A joint research performed by scientists from the University of Western Australia and the University of California Merced has come with a new method to calculate small forces and use them to control objects.
The study, published today in Nature Physics, was led by Professor Michael Tobar, from UWA’s School of Physics, Mathematics and Computing and Chief Investigator at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems and Dr. Jacob Pate from the University of Merced.
Professor Tobar said that the outcome is a new method to manipulate and control macroscopic objects in a non-contacting way, enabling increased sensitivity without adding loss. Once believed to be of only academic interest, this tiny force, called the ‘Casimir force,’ is now attractive for fields including metrology and sensing.
“If you can measure and manipulate the Casimir force on objects, then we gain the ability to improve force sensitivity and reduce mechanical losses, with the potential to strongly impact science and technology,” Professor Tobar explained.
How the New Method Works
The researcher also said that in order to understand this, we need to go deeper into the weirdness of quantum physics. According to Professor Tobar, a perfect vacuum doesn’t exist – even in empty space at zero temperature, virtual particles, such as photons, flicker in and out of existence.
“These fluctuations interact with objects placed in a vacuum and are actually enhanced in magnitude as temperature is increased, causing a measurable force from “nothing”—otherwise known as the Casimir force,” the scientists said.
“This is handy because we live at room temperature,” he continued detailing how this works. “We have now shown it’s also possible to use the force to do cool things. But to do that, we need to develop precision technology that allows us to control and manipulate objects with this force.”
Professor Tobar also said that scientists were able to measure the Casimir force and control the objects via a precision microwave photonic cavity, also known as a re-entrant cavity, at room temperature, employing a setup with a thin metallic membrane separated from the re-entrant cavity, finely manipulated to roughly the width of grain dust.
“Because of the Casimir force between the objects, the metallic membrane, which flexed back and forth, had its spring-like oscillations significantly modified and was used to manipulate the properties of the membrane and re-entrant cavity system in a unique way,” Professor Tobar explained. “This allowed orders of magnitudes of improvement in force sensitivity and the ability to control the mechanical state of the membrane.”