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Boffins flick Quantum vacuum switch from suck to blow

Goldenballs will power gecko hoverships, raygun gloves

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Or, freely paraphrasing, we don't really know what's going on here but zero-point energy and the Casimir force are real and could conceivably rip open the fabric of the space-time continuum and destroy the universe. The St Andrews team appear to endorse the idea that zero-point effects could at least be used to produce some kind of ultra-powerful devastating energy ray, as developed by "Syndrome" the supervillain in The Incredibles. On their webpage they show a pic of Syndrome blasting something, captioned:

"Syndrome from Pixar's The Incredibles levitates things on zero-point energy."

The effect was tested in '97, not by a hilarious sequence of pranks played on geckoes, nor by the use of astounding energy-blaster raygun gauntlets, but (of course, duh) by measuring the Casimir forcefield generated by a solid golden ball on a "nanofabricated silicon swing."

So far, so good. But Leonhardt and Philbin were just punting some ideas around in the lab one day, when they came up with the notion of reversing the Casimir goldenball tractor-beam effect between conductive materials by slipping a sheet of "left-handed metamaterial" made of "nanofabricated metal" in between them. This has probably had boffins worldwide slapping their foreheads with cries of "cah! why didn't I think of that!"

Anyway, after a bunch of hard sums, the two eggheads have worked out that you could make a Casimir repellor platform out of unspecified nano stuff, perhaps involving golden balls in some way. You could then lay a half-micron thick aluminium-foil mirror on it and the mirror would miraculously hover just above the platform.

According to the scientists in their rather headache-inducing paper (pdf), "the foil would levitate, carried by zero-point fluctuations."

Or in other words, the quantum vacuum would have switched from suck to blow. In a controllable and completely non-universe-destroying way, of course. Hover ships and raygun gloves still not really on the drawing board.

This would be great, nevertheless - who hasn't wrestled from time to time with the tricky problem of how to keep one's unbelievably thin mirror foil from touching anything?

Well alright, maybe a lot of us don't have that kind of problem. But nano or micro-machine designers do; the chaps who make so-called micro-electro-mechanical systems - for instance the Pentagon's cyborg insect spy project, which aims to implant a soulless controlling machine core inside living creatures. The death-tech boffins might be able to use Leonhardt and Philbin's ideas to create frictionless bearings, allowing the internal Pentagon micro-droid to manipulate hapless living creatures from inside, wearing them like a living cloak.

And that's just one of the potential benefits. Besides, there's still hope for the squamatan-effects sky cruiser hover platform concept. The Van der Waals force is apparently related to the Casimir phenomenon, so there could well be some future gecko-scale applications down the road.

The raygun-gloves thing, though, seems to have been the scientific equivalent of writing "SEX! Ha ha, now we've got you reading ..."®

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