Humanity will forever be at the mercy of energy if we are to continue growing as a species. From the earliest times, we’ve harnessed fire to ward off predators and cook foods to increase our nutritional intake. This took fuel — first brush and wood, and eventually coal and oil. With the invention of more advanced chemical fuels and then the advent of atomic power, we’ve taken steps that have led us onto the doorstep of the cosmos.
It took centuries for us to notice and then finally understand the damage that using certain energy sources have done to our environment. Now that we can measure some of that damage in the form of harmful chemicals in our atmosphere, ozone depletion, and other telltales, concerted efforts to maximize other energy sources such as solar, geothermal and wind power are being undertaken:
There are some possible alternative energy sources, like cold fusion, which may or may not ever be proven or become viable. One of these is zero-point energy. This is a byproduct of the quantum world in which subatomic particles act like waves, constantly moving between energy states, rather than single particles. These fluctuations require energy — a vast quantity of it — and it’s everywhere. “Zero point” actually refers to the fact that this energy exists everywhere all the time, even at absolute zero temperatures. ZPE is, for all intents and purposes, limitless. It’s one of those theoretical Holy Grails.
Being on what many call the “fringe”, there is a great deal of contention surrounding ZPE. Physicists Richard Feynman and Richard Wheeler once calculated that the amount of ZPE in the air within a light bulb might be enough to boil all of Earth’s oceans. However, the mathematics of Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicts that ZPE would be very weak. Indeed, from what physics has observed so far, ZPE seems to be weak. What we know about dark energy, the Casimir Effect, and the expansion of the universe so far shows us that the universe is “low energy”. If the vacuum were teeming with energy such that even comparably small volumes of space contained the power of suns, we should be seeing different physical behaviour.
Zero-point energy DOES exist: If nothing else, it is the lowest possible energy that remains in any system. The question is whether or not its full potential is actually what we observe or is it hiding somewhere, and if so, can we tap into it? This is where the hard work of generations of scientists, mathematicians, researchers and ardent supporters of progress comes into play.
Steven Schear is a veteran in the financial cryptography space, and as a cypherpunk is credited with inventing the “warrant canary” (which allows organizations to lawfully, but subvertly, let the public know if the federal government has access to their information via negative pronouncements such as “the FBI was not here”) and is one of the originators of the Street Performer Protocol that encourages artists to release works into the public domain by asking their audience to pledge monies to receive such works. He has worked in cryptocurrency organizations and was a founder of gold-backed digital bearer certificate company First eCache.
Mr Schear has always worked on the cutting edge of technology. He was an early participant in creating the first 802.11 (WiFi) standard, a co-founder of Gnu Radio, and consulted with the visionary inventor Alvin Marks on his wind and solar energy concepts. It is that spirit which led him to his experience with zero-point energy efforts.
Lest any of us forget, nuclear power was once “fringe” science. It took decades of hard work and sacrifice by people like Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, and even Marie Curie’s earlier experimentation, to understand and harness it. Tapping into zero-point energy needs time and attention paid to it as well if we are to discover its ultimate place.
I interviewed Steven Schear to try and better understand the current state of ZPE work and the potential it might have:
A.S.Deller (ASD): What is your background in work with stochastic electrodynamics and ZPE?
Steven Schear: While studying astronomy and physics I became fascinated by some of the assumptions upon which quantum physics was based. Although professionally my focus became engineering and business development I tried to stay abreast of developments (to the degree an outsider could) in this area.
One of my particular interests was vacuum. Classically it’s simply empty space and the vacuum state can be considered to have zero energy. However, at the extremely small dimensions dealt with, in quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle implies this can’t be true and the actual situation is considerably more subtle. I had read several lay articles predicting that, in these author’s estimations, it might be possible to extract useful energy from the vacuum. This jibed with some key plot points of popular sci-fi (e.g., the Zero Point Modules powering the teleportation bridge devices in the StarGate movie and TV series).
My opportunity to become directly involved with ZPE occurred with a call to Lee Katzman of the startup Jovion in 2009. They had a small team of scientists and engineers attempting to adapt Casimir cavity designs to demonstrate the theoretical possibility of ZPE extraction. Lee was looking for someone with interdisciplinary business and physics experience to head-up their business development. He introduced me to Bernard Haisch, their Chief Science Officer, and Garret Moddel, their Chief Technology Officer. They explained Stochastic Electrodynamics (SED) was the theoretical framework behind Jovion’s technology.
I became familiar with SED’s various flavours, some of its key researchers, arguments supporting and detracting (mainly from mainstream physicists) and even contributed to the SED Wikipedia page. In particular, I delved into the history of Zero Point Energy (ZPE) research.
ASD: Why is SED and other ideas behind ZPE still considered so fringe?
Steven Schear: I think there are two main reasons: scientific and political.
If you search for the theoretical foundations of SED you will find many papers published by leading physicists in mainstream journals (e.g., Boyer, Cetto, França, even Puthoff). Back in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, these papers presented understandable frameworks and created some SED attention from the international community, but they only addressed limited theoretical aspects. They failed for more complex systems (besides the harmonic oscillator). On the other hand, quantum electrodynamics, despite being less intuitive, is by far more powerful.
In addition to theory objections, the politics of academia also present an obstacle to the acceptance of SED.
Firstly, areas of research which do not generate grants and peer-reviewed publications are largely ignored by professors seeking tenure at large universities. This is the system in which decisions about scientists are made by other scientists. Just like tenure, peer review has benefits that explain why it’s universally believed to be essential for the practice of good science.
Also, with few exceptions, the people who evaluate you are older than you are and more powerful. This is true all the way up the ladder. Peer review can easily become a mechanism for older scientists to enforce direction on younger scientists. Older scientists can reward those judged worthy with good careers and banish from the community those judged unworthy.
Even established scientists can be sent down. Julian Schwinger, who shared the 1965 Nobel Prize with Tonaga and Feynman on Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), tried to publish his theoretical paper “Cold Fusion: A Hypothesis” in Physical Review Letters, but the peer reviewers rejected it so harshly that he felt deeply insulted, and he resigned from the American Physical Society in protest.  This marked the end of his academic career.
For more than two centuries, until the present period, our understanding of the laws of nature expanded rapidly. Since the late eighteenth-century significant progress has been made on crucial questions every quarter-century. But today, despite our best efforts, what we know for certain about these laws is little more than what we knew back in the 1970s. Even if we look back more than two hundred years, to a time when science was the concern mostly of wealthy amateurs, it is unprecedented. On the other hand, there has been great progress at the engineering level, which doesn’t always have as much visibility. The use of A.I., deep learning and big data has dramatically boosted the experimental side.
Finally, I’ve become familiar with a number of physicists who have published papers on SED and they tell the same story of being unable to get grants to pursue more detailed theoretical or lab work due to these politics. One of them told me, “The problem with the extraction of ZPF (zero point field) energy in a continuous and useful way is that probably there is not a single solid theory according to which it is feasible or even allowed. If I have (a) solid theory allowing me to predict or simulate the full system required to harness this energy I would be not afraid to show my face, and probably many researchers would follow me. But if we only have a remote hypothesis, any research we may conduct will be high risk, and getting funding or credit will be difficult…” “I feel the pressure to produce papers in journals with the higher impact factor as possible, even if the paper is shit. “… so what we publish is strongly conditioned by the collaboration politics (I mean, what they want to transmit to the community).”
ASD: How do you expect the initial few disruptive years of common ZPF-powered products to unfold?
Steven Schear: How quickly and deeply disruptions occur will be at least partly dependent on ZPE’s capabilities. Even if its figures of merit aren’t too far below current Lithium-ion tech, we could see it: integrated on-chip or inside the case with digital circuitry to obviate the need for batteries in some portable devices, in medical implants, in low energy sensing, or in lamps that never need external power.
If its energy density and economic scalability are even a tenth of liquid-fueled generators a huge vista of applications appear even if they are more modest than a wholesale replacement of primary energy sources.
Green energy, improved fission, and fusion solutions are vying to replace petroleum as primary energy sources. As we have seen, the required investments and technology improvements have been massive and the time scales generational.
Prior to 1900, energy per capita did not rise very much with the addition of coal, 20 gigajoules in 1820 to only about 27 gigajoules by 1900, suggesting that the early use of coal mostly offset other fuel uses or permitted larger families.
When the world turned from biofuels and coal to oil (and natural gas) it eventually resulted in much safer and efficient heating, power-producing products that were much less expensive, more portable (or at least practically transportable), consumer-friendly and simpler to maintain than coal-steam. The range of applications and uptake was much larger and the average energy consumed in society zoomed from 35 gigajoules in 1940 to today’s 70 gigajoules (this includes biofuels, coal, oil and natural gas).
There is a common notion of accelerating technological advances which I believe have been incorrectly proposed and why a transition from a system dominated by conversions of fossil fuels to a new arrangement relying on non-fossil energies will be more difficult than is commonly realized. Not surprisingly, the notion of a generally accelerating pace of technological innovation has been driven primarily by extrapolating significant advances in computing capacities. That is, by extending Moore’s Law from computing to energy. Two of the most popular proponents of this rationale are Ray Kurzweil and Al Gore.
The best way to appraise ZPE’s early potential, for large scale use, is to focus on the two most promising new energy conversions: wind-driven and photovoltaic electricity generation.
In 1986 California’s Altamont Pass, the first large-scale modern wind farm had an average turbine capacity of 94 kW and the largest units rated 330 kW. Nearly 20 years later the world’s largest turbine rated 6 MW and typical new installations were 1 MW. This means that the modal capacities of wind turbines have been doubling every 5.5 years (they grew roughly ten-fold in two decades) and that the largest capacities have doubled every 4.4 years (they increased by a factor of 18 in two decades). Even so, these highest unit capacities are two orders of magnitude smaller than the average capacities of steam turbogenerators, the best conversion efficiencies of wind turbines have remained largely unchanged since the late 1980s (at around 35%), and neither they nor the maximum capacities will see several consecutive doublings during the next 10–20 years.
Due to the relative uniformity of global energy costs versus the prevailing per capita incomes, if ZPE does become a major energy source, the fastest and most transformative impact might be in the developing world.
ASD: What is your perspective on a ZPE society?
Steven Schear: Whether it’s for housing, manufacture, farming, lighting, cooking or maintaining comfort almost all economic decisions turn directly or otherwise with energy: Geopolitical power often rests with controlling access to energy and it’s been the basis for wars.
K. Eric Drexler’s, “Radical Abundance” postulates the almost unimaginable impact of the widespread availability of Atomically Precise Manufacturing (APM). APM is a new kind of manufacturing, bottom-up additive manufacturing based on models from living systems.
Issues of cost, energy density, scaling and reliability will probably control ZPE’s use. Assuming they are very broad, and the figures of merit at least comparable to wind and solar, the world’s inhabitants could become not only carbon neutral but “naturally” (when married with APM) independent of any traditional supply chain. This, in turn, would completely reform societies, economics and the power balance between individuals and governments.
ASD: When do you think a ZPE breakthrough will happen, and what factors still need to fall into place for that to occur?
Steven Schear: Probably in the next 20 years or perhaps never.
In physics progress is usually done in the order: theoretical predictions -> experimental confirmation. If ZPF extraction is possible most physicists would prefer to first have theoretical foundations and then do the experiment since they already know where to look. But there is also the other possibility (which may have already happened), someone finds an apparent excess of energy, we can successfully replicate it, and then we try to understand it and build the theory. However, confirmations can be expensive and often require years to eliminate problems related to experimental design or conduct.
According to one ZPE researcher, “… there is not enough theoretical background… despite SED being an unfinished and unproven theory, there is a lot of theoretical work on the field. (Rather, its) energy extraction from ZPF according to SED. As far as I know, there is no solid theoretical work on this.” “(We need to) figure out if there is any chance to extract energy from ZPF without violating fundamental well-established physics, such as thermodynamics.”
ASD: What method, in your opinion, holds the best chance of ZPE extraction?
Steven Schear: I’m still betting on SED-based solutions.
A recent paper reviewed the leading direct (not, for example, catalyzing or enhancing energy from chemical or nuclear energy) ZPE extraction candidate technologies. According to it, none of the proposals has been reliably demonstrated, yet they remain largely unchallenged. The underlying thermodynamics principles of equilibrium, detailed balance and conservation laws were presented for zero-point energy extraction. The proposed methods were separated into three classes: nonlinear processing of the zero-point field, mechanical extraction using Casimir cavities, and the pumping of atoms through Casimir cavities. The first two approaches were shown to violate thermodynamics principles, and therefore appear not to be feasible, no matter how innovative their execution. The third approach, the one the authors have been pursuing, based upon stochastic electrodynamics, does not appear to violate these principles but may face other obstacles. Initial experimental results were interesting, but given the lower than expected power output, inconclusive.
ASD: What are your thoughts on a potential ZPE generator, ZPE propulsion and spaceflight, and the ZPE’s effects on major world problems such as carbon dioxide emissions, poverty and education?
Steven Schear: If it scales economically, ground or even air transport without refuelling and widespread, off-grid, homes could become a reality. The economics behind the air, sea and ground transport of raw materials and products could be affected in major ways. Off-the-grid could become “off-the-economy”.
The cost of energy is profound in developing nations. For farmers the cost of petroleum-based fuels and fertilizers is fundamental. For city dwellers electricity costs, which mirror those in developed nations, are a huge burden given the much lower prevailing wages.
An almost total transition to ZPE-based energy would eliminate most, except perhaps for agriculture and deforestation, human carbon emissions. This, in turn, could objectively test, for the first time, many aspects of current models predicting human-driven climate change (it’s not possible to test these theories using the “scientific method” which requires reproducible experiments starting with near-identical initial conditions).
If the ZPE technically scales we could see it replace primary generation means at electric utilities, the emergence of much cheaper orbital and interplanetary payloads, even ¼–½ light-speed interstellar spacecraft.
ASD: What do people and organizations need to become more involved to help ZPE become a reality?
Steven Schear: Because ZPE is as yet unproven it seems to me that one of the most effective ways is via gambling, more specifically prediction markets (PM). Unlike normal futures markets and sports betting, PMs can have the advantage of being implicitly used to encourage outcomes.
Robin Hanson, the person credited with introducing this modern notion of gambling, wrote, in 1990, how PMs could encourage research and development that otherwise might not be funded by government or private foundation money. Tom Bell expanded on this in 2006. It is only recently, with the emergence of cryptocurrencies that PMs (e.g., Gnosis), that circumvents regulatory restrictions, have become available.
Notable is Augur’s adoption of the DAI stablecoin versus their own Ethereum-based cryptocurrency to provide insulation from rapid or significant underlying currency price movements. It’s especially important for long term predictions, as those of science are likely to be, to prevent price changes from altering the overall value of the payouts.
Mr Schear goes on to say that although prediction markets are indeed viable, the user experience is still rather complex and will require continued iteration before it can result in something as instinctual and easy to understand as sports betting applications. Widespread use is coming, he believes, as there is currently work being done to reach that point.
Ultimately, it is the spirit behind prediction markets that could be the primary driving force that makes the harnessing of ZPE a reality. Striving to make dreams a reality has been behind many of our greatest achievements — from sailing across oceans, to flight, and to landing astronauts on the Moon. We will likely settle Mars because of those same dreams, and hopefully, begin to clean up much of the damage we’ve done to Earth as well. Zero Point Energy is one of those dreams that could help us along the path to becoming the people we hope we can one day be: true shepherds of our home planet as well as of our destiny.
Mr Schear can be contacted:
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The latest Tweets from Steve Schear (@P01ndexter). Creator Warrant Canary | Director Cylink & Mojo Nation (progenator…
Lee Smolin, “The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next”, 2006.
Jagdish Mehra; K. A. Milton; Julian Seymour Schwinger (2000), Oxford University Press (ed.), Climbing the Mountain: The Scientific Biography of Julian Schwinger (illustrated ed.), New York: Oxford University Press, p. 550, ISBN 978–0–19–850658–4, Also Close 1992, pp. 197–198.
K. Eric Drexler, Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization, 2013
Moddel, G., & Dmitriyeva, O. (2019). Extraction of Zero-Point Energy from the Vacuum: Assessment of Stochastic Electrodynamics-Based Approach as Compared to Other Methods. Atoms, 7(2), 51. doi:10.3390/atoms7020051