Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Mysterious quantum forces unraveled

12.05.2010
MIT researchers find a way to calculate the effects of Casimir forces, offering a way to keep micromachines’ parts from sticking together.

Discovered in 1948, Casimir forces are complicated quantum forces that affect only objects that are very, very close together. They’re so subtle that for most of the 60-odd years since their discovery, engineers have safely ignored them. But in the age of tiny electromechanical devices like the accelerometers in the iPhone or the micromirrors in digital projectors, Casimir forces have emerged as troublemakers, since they can cause micromachines’ tiny moving parts to stick together.

MIT researchers have developed a powerful new tool for calculating the effects of Casimir forces, with ramifications for both basic physics and the design of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). One of the researchers’ most recent discoveries using the new tool was a way to arrange tiny objects so that the ordinarily attractive Casimir forces become repulsive. If engineers can design MEMS so that the Casimir forces actually prevent their moving parts from sticking together — rather than causing them to stick — it could cut down substantially on the failure rate of existing MEMS. It could also help enable new, affordable MEMS devices, like tiny medical or scientific sensors, or microfluidics devices that enable hundreds of chemical or biological experiments to be performed in parallel.

Ghostly presence

Quantum mechanics has bequeathed a very weird picture of the universe to modern physicists. One of its features is a cadre of new subatomic particles that are constantly flashing in and out of existence in an almost undetectably short span of time. (The Higgs boson, a theoretically predicted particle that the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland is trying to detect for the first time, is expected to appear for only a few sextillionths of a second.) There are so many of these transient particles in space — even in a vacuum — moving in so many different directions that the forces they exert generally balance each other out. For most purposes, the particles can be ignored. But when objects get very close together, there’s little room for particles to flash into existence between them. Consequently, there are fewer transient particles in between the objects to offset the forces exerted by the transient particles around them, and the difference in pressure ends up pushing the objects toward each other.

In the 1960s, physicists developed a mathematical formula that, in principle, describes the effects of Casimir forces on any number of tiny objects, with any shape. But in the vast majority of cases, that formula remained impossibly hard to solve. “People think that if you have a formula, then you can evaluate it. That’s not true at all,” says Steven Johnson, an associate professor of applied mathematics, who helped develop the new tools. “There was a formula that was written down by Einstein that describes gravity. They still don’t know what all the consequences of this formula are.” For decades, the formula for Casimir forces was in the same boat. Physicists could solve it for only a small number of cases, such as that of two parallel plates. Then, in 2006, came a breakthrough: MIT Professor of Physics Mehran Kardar demonstrated a way to solve the formula for a plate and a cylinder.

Calculating the incalculable

In a paper appearing this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Johnson, physics PhD students Alexander McCauley and Alejandro Rodriguez (the paper’s lead author), and John Joannopoulos, the Francis Wright Davis Professor of Physics, describe a way to solve Casimir-force equations for any number of objects, with any conceivable shape.

The researchers’ insight is that the effects of Casimir forces on objects 100 nanometers apart can be precisely modeled using objects 100,000 times as big, 100,000 times as far apart, immersed in a fluid that conducts electricity. Instead of calculating the forces exerted by tiny particles flashing into existence around the tiny objects, the researchers calculate the strength of an electromagnetic field at various points around the much larger ones. In their paper, they prove that these computations are mathematically equivalent.

For objects with odd shapes, calculating electromagnetic-field strength in a conducting fluid is still fairly complicated. But it’s eminently feasible using off-the-shelf engineering software.

“Analytically,” says Diego Dalvit, a specialist in Casimir forces at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, “it’s almost impossible to do exact calculations of the Casimir force, unless you have some very special geometries.” With the MIT researchers’ technique, however, “in principle, you can tackle any geometry. And this is useful. Very useful.”

Since Casimir forces can cause the moving parts of MEMS to stick together, Dalvit says, “One of the holy grails in Casimir physics is to find geometries where you can get repulsion” rather than attraction. And that’s exactly what the new techniques allowed the MIT researchers to do. In a separate paper published in March, physicist Michael Levin of Harvard University’s Society of Fellows, together with the MIT researchers, described the first arrangement of materials that enable Casimir forces to cause repulsion in a vacuum.

Dalvit points out, however, that physicists using the new technique must still rely on intuition when devising systems of tiny objects with useful properties. “Once you have an intuition of what geometries will cause repulsion, then the [technique] can tell you whether there is repulsion or not,” Dalvit says. But by themselves, the tools cannot identify geometries that cause repulsion.

Jen Hirsch | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.mit.edu

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Abrupt motion sharpens x-ray pulses
28.07.2017 | Max-Planck-Institut für Kernphysik

nachricht Physicists Design Ultrafocused Pulses
27.07.2017 | Universität Innsbruck

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Abrupt motion sharpens x-ray pulses

Spectrally narrow x-ray pulses may be “sharpened” by purely mechanical means. This sounds surprisingly, but a team of theoretical and experimental physicists developed and realized such a method. It is based on fast motions, precisely synchronized with the pulses, of a target interacting with the x-ray light. Thereby, photons are redistributed within the x-ray pulse to the desired spectral region.

A team of theoretical physicists from the MPI for Nuclear Physics (MPIK) in Heidelberg has developed a novel method to intensify the spectrally broad x-ray...

Im Focus: Physicists Design Ultrafocused Pulses

Physicists working with researcher Oriol Romero-Isart devised a new simple scheme to theoretically generate arbitrarily short and focused electromagnetic fields. This new tool could be used for precise sensing and in microscopy.

Microwaves, heat radiation, light and X-radiation are examples for electromagnetic waves. Many applications require to focus the electromagnetic fields to...

Im Focus: Carbon Nanotubes Turn Electrical Current into Light-emitting Quasi-particles

Strong light-matter coupling in these semiconducting tubes may hold the key to electrically pumped lasers

Light-matter quasi-particles can be generated electrically in semiconducting carbon nanotubes. Material scientists and physicists from Heidelberg University...

Im Focus: Flexible proximity sensor creates smart surfaces

Fraunhofer IPA has developed a proximity sensor made from silicone and carbon nanotubes (CNT) which detects objects and determines their position. The materials and printing process used mean that the sensor is extremely flexible, economical and can be used for large surfaces. Industry and research partners can use and further develop this innovation straight away.

At first glance, the proximity sensor appears to be nothing special: a thin, elastic layer of silicone onto which black square surfaces are printed, but these...

Im Focus: 3-D scanning with water

3-D shape acquisition using water displacement as the shape sensor for the reconstruction of complex objects

A global team of computer scientists and engineers have developed an innovative technique that more completely reconstructs challenging 3D objects. An ancient...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Clash of Realities 2017: Registration now open. International Conference at TH Köln

26.07.2017 | Event News

Closing the Sustainability Circle: Protection of Food with Biobased Materials

21.07.2017 | Event News

»We are bringing Additive Manufacturing to SMEs«

19.07.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Programming cells with computer-like logic

27.07.2017 | Life Sciences

Identified the component that allows a lethal bacteria to spread resistance to antibiotics

27.07.2017 | Life Sciences

Malaria Already Endemic in the Mediterranean by the Roman Period

27.07.2017 | Health and Medicine

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>