SCIENTISTS in Finland are about to reveal details of the world's first anti-gravity device. Measuring about 12in across, the device is said to reduce significantly the weight of anything suspended over it.
The claim - which has been rigorously examined by scientists, and is due to appear in a physics journal next month - could spark a technological revolution. By combating gravity, the most ubiquitous force in the universe, everything from transport to power generation could be transformed.
The Sunday Telegraph has learned that NASA, the American space agency, is taking the claims seriously, and is funding research into how the anti-gravity effect could be turned into a means of flight.
The researchers at the Tampere University of Technology in Finland, who discovered the effect, say it could form the heart of a new power source, in which it is used to drive fluids past electricity-generating turbines.
Other uses seem limited only by the imagination:
Lifts in buildings could be replaced by devices built into the ground. People wanting to go up would simply activate the anti-gravity device - making themselves weightless - and with a gentle push ascend to the floor they want.
Space-travel would become routine, as all the expense and danger of rocket technology is geared towards combating the Earth's gravitation pull.
By using the devices to raise fluids against gravity, and then conventional gravity to pull them back to earth against electricity-generating turbines, the devices could also revolutionise power generation.
According to Dr Eugene Podkletnov, who led the research, the discovery was accidental. It emerged during routine work on so-called "superconductivity", the ability of some materials to lose their electrical resistance at very low temperatures. The team was carrying out tests on a rapidly spinning disc of superconducting ceramic suspended in the magnetic field of three electric coils, all enclosed in a low-temperature vessel called a cryostat.
"One of my friends came in and he was smoking his pipe," Dr Podkletnov said. "He put some smoke over the cryostat and we saw that the smoke was going to the ceiling all the time. It was amazing - we couldn't explain it."
Tests showed a small drop in the weight of objects placed over the device, as if it were shielding the object from the effects of gravity - an effect deemed impossible by most scientists.
"We thought it might be a mistake," Dr Podkletnov said, "but we have taken every precaution". Yet the bizarre effects persisted. The team found that even the air pressure vertically above the device dropped slightly, with the effect detectable directly above the device on every floor of the laboratory.
In recent years, many so-called "anti-gravity" devices have been put forward by both amateur and professional scientists, and all have been scorned by the establishment. What makes this latest claim different is that it has survived intense scrutiny by sceptical, independent experts, and has been accepted for publication by the Journal of Physics-D: Applied Physics, published by Britain's Institute of Physics.
Even so, most scientists will not feel comfortable with the idea of anti-gravity until other teams repeat the experiments. Some scientists suspect the anti-gravity effect is a long-sought side-effect of Einstein's general theory of relativity, by which spinning objects can distort gravity. Until now it was thought the effect would be far too small to measure in the laboratory.
However, Dr Ning Li, a senior research scientist at the University of Alabama, said that the atoms inside superconductors may magnify the effect enormously. Her research is funded by Nasa's Marshall Space Flight Centre at Huntsville, Alabama, and Whitt Brantley, the chief of Advanced Concepts Office there, said: "We're taking a look at it, because if we don't, we'll never know."
The Finnish team is already expanding its programme, to see if it can amplify the anti-gravity effect. In its latest experiments, the team has measured a two per cent drop in the weight of objects suspended over the device - and double that if one device is suspended over another. If the team can increase the effect substantially, the commercial implications are enormous.