Sheehan Sheds Light on the Casimir Effect

Monday, November 2, 2009

“Casimir Chemistry” an article by Daniel Sheehan, Ph.D., was recently featured as a research highlight on the Journal of Chemical Physics website.  Sheehan researched the chemical reactions of molecules when they are surrounded by a perfect vacuum and acted upon by the Casimir effect, a phenomenon discovered 60 years ago that explains why surfaces separated by a microscopic vacuum gap can be slightly attracted to one another. 

Using a simple thermodynamic argument, Sheehan shows that in principle the Casimir effect can be used to finely tune and drive chemical reactions on one surface across a perfect vacuum simply by moving a nearby surface with respect to it.  In other words, reactions can be mechanically altered without the exchange of any real material particles or energy. 

Today, it is unclear where Casimir chemistry research might lead, however it might someday make possible new types of nanoscale engines.  Like traditional steam engines, Casimir engines would be driven by chemical reactions, but unlike their 19th-century cousins, their nanoscale pistons would be driven up and down not by the pressure of steam but by the pressure furnished by the vacuum itself.

To read Sheehan’s article, go to the Journal of Chemical Physics.

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