Riding the (micro) wave: An electromagnetic drive

One of the practical limitations on our exploration of space is the time it takes to get from one place to another. We have no means of propulsion which allows for us to go someplace and come back in a time frame meaningful to humans.

Several alternatives are being explored to the chemical thrust rockets currently employed. The latest and in some ways the most fascinating is a drive based on an electromagnetic engine developed by Roger Shawyer, a British scientist and inventor.

The force created by this “EmDrive” appears to defy Newton’s Laws Of Motion. Hence, the scientific community is skeptical of claims made by its adherents even as laboratory testing validates their theories.

The path to emdrive started approximately forty years ago.

In 1974 a well known British electrical engineer, Professor Eric Laithwaite, was invited to lecture at the Royal Institution. Laithwaite had a distinguished career and is credited with among other things the development of the maglev rail system.

Laithwaite chose as his topic gyroscopes although he did not have a long history of research on the topic at point in his career. He presented the Institution with the radical opinion that gyroscopes weigh less when spinning. He attempted to “prove” this by lifting a spinning gyroscope, something he couldn’t do with the object wasn’t spinning.

Laithwaite’s conclusion was that spinning gyroscopes could be used to create reactionless propulsion, something which violated Newton’s Laws of Motion.

His claims were disproved but not before generating interest from the British defense industry and the scientific community which supported it.

Marconi Electronics asked one of its scientists, Robert Shawyer, to examine this claim. Shawyer was one of the scientists who eventually disproved Laithwaite’s theory. In the process however Shawyer developed a theory of his own.

After some time Shawyer presented Marconi with theoretical evidence that when electromagnetic energy in the form of microwaves is introduced into a cone, the cone serves as a wave guide directing the microwaves from the smaller end of the cone to the larger end.

The microwaves at the larger end of the cone had more momentum than those at the narrow end. This difference in momentum resulted in force pushing against the larger end of the cone, and hence movement in that direction. Shawyer believed that he had discovered a method of reactionless propulsion.

This claim also contradicted Newton’s Laws of Motion. Marconi rejected Shawyer’s theory and went so far as to advise him that if he continued to advance such an idea the result would be significant damage to his professional reputation.

In the late 1990’s Shawyer left Marconi and in 1999 founded Satellite Propulsion Research Ltd. to pursue development of his theory. With the assistance of a grant from the government of England and a small group of shareholders Shawyer was able to continue his work.

Beginning in 2005 Shawyer began publishing his findings which were generally met with skepticism but not outright dismissal.

In 2006 New Science published an article titled “Relativity Drive: The end of wings and wheels?” The article sparked interest in his work.

In 2010 Shawyer began meeting with the British Ministry of Defense to discuss possible military applications. In December of that year Shawyer was invited to make a high level presentation at the Pentagon to the U.S. Air Force and DARPA at a meeting chaired by the U.S. Director of the National Security Space Office.

NASA’s Eagleworks group became interested in Shawyer’s work. In 2014 a team headed by Dr. Harold White presented a paper titled “Measurement of Impulsive Thrust from a Closed Radio-Frequency Cavity in Vacuum” which passed peer review in November of 2016.

Peer review does not suggest that Shawyer’s claim is proven. It will undoubtedly however lead to additional funding and testing. IBTTimes has reported that the U.S. Air Force has begun testing a drive built on Shawyer’s findings in the X37-B spaceplane and that China is conducting a similar test aboard the Tiangong-2 space laboratory.

This schematic shows the EmDrive engine:


The EmDrive chamber constructed by Dr. Shawyer.


Newton notwithstanding the EmDrive is becoming reality.

If research and testing continues without difficulty, a ship powered by an EmDrive could reach Mars in about forty days. A trip to Pluto would take about eighteen months.

The fact that the emdrive challenges a theory of one of the titans of physics has implications beyond the emdrive itself.

Could it be that we are on the cusp of understanding our universe in ways which our intellectual forefathers could not? What lies ahead?