Cal State Fullerton Professor Developing Radical New Space Propulsion System

How thrust is hypothesized to be produced by the Woodward effect. The C represents a capacitor element, L represents an inductor element.
How thrust is hypothesized to be produced by the Woodward effect. The C represents a capacitor element, L represents an inductor element.

Over at Boing Boing, Charles Platt has a story about a new space propulsion system being developed at California State University at Fullerton:

Ever since H. G. Wells imagined a gravity-shielding material in “The First Men in the Moon,” space enthusiasts have fantasized about ways to achieve thrust without any need for reaction mass. Unfortunately, it seems impossible.

Or is it?

Personally, I’m not so willing to use the word “impossible” anymore. In October of this year, at the laboratory of Dr. James Woodward in California State University at Fullerton, I watched a very small-scale experiment that was surprisingly persuasive.

Unlike all the “free energy” scams that you see online, Woodward’s device does not violate basic physical laws (it does not produce more energy than it consumes, and does not violate Newton’s third law). Nor is Woodward withholding any information about his methods. He has written a book, published by Springer, that explains in relentless detail exactly how his equipment works–assuming that it does, indeed, work. He published his theory in Foundations of Physics Letters, vol. 3, no. 5, 1990, and he even managed to get a US patent — number 5,280,864, issued January 25, 1994.

I first heard about him in 1997, when I interviewed him for Wired magazine. His results were tentative, then, and he was cautious about making claims. “I have biweekly paranoia attacks,” he told me, “and then I try something else to see if I can make this effect go away.”

Almost twenty years later, the situation has changed. Dr. Heidi Fearn, a theoretical physicist who specializes in quantum optics at Fullerton, has done the math that she believes can justify Woodward’s experimental evidence. Wikipedia now has a substantial entry about the Woodward Effect. The Space Studies Institute is championing the cause, inviting tax-deductible donations.

If a small amount of thrust really can be created using a power input but no reaction mass, the principle could be applied to correct orbital variations in satellites. If the effect turned out to be scalable, it would be a major game-changer for human spaceflight. Of course, this is a big “if”; but I think Woodward’s idea shows more promise than any other alternate systems of propulsion. It would be infinitely more attractive than rocket motors.

The concept is based on the possibility of changing the mass of an object. Changing mass? How can that make sense? The answer is linked with the general theory of relativity.

As mentioned in the story, SSI is accepting tax-deductible donations that will go to support this work. Please give generously if you are able.

  • Sam Moore <— from eight years ago, ladies and gentlemen. Woodward'll end up in the same dustbin as Fleischmann and Pons at this rate.

  • twizell

    Please get a move on with this, I’ve got a galaxy to explore and with ours being some 500,000 light years across this is gonna need some warpin’

  • Christopher James Huff

    “Unlike all the “free energy” scams that you see online, Woodward’s device does not violate basic physical laws (it does not produce more energy than it consumes, and does not violate Newton’s third law).”

    Except it does violate those laws. Do the same thing as with my similar argument about the EmDrive: stick it on one end in a gravity field. The low end is fixed at the same gravitational potential, the upper end is repeatedly raised while having low mass and falls while having higher mass. It can destroy energy too, just do the opposite.

    To forestall any handwaving about the acceleration of the planet somehow resolving the problem, stick another one on the far side: double the energy output, no net acceleration.

  • It is still four months and seven days till April 1st…

  • Aerospike

    Can you draw some kind of illustration? If I try to visualize your words, it doesn’t make sense as I imagine it in my head…

  • Easy way to demonstrate this. Tie a string around his apparatus and suspend it from the ceiling. Orient it so the thrust goes horizontally. Turn it on. Does the string deviate from pure vertical, even slightly?

  • Starfyre

    from wiki; “So far, no conclusive proof of the existence of this effect has been presented.” but by gum, we can drive starships off of it!

    But if there was something to it… where’s the colleagues? where’s the research team? Where’s the grant money? Aside from heidi fearn, who wrote the math supporting it, there doesn’t seem to be anybody. The blood gets knee deep in theoretical physics research as times, but if there really is something to his theory he should be accreting a lot of other professors and researchers. There’d be plenty of people willing to look over his stuff and go ‘hunh, that’s interesting. Did he account for ?’ and then run the tests themselves out of curiousity or professional pride. And if it really worked, a lot of them would change their minds, or lead to more complicated and exciting tests.
    But as it stands, the theory is a paper castle. Dozens of years of research, and he hasn’t been able to generate results that can’t be eliminated by controlling for confounding factors. Which is exactly what happened whenever someone else checked things out themselves. Controlling for confounding factors is IMPORTANT. It’s the only way to be sure that your experiments are actually producing valid results.

    But he’s certainly willing to spend a lot of work publishing books and asking for money and trotting his theory out in front of people who don’t have the physicist chops to properly poke holes in it. And he’s got someone to say ‘it works because of quantum, now give us money’.

    I’m not going to say the guy is a fraud, if you’re going to scam people there’s much better ways to get money out of rubes, but he’s right about his theory, it’s only by accident.

  • Christopher James Huff

    On second thought, I’m not sure there’s as strong a parallel as I thought. Woodward doesn’t seem to be as bad at relativity as Shawyer (who apparently thinks there’s an absolute rest frame, that the surface of the Earth is stationary with respect to it, that gravitational acceleration is different from other accelerations…).

    Look at the illustration in the article: Woodward’s device has a resonant circuit consisting of a capacitor and an inductor. Energy alternately gets stored electrostatically in the capacitor and magnetically in the inductor, transferring mass from one to the other (with ideal components, without loss). A transducer in the middle alternately expands and contracts to always push on one when it’s “heavy”, and then pull on the other after their relative masses reverse.

    It basically shifts the center of mass forward and backward while alternately expanding and contracting…and assuming that the shift in mass itself has no effect. I suspect a full analysis will show that the shift actually cancels the momentum gained via the transducer (as it would if you were to attempt this by moving actual weights around), any overall change in momentum being accounted for by electromagnetic or gravitational radiation, making it either an extremely inefficient photon drive, or a gravitational wave drive that’s no better.

  • Christopher James Huff

    It’s not so easy. At the thrust levels these devices operate at, air currents driven by thermal convection, ambient magnetic fields, etc can interfere.

  • pericynthion

    At least the concept of cold fusion doesn’t break fundamental conservation laws in the same way that reactionless propulsion does.

  • Paul451

    In general, any reactionless thruster will have a velocity at which it gains more kinetic energy than it consumes in electrical energy.

    This is because the device’s operation is a certain amount of thrust per unit power (newtons-per-kW) regardless of velocity, therefore acceleration is constant for constant power. This means that the increase in velocity is linearly proportional to power input. However, the increase in kinetic energy is proportional to the square of the increase in velocity.

    At some velocity the latter must exceed the former.

    With a device that emits a photon, the cross-over velocity is ‘c’ (multiplied by any inefficiency in the emitter.) Any reactionless thruster more efficient than a simple photon emitter is therefore inherently a free energy machine in-potentia, thus violates conservation of energy.

    The proposed thrust-per-kW that advocates claim their devices can reach, they are deep in free-energy territory. And the thrust/kW ratios they claim their devices are capable of, the cross-over velocity is well within the material limits of a simple flywheel.

    [The excuse made by advocates is that their devices …somehow… have an absolute frame of reference and …handwave… lose efficiency as their velocity increases, therefore they can only be used for stationary hovering on Earth, not “acceleration”.]

  • MachineAgeChronicle

    Oh, boy.

  • Enrique Moreno

    This is correct in a flat space-time, but not in a curved one where if you have to take into account conservation laws you must think in a curved space. Please, check or

  • Enrique Moreno

    No. You must calculate in terms of “delta V”. Constants “delta V” requires constants “delta energy” gain. Your reasoning could be used for chemical rockets and we have rockets that reach more cinetics energy than its expeled plume…

  • Christopher James Huff

    Yes, I know of “swimming” in curved spacetime, but that’s an undetectably small effect, while Woodward’s thruster is supposed to be comparable to ion thrusters if not better, and not dependent on curved spacetime.

  • Christopher James Huff

    Chemical rockets don’t achieve kinetic energies greater than the energy content of their propellant. As for the need to think in terms of delta-v…tell that to the reactionless drive cranks, they’re the ones screwing up that analysis. Shawyer even has drawings of a “space plane” that has EmDrive units providing 80 metric tons of “static thrust” but which requires jet engines and LOX/LH2 rockets to accelerate:

    As for the analogy with Woodward’s device that I was attempting, Shawyer claims the EmDrive can convert acceleration to power output (page 6 of, titled “Conservation of Energy”). He doesn’t understand the equivalence principle, and so fails to realize that a hovering vehicle or one just resting on the ground is actually under acceleration. Woodward’s device may have a similar flaw.

  • therealdmt

    I read that Woodward drive starship galleys will be serving all-day free lunch. Quite a deal!

  • Tonya

    I think they go in the recycling bin.

  • Bill Douglass

    Remember the Dean Drive? Anything needing a large mass to get a tiny force is going nowhere. It is the very definition of non-scalable.

  • Paul451

    You must calculate in terms of “delta V”.

    Which is why I said: “the increase in velocity” and “the increase in kinetic energy is proportional to the square of the increase in velocity.”

    Your reasoning could be used for chemical rockets

    And jets, car engines, and boat motors, and magnetic drives, and gravitational slingshots.

    At a particular efficiency, all of them have a theoretical cross-over velocity where they could become a free-energy machine. However, unlike a reactionless thruster, their efficiency changes as they increase their velocity (or in the case of chemical rockets, use up their fuel). They do not have constant acceleration for constant energy input.

    That’s what makes a reactionless thruster a unique case.

    we have rockets that reach more cinetics energy than its expeled plume…

    No, the output energy cannot exceed the stored energy of the fuel.

  • windbourne

    It can be done at the ISS, though I suspect that NASA will NOT be interested.

  • Christopher James Huff

    That’s not necessary or ideal. Outside the ISS there’s still significant gas and plasma, no shielding against magnetic or electrical fields around the ISS, etc. It can be done on the ground, it just needs to be in a shielded vacuum chamber, with a self contained apparatus (to avoid electromagnetic forces transmitted via the power connections), etc.

    And I doubt the interest of NASA is a factor. The tests of this sort of thing that actually get done tend to be obviously flawed…similarly to the case with Rossi’s E-Cat, one gets the impression that they don’t *want* rigorous testing.

  • Paul451

    It can be done at the ISS

    The effect is so small, waves hitting a beach several miles away created a rhythmic pulse in the output. The ISS is not capable of the precision and stability necessary to actually demonstrate the device.

    though I suspect that NASA will NOT be interested.

    Much of the research is being done by a NASA lab. (White & co.) The criticism is that NASA should be showing less interest.

  • Bigdog

    No where is this described as a “reactionless drive” except by idiots like you that don’t even know what it is your talking about.

  • Bigdog

    Like ion drives? Yet they work.