There are many observable physical phenomena that arise in interactions involving virtual particles. For bosonic particles that exhibit rest mass when they are free and actual, virtual interactions are characterized by the relatively short range of the force interaction produced by particle exchange. Confinement can lead to a short range, too. Examples of such short-range interactions are the strong and weak forces, and their associated field bosons.
For the gravitational and electromagnetic forces, the zero rest-mass of the associated boson particle permits long-range forces to be mediated by virtual particles. However, in the case of photons, power and information transfer by virtual particles is a relatively short-range phenomenon (existing only within a few wavelengths of the field-disturbance, which carries information or transferred power), as for example seen in the characteristically short range of inductive and capacitative effects in the near field zone of coils and antennas.
Some field interactions which may be seen in terms of virtual particles are:
The Coulomb force (static electric force) between electric charges. It is caused by the exchange of virtual photons. In symmetric 3-dimensional space this exchange results in the inverse square law for electric force. Since the photon has no mass, the coulomb potential has an infinite range.
The magnetic field between magnetic dipoles. It is caused by the exchange of virtual photons. In symmetric 3-dimensional space, this exchange results in the inverse cube law for magnetic force. Since the photon has no mass, the magnetic potential has an infinite range.
Electromagnetic induction. This phenomenon transfers energy to and from a magnetic coil via a changing (electro)magnetic field.
The strong nuclear force between quarks is the result of interaction of virtual gluons. The residual of this force outside of quark triplets (neutron and proton) holds neutrons and protons together in nuclei, and is due to virtual mesons such as the pi meson and rho meson.
The weak nuclear force is the result of exchange by virtual W and Z bosons.
The spontaneous emission of a photon during the decay of an excited atom or excited nucleus; such a decay is prohibited by ordinary quantum mechanics and requires the quantization of the electromagnetic field for its explanation.
The Casimir effect, where the ground state of the quantized electromagnetic field causes attraction between a pair of electrically neutral metal plates.
The van der Waals force, which is partly due to the Casimir effect between two atoms.
Vacuum polarization, which involves pair production or the decay of the vacuum, which is the spontaneous production of particle-antiparticle pairs (such as electron-positron).
Lamb shift of positions of atomic levels.
The Impedance of free space, which defines the ratio between the electric field strength |E| and the magnetic field strength |H |: Z0 = | E|⁄|H|.
Much of the so-called near-field of radio antennas, where the magnetic and electric effects of the changing current in the antenna wire and the charge effects of the wire's capacitive charge may be (and usually are) important contributors to the total EM field close to the source, but both of which effects are dipole effects that decay with increasing distance from the antenna much more quickly than do the influence of "conventional" electromagnetic waves that are "far" from the source.[a] These far-field waves, for which E is (in the limit of long distance) equal to cB, are composed of actual photons. Actual and virtual photons are mixed near an antenna, with the virtual photons responsible only for the "extra" magnetic-inductive and transient electric-dipole effects, which cause any imbalance between E and cB. As distance from the antenna grows, the near-field effects (as dipole fields) die out more quickly, and only the "radiative" effects that are due to actual photons remain as important effects. Although virtual effects extend to infinity, they drop off in field strength as 1⁄r2 rather than the field of EM waves composed of actual photons, which drop 1⁄r.[b][c]
Most of these have analogous effects in solid-state physics; indeed, one can often gain a better intuitive understanding by examining these cases. In semiconductors, the roles of electrons, positrons and photons in field theory are replaced by electrons in the conduction band, holes in the valence band, and phonons or vibrations of the crystal lattice. A virtual particle is in a virtual state where the probability amplitude is not conserved. Examples of macroscopic virtual phonons, photons, and electrons in the case of the tunneling process were presented by Günter Nimtz and Alfons A. Stahlhofen.