delude myself into thinking I'm getting more energy out than I put in when I'm actually just getting a measurement error (which has derailed quite a lot of proposed alternate energy sources; an equivalent for reactions that do require energy would be powering the reactions from their own output). If I get anything out, it will be in excess of zero.
While there is an equation stating the magnitude of the Casimir force for parallel plates, similar equations for other cases (like this) are hard to find. There is even some speculation that the Casimir force would actually be repulsive instead of attractive in this situation, in which case the arrows on the diagram would reverse. But all of the studies I have seen thus far indicate that, whatever the actual force is, it should at least be larger than static friction in my current experimental setup, so I should get some rotation.
For the record: I registered appropriate IP protections for this long before this interview. Not that I'm that afraid of IP theft - to successfully implement this, there are a few quantum mechanics details one would need to know that I haven't mentioned here, and then of course you need enough practical knowledge of nanotech to be able to actually build the thing. For instance, the diagram here is for an idealized version if you could manipulate things down to the atom level; in practice, the diagrams I'm actually feeding to the equipment I'm working with are blocky approximations (which blocks could affect the experiment).
Question 4: Approximately how efficiently would your Casimir machine
operate? What proportion of the energy gained from
To be honest, I haven't looked very far into this. I'm just seeing whether I
can tap any energy there at all. That said, if it does work, the best initial
That is all theoretical, and again, I have not thoroughly studied that part, so there could be factors I have not yet accounted for. I've been focusing on whether it works at all: if it does not, then efficiency and so forth becomes moot.
Question 5: Have you come across any technical arguments which could potentially invalidate your Casimir energy machine? How many individuals have examined your proposals for technical accuracy?
I've lost count of the number of quantum mechanics academics I've asked to review my idea. The response from every one of them has been essentially the same: while they do not see why this would not work, they do not wish to endorse it since all other proposals they've seen to tap the Casimir effect have run afoul of its conservative nature. They acknowledge my explanation of why this looks like it won't*, but they'd still prefer a demonstration before endorsing it. Which is fine by me: I'm not going to claim it will work for sure either, unless and until I actually get it to work.
In short, the expert opinion I've received is, "We don't know if this will or
will not work."
As a matter of fact, the experiments I'm doing are for units only about a micron or so across. Billions would fit on a standard 4 inch diameter silicon wafer. So, technically, this would be very portable, and the non-portable versions would just be very large arrays of the portable versions.
The flip side of that is that each individual unit produces an extremely tiny amount of power even under the most optimistic theoretical calculations. I do not yet know exactly how much that would be, and I won't know until I find out the rotational speed et al (on which there is theoretical disagreement, so this is one of the things my experiments are intended to find out—immediately after determining whether there is any rotation in the first place). So while you could certainly have a generator small enough to carry, it is not yet known whether it would produce enough power to be worth anything (again, assuming this works at all). Even if everything goes very well, larger arrays (like for power plants, or at least home cogeneration facilities) would probably be more feasible at first than portable ones, although one application I would like to aim for is using this in place of batteries for electric vehicles.
Question 7: It appears that virtually all of the expense resulting from
generating energy from the casimir effect would come from materials and
component fabrication costs. Have you made any preliminary analysis regarding
the price per kilowatt of electricity
No. Any analysis I tried to make at this stage would be misleading at best, a
result of both uncertainty in how much power would be generated and in having
not yet honestly explored the mechanisms for mass manufacture. At this level of
uncertainty, I'd rather not provide made up data for people to pin false hopes
on. The only thing for certain is that, if this does work, mass production
techniques would be the best way to go for even the smallest craft shop
production facility. Creating a few units by hand to try various configurations,
I can do by hand for a reasonable
Question 8: Your technique for component fabrication relies extensively
on sophisticated 3-dimensional lithographic etching.
Actually, I'm using 2-dimensional etching with precisely controlled
processing to create the 3-dimensional effect, mainly because I do not have
Question 9: Have you had difficulty getting funding for your company, Winged Cat Solutions? Do you have any angel investors or corporate financial support?
Winged Cat Solutions is funded out of my own pocket. You'd be surprised how little funding you truly need if you go to the right places. For example, the Stanford Nanofabrication Facility has agreed to allow me to use their equipment for my experiments, for at most a few thousand dollars per month (the exact amount depending on how much I actually do; I've had months where I've spent less than a hundred dollars). The same offer is open to anyone with similar experiments to run; my operation is smaller than they're used to dealing with, but it certainly fits within their scope. (Of course, you have to know what you're doing, but they offer—and require—safety and equipment training for anyone who wishes to run experiments using their facilities.) A number of other facilities are coordinating with Stanford to offer similar services elsewhere in the United States, under the banner of the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network.
Once my experiments are complete and I'm ready to go into production, that will be a different story. SNF and the NNIN are for research and development only, emphasis on research. Then again, if and when I can demonstrate that this works (necessary before I could possibly be ready for production), I doubt I will have much difficulty raising funding at that time.
SNF has asked that I add their formal acknowledgement statement: "Work was performed in part at the Stanford Nanofabrication Facility (a member of the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network) which is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant ECS-9731293, its lab members, and the industrial members of the Stanford Center for Integrated Systems."
Question 10: How great is the potential for generating energy from the
Casimir effect? Could machines based on Casimir
If it works, yes. The usage model would be much like solar energy, except not affected by weather or day/night or needing to be outdoors. (For the record, most of my home's power needs are provided by solar power - and that's only "most" because I have a lot of computer servers, and thus use enough power to qualify for industrial rates. Or rather, I did before the panels were installed. Suffice it to say that they've already paid for themselves, and it's been less than 5 years since installation.)
Question 11: Your arguments for Casimir energy generation are still
theoretical. Have you done any computer simulations
Yes. But those are only as good as the data, including assumptions, that one feeds into them. If this doesn't work in practice, I'm pretty sure I know which one of the assumptions I used will turn out to have been wrong.
Question 12: What are your plans for the next decade?
Finish the experiment to see if this works. Then, based on the results, make plans. [laughs]
Seriously, though, I don't tend to plan that far out. My life tends to be too chaotic to reliably plan more than several months in advance, on average. But it shouldn't take a decade to see whether or not this device works. If it weren't for Murphy and some equipment failures, I'd already have the initial experiments done by now. As it is, said experiments are currently planned for sometime around October. Even if it fails, I might write an article about that, in case anything of what I've done is of use to others.
This interview was conducted by Sander Olson. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of CRN.
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