Free Energy Machines

Some believe they've cracked the secret of free energy forever with no fuel needed. Is it true?

Filed under Conspiracies, Consumer Ripoffs, General Science

Skeptoid #341
December 18, 2012
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
Also available in Russian
Bookmark and Share

Leonardo da Vinci perpetual motion
A detail of a Da Vinci sketch for a perpetual motion pump.
Public domain photo.

Call them free energy machines, perpetual motion, over-unity machines, or any other name; a tiger remains a tiger no matter what color you paint his stripes. For as long as human beings have needed electricity or any kind of power source, inventive minds have sought in vain for a perfect solution: free energy forever with no fuel needed. Drawings of plans for perpetual motion machines are found throughout history for as long as we've had the science of engineering, and they continue to appear today, perhaps more than ever. Today we're going to look at some of the most famous examples of free energy machines, and address the common public perception that such miracles actually exist.

The reason that no free energy machine can work, or will ever work, should go without saying; but since the claims continue to persist, it bears a mention. A perpetual motion machine would violate the laws of thermodynamics. Strictly speaking, it is unscientific for me to say that no free energy machine will ever work; but the fundamental laws of the universe are established to such a huge degree of certainty that it's a limb upon which I'm willing to go out. Specifically, the first law of thermodynamics states that the energy of any closed system remains constant. If you take any energy out of it at all — for example, to make a rotor spin — then you must put in at least an equivalent amount of energy. The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy in any isolated system can only increase but not decrease; basically, systems seek thermal equilibrium. This law prohibits any process in which the only result is that heat moves from a region of lower temperature to a region of higher temperature, or where heat is converted purely into work. All free energy concepts are impossible because, by definition, they violate one or both laws.

The most common perpetual motion concept is a magnetic motor, some arrangement of permanent magnets intended to spin a rotor, push a ball around a path, or keep some other component in motion forever. These days they're usually blended with a powered electric motor, and the inventor claims that once it gets going, its kinetic energy exceeds the electrical energy put into it. An Internet search yields thousands of results for such machines. Many of them show videos of their machines working. So how do we reconcile this: am I saying all these guys are all liars?

No, but I am saying that anyone who thinks he's cracked free energy is wrong. In most cases, the inventor is not a formally educated physicist who understands how and why electromechanical systems work. Most inventors of free energy machines are amateurs, and are honestly (albeit profoundly) mistaken. More often than not, they present complex diagrams, notes, and calculations that they made up themselves. Some admit they don't understand everything about their machine; but all too often, they claim to have overturned laws of nature using some unique knowledge.

The earliest designs were described in the 12th century. The most notable was the Bhaskara wheel, the spokes of which were half filled with mercury and curved in such a way that the heavy liquid flowed toward the outer edge on the downstroke and toward the hub on the upstroke, thus providing leverage to keep it turning. This basic design, called the overbalanced wheel, was repeated many times with many variations over the centuries. Villard's wheel from the 13th century used hammers that hung outstretched on the downstroke and hung straight down on the upstroke. Taccola's wheel from the 15th century used hinged levers. Leonardo da Vinci even drew a number of overbalanced wheel designs, however he also knew they were impossible. In 1870, author Henry Dircks quoted Leonardo:

...By equiping such a wheel with many balances, every part, however small, which turned over as the result of percussion would suddenly cause another balance to fall, and by this the wheel would stand in perpetual movement. But by this you would be deceiving yourself... As the attachment of the heavy body is farther from the center of the wheel, the revolving movement of the wheel round its pivot will become more difficult, although the motive power may not vary.

A special place in the history of perpetual motion belongs to the German clockmaker Johann Bessler, who constructed a large number of wheels which he demonstrated in the early 1700s. His pendulum-regulated wheels were large, thick, and covered with canvas so their inner mechanicals were never visible. Bessler received plenty of notoriety and support, though many also considered him an illusionist in addition to an experienced builder of spring-powered clockworks. Bessler's most famous demonstration was apparently keeping his wheel running for 53 days inside a sealed, locked, and guarded room provided by his patron, the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel; but since the room was windowless and it was Bessler himself who was the first to enter and last to leave the room, skeptics have remained unconvinced that the wheel actually ran the whole time.

Physics is physics, whether you're dealing with simple mechanical devices or complex machines connected to batteries and employing fanciful terminology. In 2006 a company called Steorn announced a device called the Orbo, which as far as anyone knows, was simply the classic magnetic motor. All their public demonstrations failed (except when it's been powered by a battery), yet they've persisted in claiming progress. For decades, a guy named John Searl claimed to have built a magnetic motor that he called the Searl Effect Generator, and claims to have flown around in flying saucers powered by them.

Many designs in recent years have claimed that coils of wire create electricity. The best known of these are Rodin coils, named after Marko Rodin, based on something he calls vortex mathematics, a new science invented (and understood only) by himself. A variant, created by Canadian inventor Thane Heins, is named the Perepiteia bi-toroidal transformer. Observers have noted that it's simply a conventional induction motor, with only Heins himself asserting that it produces more energy than it consumes.

As you might expect, many free energy supporters cite Nikola Tesla, based on an article he wrote in 1900 for Century Illustrated Magazine. Some have interpreted this as evidence that Tesla believed free energy was possible. But a quick read of his article reveals that he was discussing no such thing; but simply a heat sink which would transfer heat energy from any naturally warm area to any naturally cold area. Tesla was not discussing violating the second law of thermodynamics, but rather leveraging it.

A common misconception about free energy machines is that many designs are patented, but this doesn't prove their validity because patents only establish original concepts and don't make judgments about whether or not they work. This is not quite true. What is true that a large number of designs for impossible machines have been successfully patented, but these are all slips through the cracks. Perpetual motion machines are specifically not patentable, and the law is basically the same in most countries. In the United States it's called the utility requirement. In order to be patentable, a device must be useful in some way. The law explicitly excludes perpetual motion machines, on the basis of impossibility. Similarly, you can't just patent the idea of a Star Trek transporter, unless you actually build one that works.

The most-often cited case of such a patent office rejection is the one that's now cited in the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure, and it comes from 1977. Joseph Newman was something of a crank who had developed his own unconventional theories of gyroscopes and electromagnetism. When his magnetic motor was rejected by the patent office because its concept violated the laws of nature, he filed an appeal. All appeals were rejected as well. But Newman was determined, and in 1989 filed a lawsuit, Newman v Quigg, against the Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks. A district court judge appointed a special master to study Newman's prototype. The special master studied the design and operation thoroughly, and although he understood that Newman's explanation was crazy and wrong, he was convinced that the device did, in fact, put out more energy than it consumed from its batteries.

But the court was unconvinced, and sent the device to the National Bureau of Standards for testing. The Bureau disagreed with the special master, and found that the device was simply an unusual DC to AC converter, and only slightly less efficient than commercially available converters. The court ruled against Newman. But he complained that the Bureau tested his machine wrong, and appealed again; but the federal circuit court found that the district court had acted properly, and there was no cause for overruling the patent office's rejection.

No discussion of free energy machines would be complete without a mention of the conspiracy theories proposed by some of their supporters. The basic claim is that free energy machines work, but are being suppressed by the establishment to protect oil profits. Conspiracy theory websites such as InfoWars, Rense.com, and Natural News assert the existence of free energy all the time; and conspiracy theory Internet movies like Thrive say exactly the same things.

At its surface, this theory sounds plausible; but when studied a bit deeper, it falls apart. First of all, the claimed suppression doesn't seem to exist at all. Various perpetual motion machines are promoted all the time, and YouTube is bursting at the seams with videos uploaded every day showing such machines allegedly working. Whatever form this suppression takes, it doesn't seem to be very effective. A lot of the guys who have been crusading on behalf of their particular machines have been doing so (in some cases) for decades, unimpeded by either government Men in Black or Big Oil hitmen. Books remain on the shelves, videos remain on YouTube, and patents remain on file and available to the public. The claim of suppression is pretty hard to demonstrate.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Why do the honest inventors pursue perpetual motion, when any basic inquiry into the theory shows that it cannot be done? Patent attorney Gene Quinn offers one explanation:

The pursuit of the impossible, or impossible at least based on our current understandings of the laws of physics and nature, is a particularly strong draw for many. It is what causes young science fiction fans to grow up into scientists that challenge conventional thinking and chase the cool gadgets the sci-fi visionaries dreamed.

There's also a component of the age-old appetite for magically easy solutions to difficult problems. There's hardly any human desire that's as pervasive as this one. No matter what the goal is — super health, psychic superpowers, or free energy — many people will be obsessively driven to obtain them. Inevitably, these people include well-meaning non-experts who fool themselves and other non-experts with supposed solutions. The dream of free energy is here to stay.

Follow me on Twitter @BrianDunning.

Brian Dunning

© 2012 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Dircks, H. Perpetuum Mobile, or the history of the search for self-motive power from the 13th to the 19th century. London: E & F Spon, 1870.

Gardner, M. "Perpetual Motion: Illusion and Reality." Foote Prints. 1 Jan. 1984, Volume 47, Number 2: 21-35.

Quinn, G. "The Patent Law of Perpetual Motion." IP Watchdog. IP Watchdog, Inc., 11 Oct. 2011. Web. 14 Dec. 2012. <http://www.ipwatchdog.com/2011/10/11/the-patent-law-of-perpetual-motion/>

Simanek, D. "Perpetual Futility: A short history of the search for perpetual motion." Donald Simanek's Pages. Lock Haven University, 21 Jun. 2003. Web. 14 Dec. 2012. <http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/museum/people/people.htm>

Tesla, N. "The problem of increasing human energy: With special references to the harnessing of the sun's energy." Century Illustrated Magazine. 1 Jun. 1900, Volume 60, Issue 2.

USPTO. "Guidelines for Examination of Applications for Compliance with the Utility Requirement." Manual of Patent Examining Procedure. United States Patent & Trademark Office, 13 Sep. 2012. Web. 14 Dec. 2012. <http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/pac/mpep/s2107.html>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Free Energy Machines." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 18 Dec 2012. Web. 17 Apr 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4341>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 92 comments

There's probably forces in the universe that we can't concieve of yet - no more than a man of the Middle Ages could concieve of electricity; or of a 6-month journey taking a mere 2 hours with an "engine" that flies.

Someone might discover some unknown force that LOOKS like "free energy", but it won't be. Maybe it'll be cheap and easily available, but It won't be "free". It would have to come from SOMEWHERE that our civilization just isn't aware of.
Entropy will always apply.

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
September 25, 2013 1:27pm

This is pretty vague and generalizing of the efforts of individuals to harness vacuum energy. Some individuals in the field currently do have PhDs, and have worked extensively on reformulating theories such as electromagnetism. In addition, the Casimir effect is an example of vacuum energy that is measurable and quantifiable. If one were to harness this force, would it not be a free energy device? Think of a dense array of plates 1-2 nm apart in a vacuum, configured in such a way that the motion is translated into electrical energy. How, I do not know. But what is stopping someone from figuring it out, other than individuals making generalizing statements such as "The reason that no free energy machine can work, or will ever work, should go without saying.." Because the laws of thermodynamics says so? What does the laws of thermodynamics have to say about quantum mechanics or virtual particles in general? I think the laws of thermodynamics are not something you should be using to evaluate whether or not certain technologies are possible now or in the future.

Dan T, Phoenix, AZ
September 30, 2013 7:32am

I can see that this guy never does reply to the good questions just the one he could answer

B, San Diego
September 30, 2013 6:21pm

Free energy has nothing to do with the monetary cost of getting the energy but simply getting more out than you put in E.G Put in 1kw get out 2kw = 1 kw free energy. According to our current understanding of physics energy cannot be created it just changes state whether that be kinetic, chemical or any other type of energy so therefore solar panels, wind turbines and any other RENEWABLE energy sources are not free energy..

Brodie, Leicester
October 06, 2013 1:15am

The hardest thing for someone to convince another that they are wrong is when they are both right. The laws we talk about apply to what we know now so be open minded. For those that believe in free energy don't ignore the laws that we do know cause they can save you a lot of time and can give you a lot of good knowledge. Just keep in mind and don't take the laws to heart because they may make you miss something that has never been seen. What a lot of people consider argument or disagreement to me they are just conversations on a subject. Some people just have all the answers why we can’t and they get stuck with this mentality. What we forget is all the time spend finding why we can't is time we could of used finding out how we can so it’s up to you which way you want to think. You respond to negative things and plan for positive things. If you can put the laws and inventive attitude together that would be the winner. So stop saying and start doing. Let the kids argue and continue to pursue. It is not a matter if we can get there it is just a matter of when.

Tom, PNI
October 08, 2013 12:36pm

I don't want to rain on your parade Brodie. But if the definition of free energy is to put 1KW and get 2KW out then that is exactly what scientists have already done with Fusion this year.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-24429621

Specifically and I quote. " a research experiment conducted in late September succeeded in releasing more energy through a fusion reaction than it absorbed by the fuel going in."

David, Christchurch
October 10, 2013 12:27pm

Energy produced by fusion is not 'free energy'.
It is the release of energy which already exists within atomic nuclei.
The release of that energy requires a very high temperature, so hence the need to input some energy in order to get energy out.
If the necessary input energy can be made sufficiently low in comparison to useable output, we have an economically viable reactor, that's all.
It's not a case of energy coming from nowhere.

<user>, 0xdeadbeef
October 19, 2013 12:47pm

Of course, cold fusion is believed to be impossible...
But the above point is accurate. Cold fusion would just be releasing potential energy, and generating energy from it does not change this. It does, however, allow nuclear fusion to be a workable power source.

Bill, Canberra
October 19, 2013 10:45pm

Of course we can never absolutely say that there will never be 'free energy' machines that work, or faster than light travel, or teleportation of the Star Trek sort. Those are however not possible under our current understandings of physics, backed by a lot of good theory and experimentation. Violating the second law of thermodynamics would be an incredibly huge breakthrough - and vanishingly unlikely, tho we cannot say absolutely "impossible". But it's also not impossible that a meteorite full of precious metals will land in your yard next week. I wouldn't bet on it tho.

Meanwhile, there's an incredibly rich series of scams and well meaning delusions out there, luring in the believers. So far their batting average is 0 - no practical devices ever, period. It's pretty unlikley that another backyard inventor will put wires and magnets together and somehow find the combination that overturns physics.

Brian is right to observe the common characteristics of these false trails. Every now and then one fools some "expert" temporarily, but upon further examination it always fails, and the proponents are usually very cagey in avoiding serious tests and explaining away failures. Just read up on the dozens of websites devoted to such devices and you'll get the pattern.

(I can think of a recent example where conventional science was overturned and the supposedly "impossible" accomplished - but I don't want to fuel more delusion with another mis-applied analogy)

Zeph, Sonoma County, CA
November 09, 2013 3:38am

I have produced an alternator that cancels out all back torque. "Standard" alternators exhibit the characteristic whereby when an electrical load is connected to the output, the shaft becomes harder to turn. No "free lunch" here. My machine on the other hand completely cancels out all back-torque. The only work that the small drive motor has to do, is overcome very small bearing and air friction.
The output of the machine has no relationship with the rotational energy requirements of the small drive motor, so the word "efficiency" has no meaning here.
Efficiency, normally refers to the ratio of input energy versus output energy.
If further interested, I will give the full details on how this is done.

Steele Braden, Auckland New Zealand
December 19, 2013 7:28pm

Make a comment about this episode of Skeptoid (please try to keep it brief & to the point). Anyone can post:

Your Name:
City/Location:
Comment:
characters left. Discuss the issues - personal attacks against other commenters, posts containing advertisements or links to commercial services, nonsense, and other useless posts will be deleted.
Answer 6 + 3 =

You can also discuss this episode in the Skeptoid Forum, hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation, or join the Skeptalk email discussion list.

What's the most important thing about Skeptoid?

Support Skeptoid
 
Skeptoid host, Brian Dunning
Skeptoid is hosted
and produced by
Brian Dunning


Newest
The Black Eyed Kids
Skeptoid #410, Apr 15 2014
Read | Listen (11:18)
 
Oil Pulling
Skeptoid #409, Apr 8 2014
Read | Listen (12:24)
 
Skeptoid Media is a 501(c)(3) Public Charity
Apr 4 2014
Listen (1:13)
 
15 Phreaky Phobias
Skeptoid #408, Apr 1 2014
Read | Listen (12:44)
 
The Death of Mad King Ludwig
Skeptoid #407, Mar 25 2014
Read | Listen (11:49)
 
Newest
#1 -
Listener Feedback: Alternative Medicine
Read | Listen
#2 -
The JFK Assassination
Read | Listen
#3 -
Asking the Socratic Questions
Read | Listen
#4 -
5 False Arguments for Raw Milk
Read | Listen
#5 -
The Vanishing Village of Angikuni Lake
Read | Listen
#6 -
The Riddle of the L-8 Blimp
Read | Listen
#7 -
The Secrets of MKULTRA
Read | Listen
#8 -
Who Discovered the New World?
Read | Listen

Recent Comments...

[Valid RSS]

  Skeptoid PodcastSkeptoid on Facebook   Skeptoid on Twitter   Brian Dunning on Google+   Skeptoid RSS

Members Portal

 
 


"Wheatgrass Juice"
inFact with Brian Dunning


Support Skeptoid