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The Quest to Use Quantum Mechanics to Pull Energy out of Nothing

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Hotta found, to his surprise, that a simple sequence of events could, in fact, induce the quantum vacuum to go negative—giving up energy it didn’t appear to have. “First I thought I was wrong,” he said, “so I calculated again, and I checked my logic. But I could not find any flaw.”

The trouble arises from the bizarre nature of the quantum vacuum, which is a peculiar type of nothing that comes dangerously close to resembling a something. The uncertainty principle forbids any quantum system from settling down into a perfectly quiet state of exactly zero energy. As a result, even the vacuum must always crackle with fluctuations in the quantum fields that fill it. These never-ending fluctuations imbue every field with some minimum amount of energy, known as the zero-point energy. Physicists say that a system with this minimal energy is in the ground state. A system in its ground state is a bit like a car parked on the streets of Denver. Even though it’s well above sea level, it can’t go any lower.

Illustration: Quanta Magazine

And yet, Hotta seemed to have found an…

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