Casimir Levitation, the idea the very small objects can be “levitated” in a friction free manner is making big headlines right now. Unfortunately, The Casimir effect lives firmly in the spooky world of quantum mechanics and is a little too deep for popular media. This article explains the Casimir Effect and Casimir Levitation in complete layman’s terms. It is well short of a scientific explanation but will give the general idea.
The key concept is that vacuums are not truly empty. The very fabric of space time itself contains a kind of energy. Think of it as tiny tiny waves. At the peak of a wave a particle of real matter is almost created. At the valley, an anti-particle is almost created. This almost ummeasurable fluctuation gives a vacuum a tiny amount of pressure; an energy exerted by the Universe itself.
In the case of the Casimir Effect, two objects are placed very close to each other, within the distance of about ten atoms or so. At these ranges, they begin to effect each other even though they are not touching. The method of this effect is very complex but has to do with the way the vacuum energy between them is effected.
Think of it this way. Our two objects are two piers jutting out into the water. The ripples in the water are the pressure of the vacuum energy. If the two piers are far apart, the ripples between the docks will be like those outside the docks. If the two piers are close however, they will alter the ripples between them, effectively lowering the energy in the vacuum. Once the energy is lowered, there will be less pressure between the objects than around them and they will tend to be pulled together. It’s actually very complex but that’s the basic idea.
Casimir Levitation occurs because the energy between the two objects can be manipulated. If there are other chemicals between the two, they can change the Casimir Effect by adding or subtracting their own energy. The breakthrough that is in the news right now occurred when scientists Ulf Leonhardt and Dr Thomas Philbin used the quantum energy of light to effectively increase the strength of the waves between the two objects. Once they were stronger than the waves around the objects, the pressure reversed and the Casimir effect began to push the objects away. It “levitated” them.
The important thing to remember is that the Casimir effect only works on an extremely small scale. It is levitation but the objects they are levitating get watched on an electron microscope. If flying saucers run on the Casimir effect, then they must be flown by very, very tiny little green men.
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