The EmDrive has often been lauded and condemned in equal measure. To say it's controversial is an understatement. It's promise of fuelless propulsion has the potential to radically transform many parts of our lives - though it's not yet clear whether the system actually works. Many say that it's not physically possible, and violates fundamental scientific laws, while others say that those laws may need to be reassessed.
Now a small team of independent engineers are aiming to create and test their own version of the EmDrive to see for themselves whether the technology is actually viable or not.
I spoke with the projects lead scientist Paul Koclya and asked him about his goals for the drive, why it's such a contentious subject and what the possible implications are.
[N-] What are your goals for the EmDrive project? What compelled you to get involved?
[PK] We got three main goals which will define the development process:
First, we want to replicate the existing EMdrive to have a baseline for research. The information you can get out there is very patchy, so we need an own device for testing and research.
Second, we want to try to scale it down. Using higher frequencies will make the form factor of the EMdrive much smaller, which leads to third:
If it works, we will put it inside a PockerQub and send it into space. I was always interested in spaceflight - two years ago I build a PocketQub satellite which is now in orbit.
Fuelless propulsion systems are exciting because it would change the humankind forever, like electricity, steam engines, radio transmission and computers did. So I want to be part of it, no matter what the outcome of the project will be.
[N-] That's pretty incredible. There's something extremely exciting about independent makers being able to even attempt a project of this magnitude. We definitely live in exciting times!
[N-] What are the different stages of development in your project and where are you currently? Do you have a projected timeline?
[PK] We are building the original 2.45 GHz thruster according to the Chinese paper and our own 25 GHz design simultaneously. The original thruster is quite big and hard to machine, but it's a safe thing to start with - just to see if a working apparatus can be produced under maker conditions.
The 25 GHz thruster is our own design and is progressing quite well. The timeline for the first fire up is about one month. Let's say two months to be safe.
I have calculated the cavity shape and the bill f materials needed for a prototype. Some parts are already on the way. Jo Hinchliffe (my project partner, aka concretedog) modified the cavity's CAD and will machine it in a few days.
[N-] What are the kind of costs for a project like this?
[PK] The material costs for building the original device and a test rig are about 200 USD. The costs for the small device are quite the same, because the 25 GHz parts are relatively expensive.
[N-] Wow, that's alot cheaper than I'd have imagined. Why aren't more people trying to build/test a prototype?
[PK] Although it's a relative simple build, there is no construction sheet, there's “just” a scientific paper and some random information what imho stops people from starting. A high power RF generator for 2.45 MHz is also terribly expensive, so you need come up with ideas how to hack a microwave to get the RF into a coax cable. Getting a metal sheet in form or machining metal is also something not everyone can do, either due to lack of experience or access to appropriate machines.
Building a test rig to measure the small amount of thrust could be also a pain in the ass and might end up in spending thousands of dollars, unless you find a simpler way to do it.
There are many other of these examples which would stop many people from just doing it. And you need the patience to collect as much information as you can get about that topic.
We investigated a lot before we finally gave it a try. Google is your best friend, fortunately some people are or were already working on replicas and they share information, which may eventually motivate more people to experiment and research. We make our experiments also open, so others can benefit from them.
I think you need a lot of passion and phantasy to start something like that - and you mustn't be scared of eventually (or probably :D ) failing in the end. But the reward will be enormous. Just the thought of seeing it working and be a pioneer of a brandnew propulsion system is motivating enough :)
[N-] How many people are working on it and what are the different roles?
[PK] At this moment, we are two, Jo Hinchliffe and I. Jo is machining the metal parts while I do the electronic stuff. I'd like to credit a friend too who gave us lots of information about EMdrives: Montaser Sallam.
[N-] From reading up on EmDrives, am I right in thinking one of the key tests for such a system will be if it works inside a vacuum? Why is this important, and do you eventually plan to carry out those type of tests yourself?
[PK] For the 25 GHz version, we can perform a vacuum test by ourselves in a small vacuum bell.
The big one would have to be tested in university, let's see what's possible. A first plausibilty check can be done by enclosing the system inside a sealed box. If it's still working chances are good that it really produces thrust - and that it's not an ionic effect.
Anyway we need to make sure that our measurements are not disturbed by thermal, EMI or other effects.
[N-] From my naive outsiders perspective, whenever I see an article or video about EmDrives, the comments sections are always full of flame wars with people of intense, polar-opposite views. Why do you think the subject is so contentious?
[PK] I see two main reasons: 1) Understanding laws of physics as a religion: Laws of physics are taken as ultimate reality instead of seeing them as a model for reality. So if new discoveries are checked against them and they don't match - the witchhunt begins.
2) There are tons of websites promoting free energy, fuelless propulsion, magical healing sources, cold nuclear fusion and so on. Most of them are just created to collect clicks - so the internet forms a big bowel of esoterical bullshit soup - which many people seem to drink like a drug.
The consequence is that serious results drown in that soup and might eventually never reach the surface. The EMdrive fortunately saved itself after seven years of ignorance after a Chinese university built a prototype.
[N-] OK, let's imagine the project is successful. You mentioned it briefly earlier, but could you expand on what the implications of such a system be on the world? What real-world applications could you envisage?
[PK] 1) Satellites wouls last much longer. Usually, hydrazine fuel is used for station keeping of satellites. A fuelless system would be a big advantage.
2) Deep space probes coud be sent out do explore our universe.
3) Space travel would become easier. We could finally start colonizing other planets.
4) If these drives can be made more efficient, mobility on earth could be also improved: Flying vehicles for example
[N-] How can people stay up to date with your progress? Do you have a website? Are you looking for additional help or donations?
[PK] The project is beeing documented in “realtime” here: https://hackaday.io/project/5596-em-drive. For the first test, we don't need financial help. In case of successful tests we would like to send a small satellite into orbit to evaluate the EMdrive. This would eventually be crowdfunded.
We don't need explicit help by now, but we welcome helpful comments on our project page. Thanx to everyone who already gave us hints and information.
[N-] Thank you Paul, and good luck! I'll be following your progress very closely.