Top 10 Facts about Roger Shawyer’s EmDrive

EmDrive Example
EmDrive Example

Top 10 Facts About Roger Shawyer’s EmDrive

Whether you’re a physicist, a space nerd or an innocent by-stander, the outrageous headlines about Roger Shawyer’s EmDrive have probably reached you at some point in the last five years. Grabby headlines say it is the key to interstellar travel for humans because it can reduce the amount of time it takes to travel through the solar system. If you go by the headlines, it has put mankind significantly closer to being able to travel to distant planets within a few generations. Some believe that the EmDrive even creates the possibility of creating the once-fabled warp drives that were a possibility only in science fiction novels.

There is no doubt that the EmDrive is one of the most exciting potential discoveries in space travel and physics. However, it also remains one of the most enigmatic modern technologies known today. Far more theories are known about the EmDrive than actual facts; however, that has started to change as scientists have begun to embrace the possibility that the invention might be the real deal.

Here are the top 10 neat facts about Roger Shawyer’s fabled EmDrive:

10The EmDrive Was Designed in 2001 by Roger Shaywer of Satellite Propulsion Research Ltd.

It’s electric baby!

One of the largest costs in satellite communication is how much money it costs to launch a satellite, especially when the satellite requires a geostationary orbit (GEO). When the satellite needs to reach GEO, it needs to reach a point that is 22,236 miles directly about the equators of the Earth, and then follow the Earth’s rotation to function. Bringing a satellite this far into space is more expensive than keeping it at low Earth orbit.

Some suggest that the transfer can be made using a theory

called electric propulsion. Electric propulsion would dramatically cut costs but it is not yet use routinely because the performance is not strong enough to make the offset in costs worthwhile. Thus, electric propulsion technology needs to reach further advancement to offer more incentives for use.

Back in 2001, Satellite Propulsion Research Ltd, a research company based in the UK, was looking into a research and development project based on electric propulsion. The company was formed by a British engineer named Roger Shaywer, who had spent the previous two decades working at EADS Astrium, a European satellite firm.

With a modest grant from the Department of Trade and Industry in the UK, Shawyer set up a new project: to develop a closed container with a conical shape that would create thrust where there otherwise was none.

The proposed program would feature the direct conversion of electrical energy into thrust without a propellant. If all went well, the result would be a form of electric propulsion technology that would be able to launch satellites in a more cost effective manner without making sacrifices.

After preliminary research was carried out, a feasibility study began. The study suggested that the experimental program was worthwhile and the project moved into testing, which further supported predictions about the potential success of the creation of a new electrical propulsion technology.

9The EmDrive Does Not Need Fuel

The EmDrive don’t need no stinking fuel!

Propulsion is one of the key issues in the development of the EmDrive and in space travel in general. In order to function, a satellite is required to be launched from the Earth and into orbit, which requires propulsion. Propulsion can be any method used by engineers to force a spacecraft to accelerate. There are several methods for creating propulsion, with the most popular being a reaction engine

One of the key features of the EmDrive is that its engine does not require fuel to create a reaction. Known as a propellant-less propulsion system, the lack of fuel provides several benefits that both support the theory behind the EmDrive and make it less expensive to use.

Because the engine does not need fuel, that fuel does not need to be stored on board the space craft. This makes it significantly lighter than other types of space craft which, in turn, makes it easier to move. It also theoretically makes it less expensive to make and operate over the long term.

8The EmDrive Defies Newton’s Third Law?

Newton and the EmDrive. Are they incompatible?

Newton’s third law of motion says that if one body exerts force on another, separate body, the second body will then exert force in the opposite direction of the first object with the same magnitude.

Think of it like a game of croquet. When someone swings a croquet mallet and hits a ball, that ball moves away from the mallet with the same force that the mallet hit it with. If that ball hits another ball, that second ball continues moving in the opposite direction of the first ball and so on. The force continues to propel itself forward until the game is over.

This is the basic premise of Newton’s third law. According to Newton, for every action, there is always a reaction. No one force occurs by itself. This law is considered to be true in physics and is one of the underlying rules of classical physics. In fact, it is part of a theory of momentum that holds the whole discipline together and provides a set of rules that scientists rely on to perform experiments and learn more about the universe.

The EmDrive may defy this law entirely because it appears to be reactionless. This means it appears that there is no outside force being applied to it to make it move. According to Newton’s law, without that force, it should not move at all and in traditional physics, the ability of the EmDrive to move without a reaction is completely impossible. If it does work, it would be the result of a phenomenon that science has not yet defined or understood that deviates from the common laws underlying the discipline.

Still, Shawyer maintains that his design is reactionless and that the model works. The idea scares traditional scientists because the likelihood of it being a new phenomenon is equal to the likelihood that the current understanding of physics is mostly, if not entirely, wrong.

7The EmDrive Is a Radio Frequency Resonant Cavity Thruster

Not this kind of Radio.

Spacecraft that use a propulsion system that is powered by electrical energy typically expel propellant at a high speed. Aerospace engineers like electric thrusters compared to chemical rockers because electric thrusters operate an impulse that is higher than the chemical ones and there for have a higher exhaust speed. Unfortunately, electric propulsion systems do not have the same kind of power that chemical rockets do; though, they can provide a small amount of power over a long period of time, which them better suited for certain deep space missions.

Electric propulsion is a common technology and at this point in history, it has also matured. However, there is a new type of potential electrical propulsion system that may be even more effective in more deep space missions: the EmDrive.

The EmDrive uses a radio frequency resonant cavity thruster which is unlike other, more conventional electromagnetic thrusters currently in use in aerospace engineering. The conventional thrusters rely on reaction mass and emit directional radiation whereas the EmDrive does not. There is no reaction mass and no directional radiation, which defies the design of the thruster entirely because it defies all theories surrounding the concept of momentum.

The hypothesis underlying the design says that a magnetron produces microwaves which are then directed into an enclosed, conically tapered, metallic cavity. Because of the cone shape of the device, the microwaves have more area at one end and are able to bounce around the chamber and produce directional thrust at the narrow end of the cone using only electricity. If the thrust and momentum is generated, it produces a reactionless drive.

6Shawyer’s Claims Rested Primarily on His Own Unverified Tests

EmDrive Example

By Mario Solera [CC0 or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The earliest testing of Shawyer’s claims were received with skepticism because the only person to witness these results was him. His first test, which took place in 2001 with a 45,000 pound grant from the UK government, reportedly resulted in his design creating 0.016 Newtons of force on only 850 watts of power. However, the results were not verified and there were no peer reviews supporting his claims.

His first test produced only a small reaction – small enough that it could have resulted from an error in the experiment or recording the experiment.

5NASA Validated Its Potential in 2014

NASA confirmed the EmDrive

Shawyer did not have much clout in the scientific community until over a decade after his first experiments. The new found validation came from NASA researchers who performed a similar experiment on NASA’s EmDrive design, which included a hard vacuum.

The NASA team presented their research at the 50th Joint Propulsion Conference in Cleveland. The NASA researchers reported that thrust did occur; though, the results were tiny and reflected only about 1/1,000th of the force that Shawyer claimed in 2001. The results did not confirm that Shawyer was on to something, but they did not say he was wrong. Instead, NASA reported that further tests were required in order to make any kind of claim about the results that the researchers witnessed.

Essentially, NASA said that something happened and, like Shawyer claimed, the experiment worked. However, they know only that it works but not why it worked, saying that the force could not be attributed to any classical phenomenon.

However, NASA never had the results peer reviewed. Other groups in NASA are also unsure of the claims of the EmDrive researchers for the same reasons that researchers are skeptical of Shawyer because just like Shawyer, NASA’s proposed findings violate the basic laws of physics.

4The Chinese Validated Shawyer’s Proposition Even Earlier than NASA

The Chinese have duplicated the EmDrive’s results

Not to be outdone, the Chinese also took a chance on Shawyer’s designs.

The research came from a team at the Northwestern Polytechnic University, headed by Yang Juan, a Professor of Aeronautics Engineering and Propulsion Theory at the institution.

The team also found that the device, designed by Shawyer and built in China, was able to convert microwave radiation directly into thrust without any propulsion. They also noted the potential for the theory to be applied to spacecraft, which could ditch their heavy propellent tanks and reduce emissions.

According to the Chinese team, the source of the microwave produces a microwave radiation, which when put in the frustum microwave resonator and form thrust. Though, the results of the experiment did not produce enough thrust to move even a small, light object much less a space craft.

The most interesting facet of the Chinese research was the assertion that the results were based on classical electromagnetic theory, which mean that there is a legitimate scientific basis for the results they produced.

The research, called “Net thrust measurement of propellantless microwave thruster,” was published in Acta Physica Sinica (Chinese Physical Society), an academic journal in 2012.

3Shawyer Is Not the First to Try to Overcome Newton’s Laws of Motion

Did Mr. Dean have an aluminum foil hat. Maybe.

Shawyer gets most of the credit for this recent string of experiments in the media. However, he is not the first person to try to create a reactionless drive and defy Newton’s third law.

The attempt at leaving the laws of motion and momentum behind occurred in the 1950s when Norman Lomer Dean announced his own reactionless drive to the world by way of the Popular Science Magazine. He said his invention could create a force within free space that could move in a single direction, thereby violating Newton’s law. Like Shawyer, his results were not peer reviewed or proven. Instead, he offered private demonstrations of different devices; though, none of the models presented publically ever worked.

Observers of Dean’s device suggest that the force seen in his device was the result of unsymmetrical frictional resistance that occurred between the surface the device sat on the and device itself. According to the detractors, the resistance resulted in the movement of the device in one direction was the result of the vibrations which occurred while it was in operation.

Though it is impossible to know whether Dean had created something meaningful, he did raise interesting points about the laws of motion that his colleagues so heavily subscribed to. He said that Newton’s laws were not concrete but an approximation. He also claimed to have discovered a fourth law, which was a non-linear correction to a previous law. Dean’s corrective law would have provided the means necessary for creating a reactionless drive.

2If It’s True, There Are Plenty of Applications for Reactionless Drive

EmDrive powered penny loafers.

There are two reasons that people get so excited about the potential of Shawyer and others’ experiments. The first reason is the idea that physics could possibly be reimagined. The second is all the practical uses that the invention could have in the real world.

A reactionless drive device could have huge implications for space operations, including space travel. It would provide a cost effective way to bring satellites into low Earth orbit. It would also provide a fast way to reach the Moon, Mars and even the outer parts of the solar system.

Right now, the most practical application of the reactionless drive is the first one: low Earth orbit operations. It would cut a significant number of costs involved in running the International Space Station. First, it would prevent the ships visiting the station from requiring their own fuel, which saves money on every mission. Second, it would prevent the extra missions required for providing more fuel to the Station. It would also stop the extra missions for visiting-vehicle re-boost maneuvers.

All of this would reduce the stress put on the structure of the Station, which could prolong the real operational period for not only the International Space station but also for future space stations.

The EmDrive, or reactionless drive, would also be very useful for the geostationary orbit satellites currently deployed around the world. The typical satellite, which is used for communications, has a launch mass of 3 tons and the application of an EmDrive could reduce that figure to 1.3 tons, launching the satellite up to its position in only 36 days.

However, there is one more potential application of the EmDrive that is less practical scientifically but is exciting for science fiction fans: the potential of creating a WarpStar-I concept vehicle.

1The EmDrive Can Produce Warp Bubbles?

Ludicrous speed ahead?

When NASA announced that it had tested Shawyer’s theory and device and produced results, the world went crazy. However, it was not just the potential success of the device that moved the media. It was the hint that NASA’s success in reactionless drives was on the way to leading to an even bigger discovery: a warp bubble.

A warp bubble would make this universe available for exploration by humans. It would require breaking the speed of light. When NASA performed their experiment on the EmDrive, they did so in a vacuum in space. During the experiment, they noted that when they fired lasers through the resonance chamber of the EMDrive, a few of the beams looked as though they might be travelling at speeds faster than light.

Moving faster than the speed of light is one of the great tropes of science fiction; but, until now, it was seemed mostly improbable in actual practice. However, if the laser beams did move at a speed faster than the speed of light, they would create a warp bubble within the space-time foam. The potential of this could produce a thrust, which, in theory, could provide the power for a spacecraft to travel to the another galaxy in weeks or months, rather than tens of thousands of years.

If it worked, the warp bubble would cause a space-time contraction in front of the space craft before flowing over the craft and returning to normal behind the ship. The ship itself would not be moving at the speed of light, but the blip in space-time would be moving faster than the speed of light.

One theory suggests that since nature can travel at the speed of light, it is probable that scientists can manipulate nature to let a man-made craft also travel at the speed of light. Of course, traveling at the speed of light is not the same as travelling faster than the speed of light; however, the theoretical principles are similar.

Right now, traveling faster than the speed of light is not probable; though, there are physicists and engineers who believe it could be possible someday. Fortunately, physics relies significantly on ideas and theories That scientists are thinking about it is important because toying with the idea is how theories form and experiments begin. These thought experiments were also common place in the early days of quantum physics, which revolutionized physics into the science practiced today.


The EmDrive has been treated with constant skepticism since Shawyer started publishing papers on his work nearly a decade ago. The skepticism comes primarily from the fact that the EmDrive undermines the laws of physics, which most scientists find problematic. No one wants to hear that their life’s work is in jeopardy, which would be the case if the EmDrive is truly operational and Newton’s third law of motion is not universally applicable.

However, alongside great skepticism has come great enthusiasm. When NASA picked up the ball and started to run with it, it seemed that Shawyer’s theory was probable. Even though neither of the studies have been peer reviewed or critically examined by thousands of other scientists, that one other team has come to a similar conclusion is promising for Shawyer and his work.

It is true that Shawyer’s theory would undermine the laws of classical physics. However, the result would a revolution in science that is as great as the quantum revolution of the 20th century. It would be difficult for understanding the universe; yet, it would also provide science with the resources to search for a true understanding of the universe the Earth is in. After all, science is not looking for an easy answer, it is looking for the facts and if Shawyer’s theory is it, then classical physics will not stand in its way.