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Now, the secretive DARPA, a research agency of the U.S. Department of Defense that often dabbles in far-out technologies – and that also brought us the Internet's predecessor ARPANET – is soliciting innovative research proposals in the area of Casimir Effect Enhancement (Solicitation number DARPA-BAA-08-59.
The goal of this program is to develop new methods to detect, control and dynamically manipulate (i.e. switch on and off) attractive and repulsive forces at surfaces based on engineering of the Casimir Force. One could leverage this ability to control phenomena such as adhesion in nanodevices, drag on vehicles and many other interactions of interest to the DoD.
The basic idea is that if one could exploit the fact that vacuum is an energy reservoir, thanks to zero-point energy, future space travelers would have access to a limitless energy source. The only thing they need, of course, is some kind of propulsion system that harvests the required energy from the vacuum. That this is not totally crazy was demonstrated in a 1984 paper ("Extracting electrical energy from the vacuum by cohesion of charged foliated conductors"). Serious research efforts are being made in various laboratories to harness the Casimir and related effects for vacuum energy conversion.
Some sci-fi minded types have speculated that this 'space drive' would have to be able to influence the interaction of the spaceship with the vacuum fluctuations in its direction of travel differently to the interaction with the vacuum fluctuations in its wake, perhaps by using attractive and repulsive configurations. The resulting imbalance might then be persuaded to cause propulsion. Don't expect that anytime soon, not even the guys at DARPA are looking at this yet. Or maybe they do: According to Harold E. Puthoff, Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Austin, "Under entry AF86-77, Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (AFRPL) Topic: Non-Conventional Propulsion Concepts we find the statement: 'Bold, new non-conventional propulsion concepts are solicited.... The specific areas in which AFRPL is interested include.... (6) Esoteric energy sources for propulsion including the zero point quantum dynamic energy of vacuum space.'"