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Energy is a quantity that must always be positive -- at least that's what our intuition tells us. If every single particle is removed from a certain volume until there is nothing left that could possibly carry energy, then a limit has been reached. Or has it? Is it still possible to extract energy even from empty space?

Quantum physics has shown time and again that it contradicts our intuition -- and this is also true in this case. Under certain conditions negative energies are allowed, at least in a certain range of space and time. An international research team at the TU Vienna, the Université libre de Bruxelles (Belgium) and the IIT Kanpur (India) have now investigated the extent to which negative energy is possible. It turns out that no matter which quantum theories are considered, no matter what symmetries are assumed to hold in the universe, there are always certain limits to "borrowing" energy. Locally, the energy can be less than zero, but like money borrowed from a bank, this energy must be "paid back" in the end.

"In the theory of general relativity, we usually assume that the energy is greater than zero, at all times and everywhere in the universe," says Prof. Daniel Grumiller from the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the TU Wien (Vienna). This has a very important consequence for gravity: Energy is linked to mass via the formula E=mc². Negative energy would therefore also mean negative mass. Positive masses attract each other, but with a negative mass, gravity could suddenly become a repulsive force.

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Category: Science