NASA has started up a laboratory called Eagleworks which is studying advanced propulsion and using the quantum vacuum to power it. The proposed schedule is pretty ambition for solar system exploration: in 50 years time.
Since the work being pursued by this laboratory is applied scientific research in the areas of the quantum vacuum, gravitation, nature of space-time, and other fundamental physical phenomenon, high fidelity testing facilities are needed. The lab will first implement a low-thrust torsion pendulum (less than 1 micronewton), and commission the facility with an existing Quantum Vacuum Plasma Thruster. To date, the QVPT line of research has produced data suggesting very high specific impulse coupled with high specific force. If the physics and engineering models can be explored and understood in the lab to allow scaling to power levels pertinent for human spaceflight, 400kW SEP human missions to Mars may become a possibility, and at power levels of 2MW, 1-year transit to Neptune may also be possible. Additionally, the lab is implementing a warp field interferometer that will be able to measure spacetime disturbances down to 150nm. Recent work published by White suggests that it may be possible to engineer spacetime creating conditions similar to what drives the expansion of the cosmos.
The concept of Q-Thrusters, Quantum Vacuum Plasma Thrusters, is a very interesting one that is partially described in the PDF linked to below describes using virtual particles created in the vacuum of space as reaction mass for a thruster based engine. how would we utilize this phenomena? A couple of approaches are described: Vacuum sails that develop a net force by having materials on either side with different optical properties; Inertia control by altering vacuum energy density and reducing total spacecraft mass thus minimizing kinetic energy and amount of work needed to accelerate a spacecraft; and dynamic systems that make use of the dynamic Casimir force to generate a net force.
A q-Thrister would work using the same principles behind Magnetohydrodynamics (MHD) thrusters. The virtual plasma is exposed to crossed fields which forces plasma in one direction at high velocity. Q-Thruster differ by using the quantum vacuum fluctuations as the fuel source eliminating the need to carry propellant. Not carrying propellant solves a host of problems plaguing designers of space propulsion drives, particularly ones intended for interstellar travel.
the NASA paper also suggests that it may be possible to engineer spacetime creating conditions similar to what drives the expansion of the cosmos