University of Leicester is leading a three-nation
consortium in a ‘fantastic voyage' to explore empty
space - with potential benefits that have only been
explored in the realms of science fiction.
study aims to delve into a ‘void' or empty space
in which atoms move, which has a large intrinsic
energy density known as zero-point energy
Recent investment by the University of Leicester
in the Virtual Microscopy Centre and the Nanoscale
Interfaces Centre has put the University in a key
position to take a lead in Casimir force measurements
in novel geometries.
Casimir force is a mysterious interaction between
objects that arises directly from the quantum properties
of the so-called ‘void'. Within classical Physics
the void is a simple absence of all matter and energy
while quantum theory tells us that in fact it is
a seething mass of quantum particles that constantly
appear into and disappear from our observable universe.
This gives the void an unimaginably large energy
research team carrying out this work has received
a grant of 800,000€ from the European framework
6 NEST (New and Emerging Science and Technology)
programme to lead a consortium from three countries
(UK, France and Sweden).
The programme, entitled Nanocase, will use the ultra-high
vacuum Atomic Force Microscope installed in the Physics
and Astronomy Department to make very high precision
Casimir force measurements in non-simple cavities
and assess the utility of the force in providing
a method for contactless transmission in nano-machines.
Chris Binns, Professor of Nanoscience at the University
of Leicester explained:
“The research will help to overcome a fundamental
problem of all nano-machines, that is, machines whose
individual components are the size of molecules,
which is that at this size everything is ‘sticky'
and any components that come into contact stick together.
If a method can be found to transmit force across
a small gap without contact, then it may be possible
to construct nano-machines that work freely without
machines are the stuff of science fiction at present
and a long way off but possible uses include the
ability to rebuild damaged human cells at the molecular
a sense the actual value of the zero-point energy
is not important because everything we know about
is on top of it. According to quantum field theory
every particle is an excitation (a wave) of an underlying
field (for example the electromagnetic field) in
the void and it is only the energy of the wave itself
that we can detect.
useful analogy is to consider our observable universe
as a mass of waves on top of an ocean, whose depth
is immaterial. Our senses and all our instruments
can only directly detect the waves so it seems that
trying to probe whatever lies beneath, the void itself,
is hopeless. Not quite so. There are subtle effects
of the zero-point energy that do lead to detectable
phenomena in our observable universe.
example is a force, predicted in 1948 by the Dutch
physicist, Hendrik Casimir, that arises from the
zero-point energy. If you place two mirrors facing
each other in empty space they produce a disturbance
in the quantum fluctuations that results in a pressure
pushing the mirrors together.
the Casimir force however is not easy as it only
becomes significant if the mirrors approach to
within less that 1 micrometre (about a fiftieth
the width of a human hair). Producing sufficiently
parallel surfaces to the precision required has had
to wait for the emergence of the tools of nanotechnology
to make accurate measurements of the force.”
The new instrumentation at the University of Leicester
will enable researchers to extend measurements to
yet more complex shapes and, for the first time,
to search for a way to reverse the Casimir force.
This would be a ground-breaking discovery as the
Casimir force is a fundamental property of the void
and reversing it is akin to reversing gravity. Technologically
this would only have relevance at very small distances
but it would revolutionise the design of micro- and
Nanocase partner institutions are: University of
Leicester Department of Physics and Astronomy,
UK (lead institution); University of Birmingham,
UK; Université Pierre et Marie Curie, France;
Linköping University, Sweden.
Further information is available from Chris Binns,
Professor of Nanoscience, Department of Physics and
Astronomy, University of Leicester, tel +44 (0)116
252 3585, email email@example.com