ion drive

Egyptian Student’s Quantum Physics Invention
by Kit Eaton / 05-21-2012

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 heatwaves 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 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.

“Aisha Mustafa patented her invention last February in ASRT.”

Egyptian Student Invents New Propulsion Method
by Islam Mitsraym  /  16 May 2012

An Egyptian physics student has successfully created a new propulsion device that could accelerate space probes and artificial satellites through quantum physics and chemical reactions instead of the current radioactive-based jets and ordinary rocket engines. Aisha Mustafa, who has entered the active research area of spacecraft propulsion by her newly invented device, told the governmental EGYNews agency that she patented her invention last February in the Egyptian Academy of Scientific Research and Technology (ASRT). Mustafa’s propelling device is based upon a scientific mix between quantum physics, space technology, chemical reactions and electrical sciences. Current space probes, artificial satellites, spacecrafts and space vehicles use rocket gas engines that depend on forcing a gas to the outside of the vehicle at a supersonic speed or the chemical reactions rockets which propel by solid or liquid fuels such as radionuclide or petroleum, or the electrically-propelled probes which depend on thrusting force via accelerating ions.

On the contrary, Mustafa’s invention powers space vehicles by benefiting from the electric energy formed by Casimir-polder force which occurs between separate surfaces and objects in a vacuum and by the zero-point energy which is considered to be the lowest state of energy. Mustafa added that she used panels for generating electricity. The invention is related to a hypothetical concept of a jet propulsion called “Differential Sail”, which was theoretically created by NASA’s retired professor Marc G. Millis who led NASA breakthrough propulsion physics project.

In a televised interview with the famous Egyptian morning programme “Sabah El Kheir Ya Masr” (Good Morning Egypt), Mustafa, who studies physics in Sohag University, expressed her appreciation to her faculty and university staff for their efforts in helping and providing her with the materials and resources needed. Yet, at the same time she expressed her depression and sadness for the lack of a space sciences department in the Egyptian universities. “Departments of astronomy and physics are only available. Although they are related to space sciences but unfortunately they aren’t into the specific field of my invention and they can’t practically test or implement it.” The 19-year old girl said that lacking of a department for space sciences prevents further national research in this important field and acts as an obstacle for her to continue conducting her studies in this specific area.

According to an Egyptian TV channel, “Egypt 25”, Mustafa’s supervisor, Dr. Ahmed Fikry, who heads the physics department in Sohag University, has shown great interest in his student’s invention and helped her patent it in the ASRT. “I expect this invention to be highly beneficial in several fields and areas of industries,” he assured. On his behalf, the President of Sohag University, Dr. Nabil Nour Eldin Abdellah, said that the university facilitates what he called “Science Clubs” for intelligent and creative students who have the will and capabilities to come up with innovative scientific ideas. “Once we knew about her (Mustafa’s) invention, we encouraged her and provided her with the budget needed through the Science Club for innovative students in the university. This is the case with any other creative student,” Abdellah explained.


The scientific field of space vehicles propulsion is astonishingly rocketing and it gains a wider attention worldwide, thanks to its vital importance for other sciences like engineering, astronomy, geology, industry and others. This is in addition to the vast areas of researches it covers and the high probability of brainstorming new creations, methods and creative tools. Events like the retirement of NASA’s vehicle of space shuttle programme and the need for new methods for space travel at a faster, safer, cheaper and easier means pushes forwards conducting more and more researches in the field of space vehicles propulsion. Currently, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of ideas for innovative propulsion systems which are either presently in use or in progress, or which are still eras or even a millennium-far away from our modern technologies. One of these methods for interplanetary and interstellar travels is the “solar sail” which depends on stellar radiation pressure or laser upon ultra-thin mirrors which work like ship sails. Other accelerating methods make use of the fourth state of matter, “plasma” by thrusting and pulsing.

Electromagnetic Catapult in a Lunar settlement

Some other ideas of innovation include “space elevators”, “space launch loops”, “space fountains”, “electromagnetic catapults”, “space chemical guns”, in addition to numerous hypothetical and theoretically-possible methods which need practical confirmations. Mustafa nowadays aims at testing her invention at major scientific research organisations, hence the possibility of applying it in upcoming space missions. In the next coming decades, space travel would be easier, safer, faster and cheaper, thanks to the mind of an Egyptian girl.

Breakthrough Propulsion Physics. NASA. 19th of November 2008.
Glen A. Robertson, P.A. Murad & Eric Davis. New frontiers in space propulsion sciences. 3 December 2007.

A rapidly moving mirror that turns virtual photons into real ones is the first experimental evidence of the dynamical Casimir effect.
by KFC  /  May 26, 2011

“One of the most surprising predictions of modern quantum theory is that the vacuum of space is not empty. In fact, quantum theory predicts that it teems with virtual particles flitting in and out of existence.” So begin Christopher Wilson from Chalmers University in Sweden and friends in their marvellously readable paper about a rather extraordinary piece of science. This maelstrom of quantum activity is far from benign. Physicists have known since 1948 that if two flat mirrors are held close together and parallel with each other, they will be pushed together by these virtual particles. The reason is straightforward. When the gap between the mirrors is smaller than the wavelength of the virtual particles, they are excluded from this space. The vacuum pressure inside the gap is then less than outside it and this forces the mirrors.

This is the static Casimir effect and it was first measured in 1998 by two teams in the US. But there is another phenomenon called the dynamical Casimir effect that has never been seen. It occurs when a mirror moves through space at relativistic speeds. Here’s what happens. At slow speeds, the sea of virtual particles can easily adapt to the mirror’s movement and continue to come into existence in pairs and then disappear as they annihilate each other. But when the speed of the mirror begins to match the the speed of the photons, in other words at relativistic speeds, some photons become separated from their partners and so do not get annihilated. These virtual photons then become real and the mirror begins to produce light.

That’s the theory. The problem in practice is that it’s hard to get an ordinary mirror moving at anything like relativistic speeds. But Wilson and co have a trick up their sleeves. Instead of a conventional mirror, they’ve used a transmission line connected to a superconducting quantum interference device or SQUID. Fiddling with the SQUID changes the effective electrical length of the line and this change is equivalent to the movement of an electromagnetic mirror. By modulating the SQUID at GHz rates, the mirror moves back and forth. To get an idea of scale, the transmission line is only 100 micrometres long and the mirror moves over a distance of about a nanometre. But the rate at which it does this means it achieves speeds approaching 5 per cent light speed. So having perfected their mirror moving technique, all Wilson and co have to do is cool everything down, then sit back and look for photons. Sure enough, they’ve spotted microwave photons emerging from the moving mirror, just as predicted. They finish with a short conclusion. “We believe these results represent the fifirst experimental observation of the dynamical Casimir effect.” Impressive result!

Ref: Observation of the Dynamical Casimir Effect in a Superconducting Circuit

Dyckovsky’s bedside table — the spoils of teenage quantum research. {photo: Brendan Hoffman}

by Cade Metz   /  6/12

Ari Dyckovsky was 15 when a Bose-Einstein condensate hit him right between the eyes. It didn’t really hit him between the eyes. That’s just a metaphor. But metaphors are thoroughly appropriate when you’re discussing a trip from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., into that alternate universe known as quantum mechanics. When he was 15, Dyckovsky sat down to watch a PBS documentary that culminated with a group of physicists creating a new form of matter called the Bose-Einstein condensate, or BEC. First predicted in the 1920s by Albert Einstein and an Indian scientist named Satyendra Bose, BEC isn’t a solid or a liquid or a gas. It’s not even a plasma. Existing only at extremely low temperatures, where it exhibits the seemingly magical properties of quantum mechanics, BEC is something different — a group of atoms that act like a single super atom, particles that behave like waves. Sitting in his home in Leesburg, Virginia, about 30 miles west of D.C., Dyckovsky was intrigued by the counter-intuitive nature of the quantum world. But he was also struck by the idea of spending a lifetime building something the world had never seen. That Bose-Einstein condensate hit him so hard, he decided that quantum physics was the life for him too. No doubt, there are countless other teenagers who decide much the same thing. But Ari Dyckovsky took the express route.

Dyckovsky is now 18, and his paper on another mind-bending aspect of the quantum world — quantum entanglement — was just published by Physical Review A, one of the world’s leading physics journals. Co-authored with Steven Olmschenk — a researcher with the Joint Quantum Institute, a collaboration of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Maryland at College Park — the paper breaks new ground in the ongoing effort to build a quantum computer, so often called the holy grail of technology research. “Yes, he’s very young, but he’s the first author on that publication and rightfully so,” Olmschenk says. “All of the brute force calculations and things like that — Ari did most of it, if not all of it.” The paper — a theoretical analysis of how two distant and very different particles can be entangled with light — is about 90 percent brute force calculation.

The publication is no surprise to Ari’s mother, Amy Dyckovsky. She traces his quantum ambitions all the way back to a cross-country car ride the family took when he was little more than 3 years old, moving from California to Virginia. At an age when most children are still learning to put words together, Ari sat in back seat solving math problems tossed out by his father, a market researcher and high-tech exec with a degree in economics and a Yale MBA. In the beginning, the games were simple — addition and subtraction — but they quickly progressed into multiple-digit multiplication and the square roots of very large numbers. They continued through elementary school, Ari says, and they soon morphed into something akin to physics. “I would get bored at school, but when I got home, he would make me these math worksheets … algebraic word problems,” he says. “After a while, they became less about math and more about how would you use math to describe something, to show what’s going on. That’s what physics is.” But there’s not a direct line to that PBS documentary. Ari’s rather accelerated education slowed when he was 9. His father died after an unexpected heart attack, at the age of 47, and as Ari tells it, his interest in education of any kind almost dried up completely. “He took a serious downward spiral,” his mother says. “We all did.” This continued for years. “I lost hope in many ways, especially when it came to my education. I immediately adopted the notion that my education was no longer important without my father,” Ari says. “For two weeks, I refused to leave the house, and I was finally forced to attend school. I was not happy about it. It really was a major setback.”

Ari credits his grandfather — his mother’s father — with reviving what had been a natural curiosity. “School was very easy for me, even after I lost interest,” Dyckovsky says. “But my grandfather kept telling me to look at it in a different way. He told me that an A meant nothing. I was dumbfounded. But he told me that wasn’t the best you could get — not even close. It took me a while. But eventually, I figured it out.” As a young teenager, after a nudge from his mother, he was accepted at the Loudoun County Academy of Science in Sterling, Virginia, a selective, part-time high school for promising science and math students. But in some ways, he outgrew this as well. After that BEC hit him between the eyes, he taught himself the basic tenets of quantum mechanics, and when he reached his limits there, he emailed about 70 university professors and researchers, asking if they would help take him further. Only one responded: Steven Olmschenk at NIST. Originally, Olmschenk was little more than a teacher. But eventually, their relationship morphed into a collaboration, and it was only natural that their research would settle on quantum entanglement, the subject of Olmschenk’s Ph.D. thesis.

Recently published in the academic journalPhysical Review A, Ari Dyckovsky’s paper on quantum entanglement is titled “Analysis of Photon-Mediated Entanglement Between Distinguishable Matter Qubits.”. But for those who have shorter attention spans but retain a thirst for quantum mechanics, Dyckovsky has also put together a poster presentation.

First explored in the mid-1930s by Einstein and others, quantum entanglement is a way of linking together two particles that are physically isolated. In our world — the world of classical physics — this is counter-intuitive. But in the quantum world, it’s a very real phenomenon. In essence, if the quantum properties of one particle are altered, a change happens in the other particle. “Separate observations of the two quantum objects are random, but when observed together, their states are correlated. Basically, measuring the state or information in one of the objects will necessarily determine what state is measured in the other object,” Dyckovksy says. He uses two coins as a metaphor. If you and a friend each flip a quarter, he explains, the result of each flip is completely random. But with quantum entanglement, it’s as if the result of one flip is always the same as the other — no matter how far apart you and your friend are standing. In the mid-90s, an IBM researcher named Charles Bennett showed that this sort of entanglement could be used to send information between two quantum objects — such as atoms or quantum dots (artificial atoms). He called it quantum teleportation — “It’s a metaphor,” Bennett says. “It has nothing to do with what you see in Star Trek, but it makes you think of that” — and it’s a key part of the race to build a quantum computer, a machine that could use these same very small particles to achieve speeds well beyond today’s classical computer.

Quantum teleportation would let you move information from one part of a quantum computer to another. The trouble, says Bennett, is that it faces “tremendous barriers” if it can ever be used outside the lab. With his paper, Ari Dyckovsky has helped show that you can have quantum entanglement with vastly different particles, not just particles that are similar. “Nearly all the past and even most current research has looked at the remote or long-distance entanglement of indistinguishable quantum memories — such as two identical atoms or ions,” Dyckovsky says. “We extend the current knowledge to not only include entanglement between identical sources, but entanglement with two sources that are very different.” This is so useful because different particles are suited to different parts of a quantum machine. Some are suited to the equivalent of memory, others the equivalent of a processor. “It’s very important to transfer qubits — quantum data — from one physical form to another, like from the state of a photon to the state of an ion to the state of a nuclear spin to the state of a quantum dot,” Bennett says. “There are dozens of systems that have been proposed for the storage of quantum information. The more expertise we get in moving information from one of these forms to another, the closer we’ll be to building a working quantum computer.”

As Dyckovsky points out, since quantum entanglement can be achieved over long distances, his research could also be used to build a new form of secure communication. “You could use this entanglement scheme to link an ion and a quantum dot, which can be used to perform a teleportation protocol that allows quantum information to be transferred,” he says. “A government agency could use this for message transfer and no eavesdroppers could intercept the message because none of the sensitive info actually traverses the distance.” Dyckovsky’s paper is just one step along the road to quantum teleportation and, ultimately, the quantum computer. But it’s a step. His research has not only earned him a place in Physical Review A, it has won him a $50,000 college scholarship from the Intel Foundation and a spot in this fall’s freshman class at Stanford University. But those are merely the measurements in the classical world. He’s gone much further in the quantum world.

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