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February 11, 2011

Vacuum has friction from an effect similar to the casimir effect

The stopping time ranges from cosmic-scale values at low temperatures to much smaller times at higher temperatures.

Physical Review A - Thermal and vacuum friction acting on rotating particles

The contribution to vacuum and thermal friction coming from magnetic polarization has been shown to be important for highly conductive materials (e.g., gold), and it can actually dominate over its electric counterpart. In contrast, it is almost
negligible in less conductive materials such as graphite.

In the Casimir effect, vacuum fluctuations of the electromagnetic field exert a force on closely spaced metal plates, a phenomenon that is well understood theoretically and detectable experimentally. Can a related effect occur for rotating systems, in which vacuum fluctuations alter the spin rate of a particle, resulting in rotational drag? Writing in Physical Review A, Alejandro Manjavacas and Javier García de Abajo of the Instituto de Óptica, Madrid, Spain, show theoretically that this should be an experimentally observable effect.

The phenomenon of vacuum friction for spinning objects is somewhat different than for the static parallel plates: the accelerating charges in a spinning conductive object interact with the vacuum fluctuations and can emit photons. Earlier work by Manjavacas and García de Abajo tackled the problem with a semiclassical model that employed the fluctuation-dissipation theorem to calculate the overall energy transfer between the spinning particle and the vacuum field. In their new calculations, they take a fully quantum mechanical approach, which not only confirms the semiclassical results but extends the results to molecular systems and magnetic interactions. In addition to their intrinsic interest, the findings may be relevant to understanding the dynamical behavior of cosmic nanoparticles such as interstellar dust and the optical spectra of rotating molecules

UPDATE: A discussion at ycombinator on this article



The full ten page paper

We study the stopping of spinning particles in vacuum. A torque is produced by fluctuations of the vacuum electromagnetic field and the particle polarization. Expressions for the frictional torque and the power radiated by the particle are obtained as a function of rotation velocity and the temperatures of the particle and the surrounding vacuum. We solve this problem following two different approaches: (i) a semiclassical calculation based upon the fluctuation-dissipation theorem (FDT), and (ii) a fully quantum-mechanical theory within the framework of quantum electrodynamics, assuming that the response of the particle is governed by bosonic excitations such as phonons and plasmons. Both calculations lead to identical final expressions, thus confirming the suitability of the FDT to deal with problems that are apparently out of equilibrium, and also providing comprehensive insight into the physical processes underlying thermal and vacuum friction. We adapt the quantum-mechanical theory to describe particles whose electromagnetic response is produced by fermionic excitations. Furthermore, we extend our FDT formalism to fully account for magnetic polarization, which dominates friction when the particle is a good conductor. Finally, we present numerically calculated torques and stopping times for the relevant cases of graphite and gold nanoparticles.

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