Up, Up and Away

Anti-gravity is just so cool in a geeky sense.

According to New Scientist (and today’s Telegraph) researchers may have found a way to play some new games with levitation.

In May 2006, two research teams led by Ulf Leonhardt at St Andrew’s University, UK, and John Pendry at Imperial College, London independently proposed that an invisibility cloak could be created from exotic materials with abnormal optical properties. Such a cloaking device – working in the microwave region – was manufactured later that year.

The device was formed from so-called “metamaterials”, exotic materials made from complex arrays of metal units and wires. The metal units are smaller than the wavelength of light and so the materials can be engineered to precisely control how electromagnetic light waves travel around them. “They can transform space, tricking electromagnetic waves into moving along directions they otherwise wouldn’t,” says Leonhardt.

Leonhardt and his colleague Thomas Philbin, also at St Andrew’s University, realised that this property could also be exploited to levitate extremely small objects.

They propose inserting a metamaterial between two so-called Casimir plates. When two such plates are bought very close together, the vacuum between them becomes filled with quantum fluctuations of the electromagnetic field. As two plates are brought closer together, fewer fluctuations can occur within the gap between them, but on the outer sides of the plates, the fluctuations are unconstrained. This causes a pressure difference on either side of the plates, forcing the plates to stick together, in a phenomenon called the Casimir effect.

This probably won’t start making ships fly to the moon. And despite Professor Leonhardt’s rather humor driven Zero Point Energy reference on his web page describing Quantum Levitation, I get the impression his work is more that serious.

This kind of thing would probalby be extremely important for both low “friction” nano-components where the Casimir effect outweighs “roughness.” It might also be a good way to decouple optical components from external effects allowing for all kinds of precision measurements.

And who knows, perhaps one day, we will have Casimir force driven space making cool “whirrrrr” sounds like on the Jetsons. I doubt it. But it would be drop dead cool.

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