# Is Dark Energy Usable for Energy Extraction?

• Coin
In summary, dark energy is a type of negative pressure that causes the expansion of the universe. Its nature is still not fully understood and it is uncertain whether it can be extracted or harnessed for use. The idea of using a tether between two distant objects to measure the force of dark energy is not feasible due to the vast distances and the dominating effects of relative velocities and gravitational wells. Even if it were possible, the force of dark energy is so minuscule that it would not be able to perform any useful work.
Coin
What I keep hearing is that dark energy acts like a sort of 'negative pressure', causing all the objects in the universe to accelerate away from one another, or a 'constant energy density filling space'. Something I have been unable to understand is what the nature of this "negative pressure" or "energy density" is-- i.e. whether it is literal or figurative. In particular, something I can't seem to find a clear answer on is whether dark energy is "usable"-- whether it can be extracted or harnessed, in principle.

For example: let's say that you tied one end of a rope to the Earth, and the other end to the Earth-sized rock rotating around Gliese 581, 20 light years away.

- Would the rope experience force tugging at either end of it? If Earth and Gilese 581 are continuously accelerating away from each other, naively one would think it would-- the amount of acceleration times the masses of the weights at the ends, maybe?

- What would be the magnitude of this force? (I've had trouble working out even what the strength of dark energy is-- wikipedia says the density of "dark energy" is 10^-29 grams per cubic centimeter, but I'm not sure how to interpret a number with those units, given that sounds like mass density, not energy density?)

- Could this force be harnessed to perform work, or heat a gas or power an electric generator or anything of the sort? (Say, perhaps there's a piston at one end? I'm not sure exactly how one would set this up, but it seems if you have a rope that acts like a force is being exerted from the other end, you should be able to extract energy from that somehow.)

Never mind that this is utterly ridiculous from an engineering perspective, or that the amount of energy ultimately extracted would be negligible-- in principle setting a system like this up should be physically possible. So what I am trying to figure out is: If you set this system up, is there anything about dark energy which would prevent you, in principle, from extracting energy from it? Am I missing something?

Coin said:
What I keep hearing is that dark energy acts like a sort of 'negative pressure', causing all the objects in the universe to accelerate away from one another, or a 'constant energy density filling space'. Something I have been unable to understand is what the nature of this "negative pressure" or "energy density" is-- i.e. whether it is literal or figurative. In particular, something I can't seem to find a clear answer on is whether dark energy is "usable"-- whether it can be extracted or harnessed, in principle.
Well, the negative pressure is required to drive the expansion. This negative pressure can be understood as a resistance of this sort of energy to change its density as the universe expands. The simplest dark energy model, the cosmological constant, is described as an energy density that is intrinsic to the vacuum: if you remove all matter from a region, there still exists some amount of energy density within that region of space.

Coin said:
For example: let's say that you tied one end of a rope to the Earth, and the other end to the Earth-sized rock rotating around Gliese 581, 20 light years away.

- Would the rope experience force tugging at either end of it? If Earth and Gilese 581 are continuously accelerating away from each other, naively one would think it would-- the amount of acceleration times the masses of the weights at the ends, maybe?
Any force on the rope would be entirely dominated by the relative velocities of the Earth and this other planet. Gliese 581 may be moving towards or away from us right now, for instance, and the orbital periods of our respective planets are not the same. These will be the dominant effects on a hypothetical tether between our worlds.

Besides, Gliese 581 is trapped within the same gravitational well we are trapped in: the milky way. The effect of dark energy is only felt significantly for far-away objects in different gravitational wells. You would have to go out to at least a few megaparsecs (1Mpc = 3.26 million light years).

That said, the idea of attaching a hypothetical tether between far away objects to get a feel of dark energy is one I haven't seen before. The distances required, of course, are so absurdly astronomical that it's not something that we could ever actually do. And even if we could perform the task, the far anchor of the tether would be something that is already moving away from us at high velocity, a fact which would dominate the force on the tether.

Coin said:
- What would be the magnitude of this force? (I've had trouble working out even what the strength of dark energy is-- wikipedia says the density of "dark energy" is 10^-29 grams per cubic centimeter, but I'm not sure how to interpret a number with those units, given that sounds like mass density, not energy density?)
Due to mass-energy equivalence, they're the same. What you should interpret from this is that the effect of dark energy is so absurdly minuscule here on Earth that we're unlikely ever to measure it.

Coin said:
- Could this force be harnessed to perform work, or heat a gas or power an electric generator or anything of the sort? (Say, perhaps there's a piston at one end? I'm not sure exactly how one would set this up, but it seems if you have a rope that acts like a force is being exerted from the other end, you should be able to extract energy from that somehow.)
Obscenely unlikely. The energy density is just so low that it's really not feasible.

Coin said:
Never mind that this is utterly ridiculous from an engineering perspective, or that the amount of energy ultimately extracted would be negligible-- in principle setting a system like this up should be physically possible. So what I am trying to figure out is: If you set this system up, is there anything about dark energy which would prevent you, in principle, from extracting energy from it? Am I missing something?
Honestly, I don't know. I've never thought it useful to think of dark energy in terms of work that can be extracted from it.

Coin said:
... (I've had trouble working out even what the strength of dark energy is-- wikipedia says the density of "dark energy" is 10^-29 grams per cubic centimeter, but I'm not sure how to interpret a number with those units, given that sounds like mass density, not energy density?)

- Could this force be harnessed to perform work, ...

A more precise figure (if not necessarily more accurate ) is 0.6 nanojoule per cubic meter. Equivalently, 0.6 nanopascal. Since you've tried working it out and might be interested, I'll go thru the steps.

As it happens, I've considered the similar questions myself here at PF, more generally as thought experiments about harnessing expansion. It seems interesting because GR has no global energy conservation law---largescale conservation is not a theorem. Expansion appears to violate energy conservation---the CMB photons have lost 999/1000 of their original energy, where did it go?, could it have been trapped and used to boil tea?---doubling the volume doubles the "dark energy", where did the putative new energy come from? This was some time back. I think it is worthwhile to think about.

There may be some "catch-22" principle in nature that prevents a local observer from exploiting what appears to be largescale disregard for thermodynamics. That says sorry, no perpetual motion machines...

Maybe we should consider some schemes and see what if anything goes wrong.

Meanwhile let's do the calculation:

You know that the critical density is 3c^2 H^2/(8 pi G) and space is nearly flat so that is nearly the real average density, and H is 71 km/s per megaparsec.

And you know that dark energy is estimated to be 73 percent. So calculating is easy. You just compute critical density, and it comes out to be about 0.85 nanojoule per cubic meter. And you take 73 percent of that.

Just to be sure, I put "3 c^2 (71 km/s per megaparsec)^2/(8 pi G)" into google calculator, and it came back with 0.85 nanopascal.

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We will probably decide before long that dark energy causes gravity and so quite capable of doing work.

Nickelodeon said:
We will probably decide before long that dark energy causes gravity and so quite capable of doing work.
Well, we might discover some interesting things about dark energy, but I can basically guarantee you that that isn't one of them. Dark energy, if it exists, interacts with gravity, to be sure, but it is not gravity.

Nickelodeon said:
We will probably decide before long that dark energy causes gravity and so quite capable of doing work.

This is interesting because I've wondered about what makes gravity tick. It's a force but why ,and from what? It is a cool thought even if it's not correct. Maybe? Who knows for sure?

CozmicScott said:
This is interesting because I've wondered about what makes gravity tick. It's a force but why ,and from what? It is a cool thought even if it's not correct. Maybe? Who knows for sure?
This isn't really any more or less mysterious than any of the other fundamental forces of which we are aware.

is dark energy the same as the vacuum energy like in the casimir experiment? or is that something different?

gravity is geometry... or is geometry just the language we use to understand it's effects and it is something else entirely?

to harness dark energy to do usefull work you would need a fixed frame of reference and there aren't any.

marcus said:
the CMB photons have lost 999/1000 of their original energy, where did it go?, could it have been trapped and used to boil tea?---doubling the volume doubles the "dark energy", where did the putative new energy come from? This was some time back. I think it is worthwhile to think about.

Wait, wait, this problem exists only in the "birds view", when you look at the expanding baloon from the "outside". For any observer inside the Universe energy is conserved.

TalonD said:
is dark energy the same as the vacuum energy like in the casimir experiment? or is that something different?
Well, it's the same in that it's basically the same kind of thing. But the magnitude is completely different. The vacuum energy from the Casimir Effect, from naive calculations, is some 10^120 times the magnitude of the vacuum energy that would explain the accelerated expansion. So while they may be the same thing, we don't yet know how that is possible, and on the face of it it seems rather unlikely (as the Casimir Effect only depends upon differences in vacuum energy dependent upon the shape of local matter, we can't actually measure the absolute level).

TalonD said:
gravity is geometry... or is geometry just the language we use to understand it's effects and it is something else entirely?
Well, as the description of gravity as geometry works so very well, a good way of understanding it is that on some level, whatever it is that causes gravity acts like the geometry of space-time. There are hints that gravity is composed of the collection action of tremendous numbers of particles (gravitons), particles which, on average, come together to cause the curvature of space-time.

TalonD said:
to harness dark energy to do usefull work you would need a fixed frame of reference and there aren't any.
I don't quite understand why you think that would be a requirement.

First a caveat, I'm not a scientist or physisist, just the average joe trying to get a grip on the concepts.

If by 'extracting work from the dark energy' you mean somehow taking advantage of the expansion of the universe then consider a simple analogy, that of a flowing river.
to extract energy you would build a power plant on the banks and put a paddle wheel in the water. the water turns the wheel and you've got something usefull. but that power plant is in a fixed position relative to the water. If you put it on a barge then it just floats down stream and doesn't produce any power.

Similarly we are imbeded in the expansion of the universe. Going along with the flow so to speak. and therefore can't extract any usefull energy from it.

at least intuitivly that's what seems to make sense to me, that may be a bad analogy I don't know.

"Expansion appears to violate energy conservation---the CMB photons have lost 999/1000 of their original energy, where did it go?, could it have been trapped and used to boil tea?---doubling the volume doubles the "dark energy", where did the putative new energy come from?"

Why does expansion seem to violate energy conservation? is it because it is expanding when the gravity of the matter and energy in it should be making it contract? and DE is making it expand so DE is energy that is being created out of nothing so that violates conservation?

if it takes some kind of energy to make the universe expand then could it be the 'lost energy of the cmb photons" ?

is there really missing energy? The CMB energy isn't just a fixed amount never increasing or decreasing (conserved) but just diluted by the increasing volume of the universe?

I agree with TalonD that it would require enough potential energy differences in a relatively close proximity in order to harness enough meaningful energy from DE. I suppose in theory it could be done, but probably not practical. We could probably harness more energy from temperature differences between two random locations (i.e. floor to ceiling).

marcus said:
GR has no global energy conservation law---largescale conservation is not a theorem. Expansion appears to violate energy conservation---the CMB photons have lost 999/1000 of their original energy, where did it go?, could it have been trapped and used to boil tea? [..] Maybe we should consider some schemes and see what if anything goes wrong.

Rope tied to a planet (which starts out) in a distant galaxy. Expansion of the universe eventually applies tension to the rope, so the anchored spool will do useful work if allowed to unwind. So that the rope never runs out, part of the work mass-energy can be converted to rope matter. Does this mean heat-death (or big freeze, just not big rip) can be avoided after all?

EDIT: as the planet gets further away, tension may increase until the rope breaks. Address this by replacing the planet with the weight of the rope itself plus adding a mechanism to trim (abandon) the very end of the rope.

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cesiumfrog said:
Rope tied to a planet (which starts out) in a distant galaxy. Expansion of the universe eventually applies tension to the rope, so the anchored spool will do useful work if allowed to unwind. So that the rope never runs out, part of the work mass-energy can be converted to rope matter. Does this mean heat-death (or big freeze, just not big rip) can be avoided after all?

EDIT: as the planet gets further away, tension may increase until the rope breaks. Address this by replacing the planet with the weight of the rope itself plus adding a mechanism to trim (abandon) the very end of the rope.

Typical perpetual motion fallacy. You would need as much energy to rewind the spool or create more rope as you would get from the expansion unwinding it. It's like trying to lift yourself off the ground by pulling up on your own boot straps. to paraphrase an old expression.

TalonD said:
Typical perpetual motion fallacy. You would need as much energy to rewind the spool or create more rope as you would get from the expansion unwinding it. It's like trying to lift yourself off the ground by pulling up on your own boot straps. to paraphrase an old expression.
Oh really? It only takes a fixed (and finite) quantity of mass-energy to add a new metre of rope to the spool. But if space keeps expanding then, by choosing the rope to be sufficiently long to begin with, the force on the spool (and hence the amount of energy obtained when it unwinds the metre) can be made arbitrarily large.

cesiumfrog said:
Oh really? It only takes a fixed (and finite) quantity of mass-energy to add a new metre of rope to the spool. But if space keeps expanding then, by choosing the rope to be sufficiently long to begin with, the force on the spool (and hence the amount of energy obtained when it unwinds the metre) can be made arbitrarily large.

Now that I think about it, I see your point. But it would have to be an accelerating expansion, which ours is. It wouldn't work with a fixed rate expansion. The excess energy would come from the acceleration.

Chalnoth said:
Well, we might discover some interesting things about dark energy, but I can basically guarantee you that that isn't one of them. Dark energy, if it exists, interacts with gravity, to be sure, but it is not gravity.
But Nickelodeon didn't say that dark energy is gravity. He said:
Nickelodeon said:
We will probably decide before long that dark energy causes gravity and so quite capable of doing work.
To which CozmicScott replied:
CozmicScott said:
This is interesting because I've wondered about what makes gravity tick. It's a force but why ,and from what? It is a cool thought even if it's not correct. Maybe? Who knows for sure?
To which TalonD replied:
TalonD said:
gravity is geometry... or is geometry just the language we use to understand it's effects and it is something else entirely?
To which Chalnoth replied:
Chalnoth said:
Well, as the description of gravity as geometry works so very well, a good way of understanding it is that on some level, whatever it is that causes gravity acts like the geometry of space-time. There are hints that gravity is composed of the collection action of tremendous numbers of particles (gravitons), particles which, on average, come together to cause the curvature of space-time.
To which I'll add my two cents:
Suppose we start by assuming that Nature is fundamentally waves and wave interactions across a hierarchy of media -- particles, particulate media, and other more or less persistent objects being bounded wave structures.

Then, suppose we model the boundary of the universe as a wavefront (say, a more or less spherical shell) created by and expanding away from some disturbance in a pre-existing medium -- and we take this as the fundamental dynamic, the archetype, of any and all motion.

It seems to naturally follow that the energy of any and all behavior -- the force behind any and all motion -- inside the expanding universal wavefront is also a byproduct or subset of the kinetic energy imparted via the disturbance that originated the expansion.

Variable universal expansion rates might be produced by altering the properties of the pre-existing universal medium.

Can the complexity of our world, of our universe, the vast hierarchy and range in scale of particulate media, be produced via countless iterations and interactions governed by a single fundamental wave dynamic?

Anyway, to respond to the original question? Yes, dark energy is performing work in the sense that, in at least one view, it's the energy imparted via the origin of the universe and it's the fundamental driving force underlying all motion.

Can we harness it directly -- no, for reasons given by other posters.

That makes no sense. There is no boundary to the universe. Not that we can see, anyway.

Chalnoth said:
That makes no sense. There is no boundary to the universe. Not that we can see, anyway.
Maybe our Universe has a boundary, maybe it doesn't. It's just a possible approach to modeling our Universe that might unify the observed fundamental forces and explain their emergence in terms of an underlying fundamental wave dynamic.

I can't help thinking that the expansion of our Universe is one of the most important discoveries of modern science. The fact of the expansion suggests to me a beginning. A beginning suggests to me a pre-existing medium. And, taken together and considered along with other observations suggesting a wave nature, then modeling our Universe as a bounded complex wave structure seems to me, at least conceptually, sensible enough.

ThomasT said:
Maybe our Universe has a boundary, maybe it doesn't. It's just a possible approach to modeling our Universe that might unify the observed fundamental forces and explain their emergence in terms of an underlying fundamental wave dynamic.
Not likely. Our forces, as we know them, are fundamentally mathematical quantities. Any attempt at unifying the forces that is not fundamentally mathematical in nature is doomed to failure.

Chalnoth said:
Not likely. Our forces, as we know them, are fundamentally mathematical quantities. Any attempt at unifying the forces that is not fundamentally mathematical in nature is doomed to failure.
I agree, at least for the foreseeable future. But, I don't think it's completely out of the question to eventually have a unifying theory based on a fundamental wave dynamic(s) observable even in our everyday experience.

ThomasT said:
I agree, at least for the foreseeable future. But, I don't think it's completely out of the question to eventually have a unifying theory based on a fundamental wave dynamic(s) observable even in our everyday experience.
That's not really saying anything new, though. Because quantum mechanics is based upon wave dynamics, typically theorists consider any fundamental theory to also be based upon wave dynamics. The difficulty is determining precisely what wave dynamics there are.

So, I think this thread has gone off on a tangent. I would like to try to return to my original question. My intent wasn't really to ask about speculative future ideas concerning dark energy. I was just trying to ask how a certain physical scenario would play out in terms of what we know about dark energy now. Unfortunately I do not think I communicated this scenario well :) and as was pointed out by several people the thought experiment I put in the first post has several problems (the differing initial velocities of the objects overwhelming the effects of dark energy; how this rope system supposed to extract energy in the first place; etc) that make it hard to say anything about it. Let me try again and try to ask the question from my original post with a different, hopefully simpler example.

Let's say you have a pair of objects floating in space. There is a gravitational potential energy associated with this system:

As time passes, the objects will exert gravitational force on each other and the potential energy will be converted into kinetic energy as the objects accelerate toward one another. So the total energy of the system is $$U_{total}$$ = $$U_{potential}$$ + $$U_{kinetic}$$, where $$U_{total}$$ should stay constant.

However, let's say that this occurs in a universe like ours, with dark energy. This means that there will be a contrary effect to the gravitational pull between the two objects, where they will behave over time as if accelerating apart-- in other words, the distance between them, R, will be increasing (relative to where the object would have been based on only gravitational effects). However, according to the equation above, when R increases, then so does the potential energy! And unlike movement due to gravitational pull, this increase in R is not connected to the kinetic energy. And if $$U_{potential}$$ increases without a corresponding decrease in $$U_{kinetic}$$, then this means that the total amount of energy available for work in the system is increasing. The amount of energy increase would, surely, be tiny. But still, I was under the impression an increase in $$U_{total}$$ wasn't supposed to be possible at all.

Have I made a mistake above? Or does dark energy actually gift systems with extra available energy in this fashion?

I think you're asking whether geodesic orbits explode (rather than stay bound) around a stationary de Sitter black hole.

I've not yet checked the answer, but an affirmative would suggest a more practical mechanism for evading heat death: gas giants would perpetually keep warm whilst the sky cools.

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Coin said:
As time passes, the objects will exert gravitational force on each other and the potential energy will be converted into kinetic energy as the objects accelerate toward one another. So the total energy of the system is $$U_{total}$$ = $$U_{potential}$$ + $$U_{kinetic}$$, where $$U_{total}$$ should stay constant.
Well, things get a bit more difficult to deal with in terms of curved space-time. Normally in GR we don't even bother to write down $$U_{potential}$$, so energy frequently isn't conserved in General Relativity. However, there is a way of formulating the equations of GR so that we do pay attention to the potential energy, called the Hamiltonian formalism. And in this formalism, yes, the total energy in the system is always conserved: the positive energy in matter fields is exactly canceled by the negative potential energy in gravity. I'm not entirely certain how this works out with respect to the cosmological constant, but I do know that the conservation of energy is forced in the Hamiltonian formalism, so it has to work somehow. If you really want to know how this works in detail, you'll have to learn about the Hamiltonian formalism.

Chalnoth, thank you, that is helpful.

## 1. Can dark energy be harnessed to perform work?

Currently, there is no known way to directly harness dark energy to perform work. Dark energy is a theoretical concept that has not been fully understood or harnessed by scientists.

## 2. Is dark energy a source of unlimited energy?

No, dark energy is not a source of unlimited energy. Its existence and effects are still being studied and understood by scientists.

## 3. Can dark energy be converted into a usable form of energy?

There is currently no known way to convert dark energy into a usable form of energy. Its effects are primarily observed on a cosmic scale and have not been harnessed for practical use.

## 4. Can dark energy be used to power spacecraft or other technologies?

As of now, there is no known way to use dark energy to power spacecraft or other technologies. Its effects are primarily seen at the large-scale level and have not been harnessed for practical use.

## 5. Is dark energy the same as dark matter?

No, dark energy and dark matter are two distinct concepts. Dark energy is a theoretical concept that is thought to be responsible for the accelerating expansion of the universe, while dark matter is a type of matter that has not been directly observed but is thought to make up a large portion of the universe's mass.

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