Mustafa's Space Drive: An Egyptian Student's Quantum Physics Invention

ion drive

Remember the name, because you might see it again: Aisha Mustafa, a 19-year-old Egyptian physics student, patented a new type of propulsion system for spacecraft that uses cutting edge quantum physics instead of thrusters.

First, a little background: One of the strange quantum facts at work in Mustafa's engine idea is that there's no such thing as a vacuum, devoid of particles, waves, and energy. Instead the universe's supposedly empty spaces are filled with a roiling sea of particles and anti-particles that pop into existence, then annihilate each other in such a short space of time that you can't readily detect them.

Mustafa invented a way of tapping this quantum effect via what's known as the dynamic Casimir effect. This uses a "moving mirror" cavity, where two very reflective very flat plates are held close together, and then moved slightly to interact with the quantum particle sea. It's horribly technical, but the end result is that Mustafa's use of shaped silicon plates similar to those used in solar power cells results in a net force being delivered. A force, of course, means a push or a pull and in space this equates to a drive or engine.

In terms of space propulsion, this is amazing. Most forms of spacecraft rely on the rocket principle to work: Some fuel is made energetic and then thrust out of an engine, pushing the rocket forward. It's tricky stuff to get right, particularly on Earth, which is why we shouldn't be surprised SpaceX's recent launch stopped at the critical moment due to a problem with one of its chemical rocket engines. For in-space maneuvering, many different types of rocket are used, but even exotic ones like ion drives (shown in a NASA image above) need fuel. The only space drive that doesn't involve hauling fuel and complex systems into orbit is a solar sail. And Mustafa's invention can, rudimentarily, be compared to a solar sail...because it doesn't need "fuel" as such, and exerts just the tiniest push compared to the thundery flames of SpaceX's rockets. It's potential is enormous--because of its mechanical simplicity and reliability it could make satellite propulsion lighter, cheaper, and thus indirectly lower the cost of space missions of all sorts.

And if you want proof that the tiniest of pushes can propel a spacecraft, check this out: Two Pioneer space probes, launched in the 1970s, are the farthest manmade objects from Earth...but they're not as far away as they should be. Over the course of a year they deviate by hundreds of kilometers from where all our science says they must be in orbit, and it's been found that it's down to the tiniest of pushes coming from radiators on-board that radiate heat waves out slghtly more in one direction than another.

Aisha's invention is so promising that her university's staff aided with a patent application. She intends to study the design further in the hope of testing it out for real in space, but as the OnIslam.net site points out she notes that there's no funding for a department of space science and this prevents important research being carried out in strife-ridden Egypt.

[Image: Flickr user gordontarpley]

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59 Comments

  • David Sims

    This is a hoax. Aisha Mustafa, if she even exists, has not found a way to make the Casimir Effect work in a way that violates the conservation of energy, as it would have to do in order to serve as a means of propulsion. The Casimir Effect is the pressure from vacuum energy that pushes conductive plates together when they are initially hung parallel to each other and separated by a very small distance. Since electric fields can't exist within conductors, the limited space excludes vacuum fluctuations whose energies correspond to a wavelength larger than the gap. Meanwhile, on the outward faces of these same plates, the full spectrum of vacuum energy exerts a pressure greater than that between the plates, and so the plates move together and cling. You might be able to extract a very tiny amount of kinetic energy from the plates as they impact on each other. But to make it happen AGAIN, you must first pry the plates apart, and you'll have to use more energy to do that than you can got.

  • David Sims

    In other words, the process is a net energy sink over a complete cycle. It will not serve for propulsion or as a source of power. The last time I heard something like this, it was two black African girls who ALLEGEDLY had found a way to turn piss into energy. That was also a deception. The media neglected to mention that the energy came originally from some other source: solar, fossil, whatever. This energy was used to hydrolyze the urea in urine to extract the hydrogen, which was later burned to recover some of the energy. The piss part of the process was a completely unnecessary middle step that wasted about two-thirds of the energy that had originally been used to extract the hydrogen from the urea. And the media played it up as though the African girls had actually done something of revolutionary importance. Deception, deception!

  • rgeorge1

    If you have a lightbulb shining out of the back of your space craft, it will generate a small impulse due to momentum conservation - the light leaving the bulb carries away momentum as well as energy. Using light for propulsion is inefficient, since the conversion between energy and momentum for light is quite poor - light carries a lot of energy and almost no momentum, so the spacecraft hardly accelerates at all.
    This is why ion propulsion (e.g. xenon ions) is researched - heavy ions like xenon carry away much more momentum for the same input of energy, when compared to photons, so they're more efficient at accelerating the spacecraft.The dynamical casimir effect is a way of producing (non-classical) states of light. The moving mirror does work on the electromagnetic field in the cavity, and the energy transferred from the moving mirror to the electromagnetic field then leaks out of the cavity and propels the spacecraft, so it's plausible that it could also produce a small impulse.What I want to know is, whether the dynamical casimir effect could ever be more efficient than directly using light for propulsion? I think that basic arguments about the momentum carried per photon moving away from the spacecraft mean that the energy put into moving the mirrors could only ever be as effective as putting the same energy into a lightbulb (or LED, etc) when it comes to accelerating a spacecraft. The patent is a distraction since the test is for novelty rather than effectiveness - What matters is whether using the dynamical casimir effect will be significant or competitive versus other approaches? Is there an upper bound on it's efficiency, and where does that upper bound lie in comparison to using light for propulsion, and in comparison to accelerating ions?

  • Tosh Keune

    What researched!!

    The DAWN spacecraft has been using an Zenon Ion Engine for most of it's interplanetary flight which started with launch on September 27, 2007. They didn't use ion engine during it's first proto planet encounter and won't the second time but to get where it needs to be DAWN has been running a Zenon Ion Engine for most of its time in flight.

  • Adrian Tymes

    Having studied previous attempts to harness zero-point energy, I believe she has fallen into a trap many others have fallen into.  In the video describing this ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?f... ), it's claimed this acts via a pair of mirrors moving toward and away from one another, trapping photos.  You can get energy from the Casimir effect to pull the mirrors closer together, but you have to put the same energy back in to pull them apart - and then you lose energy to friction, and net lose energy per the laws of thermodynamics.  A lot of people have failed to do the math, or made a calculation error, and failed to realize this is a net energy loss.

    It looks like she is further slightly confused: she is attempting to trap photons between mirrors, akin to how a laser works, but the Casimir effect is about particle-antiparticle pairs.  (And a laser requires some outside source of energy...)

    In short, until and unless she can replicate it via experiment, there's nothing here.  (Caveat: I have a patent on a possible means of tapping zero point energy that gets around the above-described problem: US patent number7,411,772, if you want to look it up.  I, too, do not have the money to build a demonstration at this time.  But I'm not promising what the results will be until they are proven via experiment - whether that is proof of a new energy source, or proof that my loophole doesn't work either.)

  • Krageon

     That patent describes very little of anything. I now have as much cause as believing this person did something of this nature as I do to believe you did something of this nature.

  • Denee Austin

    This person is on the cutting edge, and throwing common laws aside, technically speaking, they know more about this then you do sir.

  • Adrian Tymes

    In science, you don't get to throw the laws of physics aside, no matter how common they may be.  Attempting to do so is often a sign of not knowing much, no matter what one professes.  Those who do know, instead point out the loopholes.

  • edmond edwards

    hello dave smith. I have been trying to get to talk to you about information being the substance of reality. please contact me. I am posted on live journal as  waffler_61 if you would care to read my posts. my direct email is finite47@gmail.com   thank you

  • Bogdan Majkic

    Aisha, Well done !

    You are truly talented. If you can see and understand something that is going to be an ultimate technology in the very near future, you will be able to workout the rest of it as well. Not many people are able to do that.Congratulations !!!

  • David Rice

    This article is asinine and insulting. The Casimir effect does not extract any energy from the ZPF: it uses human-provided energy (the placement of the mirror surfaces) and the ZPF (the differences between one infinity and a greater infinity) to perform work (moving the mirror surfaces together). At no time is energy from the ZPF extracted: forces are static--- they are used to convert one form of energy into another form of energy.

    Nor can the ZPF be used to propel a space craft: one needs a propellent, such as water or gas or metallic such as mercury or lead.

    Furthermore, virtual particles remain virtual up to the point that an external energy source is applied.

    The claims made in the article are just.... stupid, idiotic, insulting, and wrong.
     

  • David Rice

    This article is asinine and insulting.  The Casimir effect does not extract any energy from the ZPF: it uses human-provided energy (the placement of the mirror surfaces) and the ZPF (the differences between one infinity and a greater infinity) to perform work (moving the mirror surfaces together). At no time is energy from the ZPF extracted: forces are static--- they are used to convert one form of energy into another form of energy.

    Nor can the ZPF be used to propel a space craft: one needs a propellent, such as water or gas or metallic such as mercury or lead.

    Furthermore, virtual particles remain virtual up to the point that an external energy source is applied.

    The claims made in the article are just.... stupid, idiotic, insulting, and wrong.

  • Billy Griffin

    You don't need a propellent. Have you considered using the force of expansion, which operates independent of inertia, as opposed to propulsion? Have you considered that while energy does need to be put into such a system to get it to work, an overunity generator makes more than it uses anyway?

  • Zachary Sutherland

    your an extreamly volitile person arnt you? very aggressive when speaking and defensive when being spoken too? you do realise that you disproved your own point right? " At no time is energy from the ZPF extracted: forces are static--- they are used to convert one form of energy into another form of energy." Kinetic Energy? pulse energy? any other type of energy one can pull out of another's ass? think man, dont just rage because you dont understand the problems involved

  • David Rice

     You are extremely ignorant and asinine aren't you? The article in question is bullshit, for the facts I have stated. One cannot use the ZPF to perform work because the ZPF is a field (what the "F" stands for, you stupid shit). All fields are static because their histories sum to zero, or in the case of the ZPF, sums to GS (the ground state). For there to be enough photon pressure to move a mass, virtual particles require enough energy to become photons: this face proves the article is bullshit, and that you're ignorant.