Updated: 30.th April 2004

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Original by
Philip Gibbs, January 1997

Calculation by DK, June 2002

The Casimir effect is a small attractive force
which acts between two close parallel
*uncharged* conducting plates. It is due to quantum vacuum
fluctuations of
the electromagnetic field.

The effect was predicted by the Dutch physicist Hendrick Casimir in 1948. According to the quantum theory, the vacuum contains virtual particles which are in a continuous state of fluctuation (see physics FAQ article on virtual particles). Casimir realised that between two plates, only those virtual photons whose wavelengths fit a whole number of times into the gap should be counted when calculating the vacuum energy. The energy density decreases as the plates are moved closer which implies there is a small force drawing them together.

The attractive Casimir force between two
plates of area *A* separated by a
distance *L* can be calculated to be,

pi h c

F = -------- A

480 L^{4}

where *h* is Planck's constant and *c*
is the speed of light.

The tiny force was measured in 1996 by Steven Lamoreaux. His results were in agreement with the theory to within the experimental uncertainty of 5%.

Particles other than the photon also contribute a small effect but only the photon force is measurable. All bosons such as photons produce an attractive Casimir force while fermions make a repulsive contribution. If electromagnetism was supersymmetric there would be fermionic photinos whose contribution would exactly cancel that of the photons and there would be no Casimir effect. The fact that the Casimir effect exists shows that if supersymmetry exists in nature it must be a broken symmetry

According to the theory the total zero point energy in the vacuum is infinite when summed over all the possible photon modes. The Casimir effect comes from a difference of energies in which the infinities cancel. The energy of the vacuum is a puzzle in theories of quantum gravity since it should act gravitationally and produce a large cosmological constant which would cause space-time to curl up. The solution to the inconsistency is expected to be found in a theory of quantum gravity.

Let's see how big the force really is in
practice. Since *L* is in the
denominator, the bigger *L* gets, the smaller the force will
be; and because the
force goes as the fourth power of *L*, the drop-off with
increasing distance will
be really huge. So let's make *L* small--say, one
micron, together with big
one square metre plates:

pi × 6.6 × 10^{-34}× 3 × 10^{8}× 1

F = ------------------------------- newtons

480 × 10^{-24}

or 1.3 mN. Now, since the weight of 1 kg
is about 10 N, then 1.3 mN is the weight
of 0.13 grammes. Which is pretty small, but measurable, except
that putting two 1
square metre plates a micron apart would be difficult in
practice. But using smaller
plates leads to smaller forces. For instance plates with area 1
square
*centimetre* placed 1 *millimetre* apart would feel a
force equivalent to
the weight of 10^{-17} grammes, which is vastly smaller!

AND further interesting information is found at: