Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Zero Point Energy ... or Not?

So, the first book of my new contract is to be called Zero Point. In the past I’ve read fragments about zero point energy and thought it seemed like a good science fictional tool I could employ. My plan was for the title to have a double meaning. Zero point energy would be employed as an inertia-less drive for a space ship, whilst there would also be a link to certain ‘year zero’ events I don’t really want to go into here. I therefore bought some books about zero point energy so as to learn more about the subject.

Oh dear.

I started reading then failed to finish three books on the subject. The impression I get is one of wish fulfilment, of, as one scientist has noted, ‘the modern equivalent of the search for a perpetual motion machine’. There’s plenty of science involved and zero point energy, according to current theories, does exist, but when I start reading about its connection to Chakra points and acupuncture, homeopathy, the soul and the ‘energies that bind us all together’ I start to consider whether the book might better serve as fuel for our stove here. That was one of the books. Another one started rambling on about how zero point energy would solve global warming, whilst another referred to Nazi technology and secret projects on American air force bases, and I put it aside before Area 51 got a mention too.

It seems to me that using zero point energy might be about as daft as having my heroes gunning each other down with lasers powered by cold fusion – also connected to zero point energy.

Now, I know, from the ‘Who Reads My Books?’ stuff here, and other contacts with readers, that an awful lot of you work in proper science-based professions. I know there’s a good chance that one physicist, two biochemists/geneticists and hundreds of high-function IT people will be reading this. I also know that there will be many others who love SF and understand science (the two are inextricably linked) who will be reading this. So tell me, what is your opinion of zero point energy?


ILTYT_Adventure said...

It's fine, just don't try to explain it... unless you use the Rodney Mckay (Stargate Atlantis) shouty technique, in which case no one will really get it but they will think it's funny and plausible.


A fictional Ancient power source used to power their cities and outposts. ZPMs supposedly extract vacuum energy from a small artificially-created region of subspace based on the concept of zero-point energy.


Zero-point energy is the lowest possible energy that a quantum mechanical physical system may have and is the energy of the ground state. The quantum mechanical system that encapsulates this energy is the zero-point field. The concept was first proposed by Albert Einstein and Otto Stern in 1913. The term "zero-point energy" is a calque of the German Nullpunktenergie. All quantum mechanical systems have a zero-point energy. The term arises commonly in reference to the ground state of the quantum harmonic oscillator and its null oscillations.

Zero-point energy is sometimes used as a synonym for the vacuum energy, an amount of energy associated with the vacuum of empty space. When the term is used in this way, sometimes it is referred to as the quantum vacuum zero point energy. In cosmology, the vacuum energy is one possible explanation for the cosmological constant.[1] The variation in zero-point energy as the boundaries of a region of vacuum move leads to the Casimir effect, which is observable in nanoscale devices.

See... easy peasy, conceptually it's fine, it just needs some imagination, smoke and mirrors.

Anyone who disagrees is being a nerd to the nth degree.

Unknown said...

LOL play through the game Half Life 2, about a third of the way through you recieve the "zero point energy field manipulator" or simply put the gravity gun... i dont know the science behind it but the entertainment value was colossal. :)

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

Graeme told me about zpe, i'm still indifferent. i'll read anything, get to work.

ILTYT_Adventure said...

Vaude view galor Ra and Isis raisins. Is that the correct pronounciation? And what is Vaude view galor? Other than yourself.
:-) And if so what do Ra and Isis have to do with dried grapes (seriously interested dude) ttfn.

Cheshire Cat said...

As a physicist I tend to cringe when I hear the term, it has really developed a negative connotation.

Again the term has a legit meaning, which is to say: if you a had a harmonic system and extracted all the energy from it that you could (i.e. you cooled it), there would remain the zero point energy. Which is sort of an existence tax. You find similar situations in QM such as the lamb shift, where an electron's existence in space distorts space by slightly polarizing it, thus shifting the "bare" energy electron by slightly shielding the full charge.

All this usually comes about as a consequence of second quantization, i.e. accounting for the background a particle exists in.

LarryS said...

You could shorten it to just Z Point.
The Z Point,hmmmm

Jan Harald said...

I second the Stargate Atlantis references... I'm not going to say I was totally bought on the ZPM's in the series, but I did accept it... :)

Jan Harald

Michael Cummings said...

Not to suggest plotting ideas, but it doesn't have to exist/be explained for characters to want to get at it (or think they're getting close to finding something with it, bah). That said, I don't believe I've ever seen your writing use a McGuffin, so nix that, nm. Why am I still typing? To be a lesson to later commenters...

David said...

sorry but, imo, Zero-point energy is only used in the fantasy end of SF. You know, like those endless Star Trek episodes where the main deflector dish can be reconfigured to fix DNA problems, heal rifts in space, and make a nice omelet.

I work in IT, hoover-up real science news somewhat obsessively, and like my SF hard-core (yourself, Richard Morgan, Alastair Reyhnolds, and Ian M. Banks).

While zero point may exist in the future, to me (at the present time) it ranks right up there with healing crystals, homeopathy, etc, etc.

Sorry chum

Max Kaehn said...

I believe that the people who have experimentally verified the Casimir effect weren’t lying, so you can get energy out of the vacuum, but I have yet to hear of anyone getting useful amounts of energy out of the vacuum. There might be a very interesting story about what happens if someone does figure out how to do that and (since there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch) causes unforeseen trouble when it turns out that that energy was doing something else.

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

While zero point may exist in the future, to me (at the present time) it ranks right up there with healing crystals, homeopathy, etc, etc.

oof ouch bomp.
there ya go.

ra and isis dried up mummy eyes=raisins
vaude view is reviews of live noise show. partial to vaudeville:
or dumb:

now back to zero pts.

RFYork said...

You may not want to be so dismissive about cold fusion. Here's a link from an American Chemical Society cold fusion panel held this year. That's right, the ACS, a thoroughly respectable establishment organization.

kai said...

There are plenty of plot devices in scifi that use something along the lines of zero point energy.

In Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space universe, things like the Conjoiner drives use vacuum energy that they pluck from the quantum vacuum. Iain M Banks uses the Energy Grid as something that underlies the rest of the universe which also seems very similar in concept to zero point energy, and this is how the ships get their energy and traction to move around.

Just don't go too far into explaining the technical details and you should be A-OK.

David said...

In Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space universe, ........and this is how the ships get their energy and traction to move around.

Touche' (key is they don't call it "zero point")

Just don't go too far into explaining the technical details and you should be A-OK.

Well said, and don't call it "zero point". ;-) lol

ILTYT_Adventure said...

Thanks Vaude, I sort of guessed the Vaudeville bit, but I didn't say so cos I didn’t want to end up with egg on my face.

As for ZeePMS. If you were to tap into a region of supspace or too create an empty parallel universe, then in theory you could tap off the ZPM energy from aforementioned parallel universe or region of supspace. At least I think that's how Rodney explained it. The discovery was made as a by product of wormhole technology, which seems to me to parallel Runcible technology, therefore probability of useable zeropoint energy must increase, we are after all talking about a parallel infinity from which to draw and infinite supply of zero point from... I think.

Worst ways it's no more improbable than an Improbability Drive, or extracting the energy from a sun using a Dyson sphere, which to be fair you can't really drag around as a space ship fuel cell... unless you use Tardis technology to place aforementioned sun in a Dyson sphere inside a spare dimension with a humungous three pin socket (and some spare fuses), and some kind of containment field or buffer to prevent dimensional bleed, and of course you would need people inside the sphere dimension to maintain it and maybe a habitable planet for them to live on... fuck it to complicated, I'll get the tube.

Tony B said...

Oh, I've read the Nazi flying saucers one. A lot of hooey.

Cheshire Cat said...

Just to be clear, zero point energy is not simply a reserve of energy that one can tap even in theory. ZPE refers to the limit a system can be cooled. I think it is this misconception that makes the idea sound silly.

If you want to theorize that you can tap the energy of an alternate Universe I am much more ok with that, then saying you are tapping the ZPE of that alternate Universe, because in the latter it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what ZPE actually means.

My $0.02

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

ya could rename it "Zero Point Huckster's Hoodwink". all paths regilded.

GarryM said...

I like the concept of Zero Point Energy – it just sounds like a really cool and interesting sort of idea.

However, my understanding of ZPE is that if it exists at all, then it cannot be tapped for any useful purposes.

ZPE is the difference between the energy level that we and our universe “live” at and the absolute minimum energy level that there could be.

An analogy that I rather like is this; imagine a society that lives on a plateau. The top of the plateau is one mile above sea level. Everybody and everything that is on the plateau has the potential energy of being one mile above sea level, but they don’t know that and since this society lives in the middle of the plateau and has no desire to explore, they don’t know that their “world” is the top of a very big very wide pillar of rock that towers over the surrounding countryside. One day, a strange deviant member of the society goes exploring and finds the edge of the plateau. Not really understanding the concept of the world having an edge or of height, he steps off the plateau and proceeds to plummet one mile downwards to his death. During his fall, all that potential energy that he had from being one mile above sea level is converted to kinetic energy, and the consequence is that when the intrepid explorer impacts with the ground he goes splat in a very messy fashion. For our plateau society people, that is their Zero Point Energy.

So, for me this illustrates the two problems with ZPE. The first is that it assumes that our universe has an energy level higher than some other surrounding level. Plateau world absolutely has a higher potential energy than its sea level surroundings, but what would be the equivalent to our universe? Guess we would need an intrepid explorer of our own to find that out for us. Then there is the second problem, how could you possibly extract the energy in any useful fashion. Potential energy is exactly what it says; it is the potential for energy, not energy itself. Plateau world people can’t get access to the potential energy inherent in them just because they are one mile above sea level, and I suspect that even if we ever found our universe’s equivalent form of potential energy, we would be just as unable to access it.

Having said all that, I still think that the concept of ZPE is a very cool and interesting one.

Mark T Croucher said...

Science Fiction maybe aimed at merging technical possibilities in physics, biology, and chemistry with a good yarn but I am willing to suspend belief for the want of a good story. So what if the concepts not solid, that would make classic authors like Doc Smith, Asimov, Stapleton, Wells to name but a few fall into a huge catagory of sci-fi that cannot be good because their science is now flawed.

Personally, I wouldn't worry about it. Make zero point energy what you want it to be using as much of the facts as you can and i'll take a leap of faith on the rest.

伊翊彬彬芷蘭 said...


Mark T Croucher said...

Totally agree with the above statement.

freegnu said...

Gravitational fields and magnetic fields and the constant quantum spin of everything in the universe may be considered potential energy sources. Zero point energy is figuring out how to tap into those real and always available sources of energy.
An antigravity or artificial gravity field might not seem like a potential source of energy until you have to account for it's affect on the existing gravitational fields around it. creating a gravitational field strong enough to give a person earth normal gravity in orbit around the earth may cause that gravitational field to also attract the moon and the earth. Seeing as how you have just created a gravitational field with the same virtual? mass as the earth. Now since gravitational and magnetic fields can be focused by other gravitational fields maybe all antigravity and artificial gravity fields are really doing is focusing and dispersing the available gravitational fields using super dense matter or maybe a programmable array quantum dot arrays that can be used to focus and diffuse available gravitational and magnetic fields.
By changing the density, polarity, and magnetism of multiple arrays of programmable quantum dot arrays to focus certain fields and diffuse others you could get near instantaneous space travel. And if if the energy cost is relatively cheap to program those arrays you could get free energy by simply having a turbine powered by a water flow that was pulsed back and forth or up and down by alternating the gravity on and off at the high point and the low point. Or alternatively use a series of pulsed magnetic fields directly created by the arrays to run a turbine or contain a fusion generator, etc.
Some of the work of capturing the quantum noise of our universe has already been developed in the lab. A company recently developed a chip with fine hairs that were extremely sensitive to any motion or vibration as either a battery substitute and or trickle charger. The were quite surprised when they produced a second generation of the chip with finer hairs and even more sensitivity that the hairs were constantly in motion and generated electricity while the chip was still.
Now a Dyson sphere containing a white dwarf or even a neutron star that could have it's fields focused and diffused would probably be an order of power so great that you could get instantaneous travel using gravity and magnetism. Just watch out for short stops causing all matter inside to collapse and implode. It would have to be controlled by a highly sophisticated automation to avoid gravitational wakes that could drag asteroids and planetoids along with it only to have them smash into the sphere at faster than light speeds. Gravity and magnetism are instantaneous.
I know it's not ZPE or ZPM technology but maybe ZPMs are where you store the energy you generate from a neutron stars dyson sphere.

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

...and boom. off to the publishers. which company has such fine hair?

see how this all pans out here:

ILTYT_Adventure said...

One of the best question ever posed Mr Asher. And shed loads of fascinating stuff in the respones.

AngryMurloc said...

Never really read into ZPE, though having a quick glance of what other people have gleaned I might have a go at reading some extra stuff. most of my opinion has been shifted by said gun from Half Life 2.

I expect all these asshole 'sciences' have coined onto the term because its cool, just like what happened to nanotech.

David said...

On a bit of a change of topic I'd like to ask a question about Jain tech and the Prador in the hope that it hasn't already been asked and answered or I've missed it in the books. In the latter case I'll be feeling much embarrassment of course.

In "Polity Agent" it's revealed that humans were targeted by the Makers for Jain infestation. The Polity only survives of course because the top-end AI's had already sorted out Jain tech and were thus able to more or less safely guide human investigations while using the threat of runaway Jain tech to spur the human race to mental/intellectual growth via synergy with AI/haimen tech.

But what about the Prador? Granted the Polity might be the first race in during a Maker invasion of our galaxy but the Prador are hardly pushovers. So, once the Jain nodes arrived via Dragon why was only humanity targeted? Prador certainly don't seem to be above enhancing themselves via various physical attachments and augmentations although they clearly detest AI. On the other hand Jain is organic tech and the events of the Sable Keech would imply that they Prador, recognizing the potential benefits of an alien organic tech might be even more vulnerable to a Jain takeover due to the hierarchical nature of their society. An analogy would be the power Jain tech gave Skellor to control those wearing Dracocorp augs multiplied many many, many times.

Another book perhaps?

ILTYT_Adventure said...


You need to read the Skinner series, and The Gabble. Mr Asher has quite cleverly some would say (though I think it's a fucking liberty and a cynical attempt to make loads of money, buy selling lots of smaller books instead of one giant one)included the answers to pretty much all your questions.

Jokes aside, you won't have wasted your time reading the Skinner series and The Gabble... or for that matter Shadow of the Scorpion.

David Constantine said...

Neal - -have you looked at Nick Cook's THE HUNT FOR ZERO POINT? He used to be Aviation Editor at Janes', which is why his book is the best I know of on zero-point, steering an interesting middle ground between the wide-eyed believers and the "it's all crank science" mainstream. One doesn't have to accept his conclusions for his book to be very useful source material for an SF writer.

Unknown said...

Hmmm I thought that this zero point stuff (or vacuum energy) was associated with 'quantum foam'

Where when you get to a small enough scale the universe froths with spacetime and singulartities mixing like boiling water. With massive energies available relaitive t0 the small scale.

The onlt example of any 'proof' of this sort of energy is in hydrosonic water heaters or cavitation heaters. These had been said to output more heat energy that the electrical energy put in. Which should be impossible.

Since these heaters are not in wide use already, being releitively simple things, possibly shows that they don't output more energy than they put in.

Cheshire Cat said...

Re: Paul's comment
To my knowledge there is still no consensus on Quantum Gravity, so the "Quantum Foam" at the Planck scale is still speculative. The concept of vacuum fluctuations comes about from quantum field theory. Basically the probability of a particle (energy) appearing from the background has a short existence related to the energy cost. This results in no net gain of energy on average, and thus you can only get something for nothing on a time scale that is essentially zero for humans. See Planck time on the wiki:)

Neal Asher said...

Wow, thanks for the extensive replies. Check my next post on the subject.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Theo d'or said...

I'm only about 7 months behind with my post, but when I wrote in my blog reply about writing SF, I had also gone for the allure of ZPE, without having thoroughly understanding it. In my as-yet-unpublished-and-future-famous-novel it is mainly used as a plot device to get humans around the solar system in fairly small space ships in a useful amount of time without having to refuel as would be required by the other mainstay of SF, the good old fusion engine.

By fairly small, I mean the size of a good sized modern ship of course.:D