Freeing planes from the pull of gravity may sound like something from science fiction. But devotees of Dan Dare might be interested to learn that the aircraft maker Boeing is trying to turn the idea into scientific fact.
A briefing document obtained by Jane's Defence Weekly magazine says researchers at the company are investigating radical gravity theories by a Russian scientist, Eugene Podkletnov. He believes objects may lose some of their weight (their gravitational pull) under certain conditions. Specifically, those conditions would be the interaction of spinning superconductors and powerful electromagnets.
But Dr Podkletnov's work has been known of for more than six years without being validated in a mainstream scientific publication, and has been investigated by the US space agency Nasa and the military arm of the British defence company, BAE Systems. "We haven't found anything," a BAE source said yesterday.
A Boeing spokesman confirmed that the company had conducted tests on "a number of anti-gravity devices", and added: "These devices do not actually break the laws of physics. We feel there is a basic science that exists for all this."
Many large organisations spend money maintaining a watching brief on such unlikely technologies, on the slim chance that they will be validated and revolutionise our lives. Dr Podkletnov claimed in a 1996 paper submitted to a physics journal that he had observed "gravity shielding", where objects suspended above a superconductor rotating at 5,000rpm showed an apparent fall in weight of 2 per cent.
The claim drew a storm of interest, but the negative reaction led him to withdraw it. Copies have survived on the internet, but no scientific laboratory has confirmed the experiment by repeating it and publishing their results. Critics also said it would be economically unfeasible to make superconductors large enough to produce even a small weight reduction.
But Boeing's spokesman said: "We are trying to engineer the science in a way that produces something workable. It could help produce a transport system that works without fuel, or produce spacecraft."
He said that Boeing "would very much like to work with" Dr Podkletnov. But it was alleged yesterday that the Russian government had thwarted their attempts at co-operation.
A source at BAE Systems confirmed yesterday that the company was still interested in Dr Podkletnov's work, under a project called Greenglow, which it started in July 1999. The researchers met the Russian scientist last summer, and he claimed to have the design for a "gravity impulse generator". But nothing has emerged from his work since.
Students at Sheffield University who tried to replicate Dr Podkletnov's work failed to find any weight reduction. One scientist said they did not duplicate his precise, experimental conditions. "It would cost about £100,000 to set that experiment up just as he did it," he added.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies