Listen to a certain flavor of crackpot, or a certain kind of science fiction, and you’ll hear about zero-point energy. Limitless free energy drawn from quantum space-time itself, zero-point energy probably sounds like bullshit. Often it is. But lurking behind the pseudoscience and the fiction is a real physics concept, albeit one that doesn’t really work like those people imagine.
In quantum mechanics, the zero-point energy is the lowest energy a particular system can have. That number doesn’t actually have to be zero, even for empty space. People sometimes describe this in terms of so-called virtual particles, popping up from nothing in particle-antiparticle pairs only to annihilate each other again, contributing energy in the absence of any “real particles”. There’s a real force, the Casimir effect, that gets attributed to this, a force that pulls two metal plates together even with no charge or extra electromagnetic field. The same bubbling of pairs of virtual particles also gets used to explain the Hawking radiation of black holes.
I’d like to try explaining all of these things in a different way, one that might clear up some common misconceptions. To start, let’s talk about, not zero-point energy, but zero-point diagrams.
Feynman diagrams are a tool we use to study particle physics. We start with a question: if some specific particles come together and interact, what’s the chance that some (perhaps different) particles emerge? We start by drawing lines representing the particles going in and out, then connect them in every way allowed by our theory. Finally we translate the diagrams to numbers, to get an estimate for the probability. In particle physics slang, the number of “points” is the total number of particles: particles in, plus particles out. For example, let’s say we want to know the chance that two electrons go in and two electrons come out. That gives us a “four-point” diagram: two in, plus two out. A zero-point diagram, then, means zero particles in, zero particles out.
(Note that this isn’t why zero-point energy is called zero-point energy, as far as I can tell. Zero-point energy is an older term from before Feynman diagrams.)
Remember, each Feynman diagram answers a specific question, about the chance of particles behaving in a certain way. You might wonder, what question does a zero-point diagram answer? The chance that nothing goes to nothing? Why would you want to know that?
To answer, I’d like to bring up some friends of mine, who do something that might sound equally strange: they calculate one-point diagrams, one particle goes to none. This isn’t strange for them because they study theories with defects.
Normally in particle physics, we think about our particles in an empty, featureless space. We don’t have to, though. One thing we can do is introduce features in this space, like walls and mirrors, and try to see what effect they have. We call these features “defects”.
If there’s a defect like that, then it makes sense to calculate a one-point diagram, because your one particle can interact with something that’s not a particle: it can interact with the defect.
You might see where this is going: let’s say you think there’s a force between two walls, that comes from quantum mechanics, and you want to calculate it. You could imagine it involves a diagram like this:
Roughly speaking, this is the kind of thing you could use to calculate the Casimir effect, that mysterious quantum force between metal plates. And indeed, it involves a zero-point diagram.
Here’s the thing, though: metal plates aren’t just “defects”. They’re real physical objects, made of real physical particles. So while you can think of the Casimir effect with a “zero-point diagram” like that, you can also think of it with a normal diagram, more like the four-point diagram I showed you earlier: one that computes, not a force between defects, but a force between the actual electrons and protons that make up the two plates.
A lot of the time when physicists talk about pairs of virtual particles popping up out of the vacuum, they have in mind a picture like this. And often, you can do the same trick, and think about it instead as interactions between physical particles. There’s a story of roughly this kind for Hawking radiation: you can think of a black hole event horizon as “cutting in half” a zero-point diagram, and see pairs of particles going out from the black hole…but you can also do a calculation that looks more like particles interacting with a gravitational field.
This also might help you understand why, contra the crackpots and science fiction writers, zero-point energy isn’t a source of unlimited free energy. Yes, a force like the Casimir effect comes “from the vacuum” in some sense. But really, it’s a force between two particles. And just like the gravitational force between two particles, this doesn’t give you unlimited free power. You have to do the work to move the particles back over and over again, using the same amount of power you gained from the force to begin with. And unlike the forces you’re used to, these are typically very small effects, as usual for something that depends on quantum mechanics. So it’s even less useful than more everyday forces for this.
Why do so many crackpots and authors expect zero-point energy to be a massive source of power? In part, this is due to mistakes physicists made early on.
Sometimes, when calculating a zero-point diagram (or any other diagram), we don’t get a sensible number. Instead, we get infinity. Physicists used to be baffled by this. Later, they understood the situation a bit better, and realized that those infinities were probably just due to our ignorance. We don’t know the ultimate high-energy theory, so it’s possible something happens at high energies to cancel those pesky infinities. Without knowing exactly what happened, physicists would estimate by using a “cutoff” energy where they expected things to change.
That kind of calculation led to an estimate you might have heard of, that the zero-point energy inside single light bulb could boil all the world’s oceans. That estimate gives a pretty impressive mental image…but it’s also wrong.
This kind of estimate led to “the worst theoretical prediction in the history of physics”, that the cosmological constant, the force that speeds up the expansion of the universe, is 120 orders of magnitude higher than its actual value (if it isn’t just zero). If there really were energy enough inside each light bulb to boil the world’s oceans, the expansion of the universe would be quite different than what we observe.
At this point, it’s pretty clear there is something wrong with these kinds of “cutoff” estimates. The only unclear part is whether that’s due to something subtle or something obvious. But either way, this particular estimate is just wrong, and you shouldn’t take it seriously. Zero-point energy exists, but it isn’t the magical untapped free energy you hear about in stories. It’s tiny quantum corrections to the forces between particles.