This interview is with a wonderful renaissance man, Fabrizio Pinto. Fabrizio is a rare breed, a scientist who is a CEO. The company he runs is the Interstellar Technologies Corporation. When I met him at the energy conference sponsored by the Foundation for the Future, I was struck by two things. First, he was a scientist who was an entrepreneurial CEO, and second that he was working in an area of energy science I had never heard of, Zero Point Energy (ZPE).
In the current global energy crisis, there are a lot of known forms of energy alternatives to fossil fuels. There has also always been discussion of some new form of energy to be discovered that might have the ability to transform the way we power our societies. ZPE could well be one of those scientific breakthroughs. At the conference, the presentations and discussions on ZPE used formulas unintelligible to this layman. The goal of this interview is to give readers a basic introduction to both ZPE and to one of the scientists who leading the way in this field.Scientificblogging.com: Fabrizio, thank you for this interview. At the
Foundation for the Future conference on energy, I was struck by two things
listening to you: first, you are a scientist that is also a CEO, and
second, your area of scientific endeavor was one that I was not aware of.
So, first, tell us about your dual roles of scientist and CEO, how did you
arrive at your current position?
Fabrizio Pinto: As I look back, this provoking end result is not surprising to me, although I can see it appears as such to many outside observers. I would say that, paradoxically, that outcome was produced by my vision that physics can improve the world in which we live and by the fact that life is what happens after you make your plans.
I was born and raised in Rome, Italy, and I was a typical product of the academic system of the 1980s and 90s. In 1979, I matriculated as a physics major at the University of Rome "La Sapienza," in the same Department of Physics where Enrico Fermi and his group carried out their historic first experiments in nuclear physics in the 1930s. A list of the local faculty is a veritable Who's Who in contemporary physics. Among others (and this is a very incomplete list), I attended lectures taught by Remo Ruffini, Luciano Maiani, Antonio Degasperis, the late Francesco Melchiorri, and I even personally met Edoardo Amaldi, the youngest member of Fermi's original group.
An apparently insignificant episode, whose tremendous significance to me was not apparent at the time, occurred in 1983, when I was taking an experimental physics class with two other peers, Cosimo Toldonato and Giuliana Montelucci. Our project consisted of designing, assembling, and testing a device called a Golay cell, which is one of the first broadband radiation detectors ever developed. Our professor, Carlo Cosmelli, now also a familiar face on Italian television in a popular science show, indicated to us that if a fixed plate and a membrane in that device had been placed within too small a distance, a force between the two would have caused them to stick together because of a phenomenon called the Casimir effect, which is hardly ever mentioned in introductory physics textbooks. At the time, I understood nothing of his comment but I never forgot it.
One day, after I had moved to the United States, the great futurist, writer, and gravitational wave measurement pioneer Bob Forward, since regrettably passed away, was speaking at JPL. Fifteen years after that first time in Rome, I again heard the words Casimir effect from Forward, and this time they struck me like a thunderbolt. I started to study this phenomenon in my own spare time and I convinced myself that the physics involved was, and is, at the foundation of approaches that have the potential to enable both the micro- and nanotechnology revolutions in the short term and interstellar travel in the medium term. The rest is an obvious consequence of all the elements I have already discussed. That is how InterStellar Technologies Corporation came to be founded in 1999.
A simple example with two perfectly conducting plates, placed vertically one in front of the other at some relatively large, initial distance (Fig. 1). In the case of perfectly conducting plates, the Casimir force can be shown to be attractive at all distances. Our gedanken experiment consists of attaching a string to the left of the two plates, which will be free to move, while the plate on the right will be fixed in a permanent position. The string will be stretched horizontally to a pulley and then run down to a mass hanging in the gravitational field of the Earth. Let the two plates come together to a smaller, final distance (Fig. 2). As the Casimir plates come together, the Casimir force increases. Therefore, in order to maintain a state of quasi-equilibrium during this process, we must constantly add extra mass in addition to what was attached to the string in the beginning. The end result of this process will be that a total mass has been raised to a distance equal to the change in separation between the two plates. What has happened to the total energy of the system, including the plates, the mass, the Earth, and the vacuum?
In practice, the transition from JPL Scientist to CEO at InterStellar required a tremendous amount of education and humility (sometimes humiliation) on my part. Physicists are accustomed to think "deeply" in a restricted, fundamental area whereas the challenge for me has been to also develop a "horizontal" connection to other disciplines that require communication with other very intelligent people who are, however, not scientists -- a skill that is rarely taught in graduate school. In order to make the transition to a newly founded private company one must develop another set of skills to highlight the financial opportunity by looking at the problem from the standpoint of investors and customers and with the goal to serve them to the best of one's abilities.
At the early stages of turning 'invention' into 'innovation', where commercial potential can be realized from a breakthrough, it is not unusual for the person driving both the technology vision and the business vision to be one-and-the-same, at least for an initial period. With the Casimir effect and InterStellar Technologies Corporation, this scenario applies. It's not easy covering the broad range of issues and challenges involved, but the opportunity is so invigorating, that I have taken it on, with the support of my initial investors and family.
Scientificblogging.com: Ok, now educate my readers and me on what ZPE is?
Without equations please!
Fabrizio Pinto: Your concerns about mathematics are well justified since the techniques involved are indeed intricate. The problem is that in many other physics problems it is possible to explain even a complex subject by using imagery from classical physics, although that may be only approximative. For instance, the collision between two elementary particles can be sketched as that of two pool balls. Attempts to create such easy-to-visualize examples in the case of ZPE have met with only limited success and in some cases the wrong information has appeared but I will surely try -- with apologies to the specialized reader. To put the challenge of popularization into perspective, Nobel Prize winner Julian Schwinger defined the Casimir effect as "one of the least intuitive consequences of quantum electrodynamics." Additional information and graphics are available at our web site: www.interstellartechcorp.com .
So let us start with what you did not ask me, that is, the beautiful Casimir effect. The fundamental facts of the Casimir effect can be explained by considering two metallic plates parallel to each other and separated by an empty gap. If you take two pieces of flattened aluminum wrapping foil from your kitchen and you place them in front of one another, that is basically what I have in mind. In school, we are taught that if the two sheets are charged with opposite charges, they will attract; if they are charged with like charges (both either positive or negative), they will repel; and if either of them or both are uncharged, no mutual force will exist. The basic concept is that this last statement is false. Remarkably, two conducting, neutral, parallel plates, placed in front of one another actually mutually attract, but they must be within a micrometer or so for the force to become relatively important (one micrometer is one millionth of a meter).
The uncontroversial consequence of the existence of this force is that the Casimir effect has great technological importance. For instance, it is responsible for stiction, that is, different microparts permanently sticking to each other in a microdevice. Also, since Casimir forces can be manipulated or engineered, the Casimir effect represents the key to actuating nanoengines so they can carry out the many important tasks envisioned for the future. This is a very active area of R&D at InterStellar.
Now, I want to tell you about the decidedly controversial issues. The Casimir force can be thought of as caused by the presence of the two aluminum sheets on the energy of the electromagnetic field in empty space. This is sometimes called the zero-point-energy, or
ZPE. The controversial question goes back to the fact that, if the zero-point-energy of the electromagnetic field is not zero, but some finite value, the universe should be filled with a truly immense amount of energy. For instance, this energy should be so great as to make its gravitational pull deeply felt. The universe should be mainly made of zero-point-energy. Since this is obviously not the case, there is an enduring debate as to whether the zero-point-energy is only a useful mathematical construct to reach the correct result or whether it is "real" in some physical sense. The question is much more than philosophical. If such energy could in any way be caused to come into play (ZPE extraction), it might solve all energy problems of humankind forever.
Scientificblogging.com: What do you see as possible applications for this area
Fabrizio Pinto: We are focusing especially on uncontroversial products of the Casimir force with a number of areas in mind, some with near-term applications and some with long-term. Sorry for being vague, but in the world of commercial opportunity realization, the common practice for a start-up is to discuss such things when products and services are either already available, or will be quite soon. Our proof-of-concept activities are meeting or beating our expectations and we are optimistic about the future.
Scientificblogging.com: What might be the timelines for implementation, use and
then widespread acceptance and use of this energy source?
Fabrizio Pinto: We believe there are uncontroversial applications that can benefit from harnessing ZPE in the next few years, and there are new classes of problems that have yet to be addressed by any technology in the energy space, that InterStellar can uniquely address within a few years.
Scientificblogging.com: Is your company the only one working in this area? Is
the government involved in any of the research?
Fabrizio Pinto: The answer is "no" to the first question, although the existing and few private initiatives are widely dispersed in the risk-reward space as I defined it above. If by "this area" we mean Casimir force research in general, I would also state that universities are warming up to this subject with an explosion in many technical subfields of very complex research ranging from cosmology to particle physics.
My answer to the latter question would also be "No." I continue to be amazed at the freezing cold reception Casimir force applications to technology receive at the highest levels of the US government, considering their promise. The government would be the natural choice to explore the entire range of activities that might be enabled by ZPE (and perhaps the more controversial ZPE extraction) experimentation, considering also that defense applications in this field in the near term are obvious to us. With the exception of a few heroic, enthusiastic, and competent technology experts in a few agencies, there exists a deafening silence regarding the Casimir effect as the key to the future of nanotechnology within the US government.
Since many nanotechnology applications can only be enabled by quantum vacuum engineering, the absence of strong interest at the highest levels of government is really inexplicable. I speculate that is the result of the lack of Casimir force education in the curriculum of many scientists even today and also to coffee-break exposure to the ZPE-extraction debate without proper background. I have often felt that many researchers run away from the words "Casimir force applications to technology" (in particular energy) fearing it will end their careers and by so doing they deprive themselves and their students of what I consider, hands down, one of the most exciting discoveries in the entire history of science. Regrettably, if this situation continues, the US will be left behind as other countries will seize on this commercial opportunity. In this context, your activity to educate will contribute to address this state of affairs.
Scientificblogging.com: Are you aware of any government in the world that is funding or participating in this area? Is there research on this area going on anywhere else in the world?
Fabrizio Pinto: I continue to be impressed by plans and ongoing efforts within the European Union to bring the Casimir effect to the market place. Most countries in the EU have scientists heavily involved in government sponsored activities in this field, including the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, and Spain, among others. I have read superb technical publications on the Casimir effect in microtechnology from Russia, China, and Japan as well. Finally, Iran boasts a strong theoretical school in this field. Of course, the US has presently an advantage and I believe InterStellar is substantially contributing to lead such efforts in our Country.
Scientificblogging.com: How serious is the global energy situation right now?
How much time do we have until things get ugly or dangerous?
Fabrizio Pinto: Of course this is the typical broad question one answers starting with the words "it depends." I will state that my personal interest in history most moves me to action because of political arguments connected to our dependance on sources of energy from unstable regions of the world. I will admit I have little justification for saying this, but my historical intuition tells me that a danger for world conflict due to our failure to achieve energy independence as a country may be closer than any other factor.
Scientificblogging.com: In addition to the energy field you are immersed in,
what other sources of alternative and renewable energy do you think most
Fabrizio Pinto: At this time, InterStellar is immersed in R&D in the area of the harnessing and manipulation of dispersion forces and the technologies this will enable. Our position is that as we succeed in dispersion force engineering, we will be able to enhance the potential contribution of all other solutions.
Scientificblogging.com: As a physicist and global citizen, not as CEO of InterStellar, could you please answer this question: as you look at the area of energy, what do you think are the most promising sources of alternative and renewable energy that are generally known and being developed? These include, but are not limited to solar, wind, bio-mass, nuclear, and hydro?
Fabrizio Pinto: As we discussed at the conference, they all have their place. However, I am very excited at the prospect of a solar energy solution enhanced by nanotechnology and quantum vacuum engineering (ZPE). I will add that I am willing to reconsider nuclear energy as a real alternative. The question is technological quality and professional responsibility. I have grown up near the lovely country of France, which has never had an accident, and perhaps we could learn something from them. On the other hand, Italy was also directly exposed to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and we learned firsthand what a perfectly avoidable human error can cause. Finally, I believe we need a breakthrough of historic proportions in the area of energy storage. That would change everything.
Scientificblogging.com: At the end of the conference, the participants chose
three primary issues to focus on: storage technology, public awareness and
the creation of an international body to coordinate all aspects of energy.
Your comments please on any or all of these?
Fabrizio Pinto: Because we were really (kindly) forced to, I chose to focus on energy storage. However, in fact, I agree with and heartily support all three. I also hope that InterStellar Technologies can have a role in one or more of these, and possibly all of them.
Scientificblogging.com: What are the issues that need to be addressed regarding energy storage? What might be the timeline for solutions?
Fabrizio Pinto: When I speak about energy storage, I am not talking about improving the energy density of existing batteries by another 10% or 25%. I am interested in nanotechnology and quantum vacuum (ZPE) solutions that might enable storage systems based on novel physics concepts that might deliver order-of-magnitude improvements. In my humble view, we must entirely rethink the battery from the ground up and transform it into a system that can issue power for a substantial fraction of the lifetime of a product. I am aware this is a provocative view but new solutions require daring thinking. If, in the aftermath of Katrina, every man, woman, and child had had one week, or even one day, of energy available, lives would have been saved. Similarly, I am aware that a substantial fraction of the weight on the shoulders of our soldiers in harm’s way throughout the world is batteries. This situation must change and, when it does, it will drastically change the landscape of energy production alternatives as well. The timeline for experiments in this field is in the 2-5 years range, in my view.
Scientificblogging.com: Any final thoughts?
Fabrizio Pinto: I would just like to thank you for your kind hospitality and for inviting me on your blog. I cannot stress how important your initiative is to the public and to many professionals in fields other than mine. Your work is truly great service and I am grateful that we had the opportunity to discuss the great potential of quantum vacuum engineering and InterStellar Technology's role in its development.
Scientificblogging.com: Thank you!