FROM THE ARCHIVES: in perpetuity

NOTE: I have a couple of blog posts in the works, and two others percolating in the back of my brain. But today the galleys for The Calculus Diaries arrived, so I'll be spending the next few evenings combing through those pages making sure embarrassing typos don't show up in the final published book. There's a lot of math and stuff in the appendices, too, so my brain will be pretty fried by the time I'm done. But I'm kind of enjoying the occasional visit to the cocktail party archives, so here's my 2006 take on the many-headed Hydra of perpetual motion scams. Sure, Steorn has come and gone since then — another one will pop up in its place. This is a post that, I'm sorry to say, will likely always be relevant.

Oh dear god in heaven Great Flying Spaghetti Monster, not again. I came back from a lovely weekend in the Windy City to find yet another misguided idealist named Sean McCarthy — less kindly folks, like Jen-Luc Piquant, might say "demented crackpot" or "opportunistic con artist" — announcing that his little start-up company in Ireland, called Steorn, has overthrown the laws of thermodynamics and developed a technique that produces more energy than it consumes — the equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. According to this news item, the mysterious process "involves magnetic fields configured in precisely the right way. Using the magnets results in a motor that's more than 100% efficient, essentially creating energy."

Our reaction to this potentially earth-shattering news? Not bloody likely. It's an opinion we expect is shared by anyone with the least smattering of comprehension of basic thermodynamical principles and the history of perpetual motion machines. People like Bob Park, the University of Maryland physics professor (and author of Voodoo Science) who has been skewering all manner of pseudoscientific claims for two decades via his electronic newsletter, What's New. (We can't wait for his acidic take on this latest claim in this coming Friday's edition.) This "fake debate" has been running so long that the physics community has moved beyond outrage and frustration to unmitigated boredom with the continued need to debunk free energy claims. In fact, it's taking all the energy we can muster to overcome our own boredom (a.k.a., mental inertia) with the issue to write this post. What the heck — we'll reiterate the arguments yet one more time. But this is the last time, absolutely the last, cross my heart and hope to die, because death would be preferable to wasting any more time on something that ought to have been settled long ago.

As Park would be happy to tell you, people have been chasing this particular pipe dream for centuries, at least — possibly even millennia. Biology has its bugbear in the form of Intelligent Design; the physics equivalent is perpetual motion, also known as "free energy" schemes. One of the earliest depictions of such a device can be found in the 12th century writings of Villand Honnecourt, and mentions become more frequent in historical records from then on. For example, a 15th century Italian physicist and alchemist claimed to have invented a self-blowing windmill, while in the 1670s, the Bishop of Chester designed several devices he claimed used perpetual motion.

Free energy proponents are fond of pointing out that in the 16th century, no less a luminary than Leonardo da Vinci sketched quite a few designs for perpetual motion machines based on the waterwheel mechanism, Leo1
but they neglect to mention that publicly, Leonardo denounced such schemes: "Oh ye seekers after perpetual motion, how  many vain chimeras have you pursued? Go and take your place with the alchemists." (Alchemy wasn't definitively debunked until the end of the 17th century, so as usual, Leonardo was a good century ahead of his time in denouncing alchemists.)

Among the most well-known "inventors"  is Robert Fludd, a 16th century English physician and alchemist who claimed, in 1618, to have found a means of producing sufficient energy to operate a waterwheel — a common technology dating back to the Roman Empire in 20 BC,  and still used today in hydroelectric power stations — to grind flour in a mill, without relying on a powering stream.

Fludd figured he could use the waterwheel to drive a pump, in addition to grinding flour. The water would turn the wheel and then be pumped back up into a standing reservoir and reused. The mill could therefore run indefinitely on this fixed supply of water. But he neglected to figure in the fact that the water would have to be lifted back up the same distance it fell — working against gravity — as it also turned the wheel to grind the grain into flour. Merely pumping the water back up into the reservoir would require  so much energy that there wouldn't be any left to grind the flour, even considering the supposed "extra" energy generated by the rotating waterwheel.

Despite his love of alchemy, Fludd was nonetheless quite a respectable scientist and we can excuse his misguided enthusiasm for his design, because he just didn't know any better. Okay, Leonardo was smart enough to know better, despite dabbling in perpetual motion devices for his own amusement, but he was an undisputed genius. He was also a bit of a visionary, not inclined to formulate solid theoretical "proofs", either pro or con, for such machines. And he wasn't alone in this oversight. At the time Fludd announced his waterwheel scheme, no one had codified the laws of thermodynamics in precise, physical terms.Fludd6_1 That process began in the early 19th century, with the work of a little-known French physicist named Sadi Carnot.

Carnot was the son of a French aristocrat –his father was one of the most powerful men in France prior to Napoleon's ignominious defeat. He was fascinated by steam engines, and became obsessed with making them more efficient. (For some reason, he seemed to think England's superior technology in this area had contributed to Napoleon's downfall and the loss of his family's prestige and fortune.) In 1824 he published Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, which described a theoretical "heat engine" that produced an amount of work equal to the heat energy put into the system.

Technically, this would be a perpetual motion machine of the first kind. (There are actually two different types of perpetual motion machines, each violating one of the two laws of thermodynamics.) But Carnot was no fool: he knew from endless experimentation that in practice, his design would always lose a small amount of energy to things like friction, noise and vibration. His lasting contribution was to set out the physical boundaries so precisely that, after his untimely death from cholera at the age of 32, Rudolf Clausius and William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) would draw on his work to build the foundations of modern thermodynamics in the 1840s and 1850s. Carnot also invented the so-called "Carnot cycle," drawing energy from temperature differences — the basis of modern-day refrigerators and air-conditioners.

Quick refresher course for our lay readers (scientists and other uber-geeks, feel free to skip this part): The first law of thermodynamics says energy is conserved, which means it can be converted from one form to another, but neither created ex nihilo, nor destroyed — even if a machine is 100% efficient, which it could never be. That's the essence of the second law, which says that a small amount of energy will always be irretrievably lost when energy is converted — and it must be converted (and harnessed!) to produce useful work (we use that term here in the precise physics sense).

It's hardly a Big Physics Secret that perpetual motion and free energy machines just… don't… work (in the non-precise layman's sense)! There is massive amounts of information out there, adeptly debunking claims of perpetual motion and demonstrating why such schemes never work. (For a lighter take on this topic, check out the Museum of Unworkable Devices, which has entire pages devoted to demonstrating the infeasibility of perpetual motion machines.) The truth is out there, folks, for anyone who can be bothered to spend 15 minutes looking for it. And yet, unlike alchemy, this pointless quest refuses to die, like horror movie icons Jason of the Friday the 13th series, or Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Krueger. Perpetual motion is a weed that keeps popping up despite regular blastings of chemical agents, or a cancer that stubbornly resists all forms of treatment. Feel free to suggest your own favorite metaphor; the possibilities abound.

Some perpetual motion proponents are frauds: their machines have hidden energy sources, like cleverly concealed batteries. The 18th century clockmaker Johan Ernst Elias Bessler designed over 300 perpetual motion machines, and seemed to have succeeded in building a wheel that rotated for 40 days in a locked room. His claim was unverifiable — Bessler refused to let anyone study his machine closely — but unlikely; historians suspect he concealed a clockwork mechanism in the large axle of the wheel to keep it running so long. Among the most notorious of modern hucksters is Dennis Lee, who hawks his various "free electricity" schemes in churches and auditoriums across the country, undeterred by the naysayers — or by the the various state attorney general's offices who have sought legal sanctions against him.

In most cases, however, the culprit isn't fraud, but wishful thinking, combined with just a wee bit of self-delusion and hubris. Would-be inventors simply miscalculate the amount of energy produced and consumed (these can be tricky calculations, after all). Yet they are sincerely convinced that they're onto something, that they have succeeded in achieving a feat that has eluded the best scientific minds for centuries. People like McCarthy refuse to believe that there is no free lunch, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There are enough of these kinds of people that the American Physical Society felt compelled to issue a statement in 2003 "deploring" all attempts to "mislead and defraud the public" via such claims. At the time it was released, the APS Executive Board also publicly commented on the proliferation of free energy schemes and perpetual motion devices, stating unequivocally, "Such devices directly violate the most fundamental laws of nature, laws that have guided the scientific progress that is transforming our world."

This is not to say that scientists are unwilling to question and explore possible violations of the laws of thermodynamics. The physicists are on top of it, people! Truly! Not only have they conducted countless experiments, but they've even proposed ingenious "thought experiments" just to challenge the conventional scientific thinking on the matter. The most notorious of these is  "Maxwell's demon, " discussed in an earlier post, but everyone's favorite physics prankster/pundit, Richard Feynman, also got into the act when he proposed a "Brownian ratchet" device during a physics lecture at Caltech on May 11, 1962.

Feyn_1 The basic device is depicted in the diagram at right. Essentially, the ratchet mechanism ensures that the attached shaft can only turn in one direction.  The idea is that random motions in the gas filling the container will cause atoms to bombard the fins. There will be inevitable statistical fluctuations in this process, so at some point there will be more impacts on one side of the fins than on another, and the shaft will turn slightly — but only in one direction. Forever. So it could theoretically be used to generate power.

Feynman's thought experiment is most instructive, since the underlying violation of thermodynamics is quite subtle at first glance. You see, every time the ratchet moves, the peg will bounce off the gear teeth, producing heat. As time passes, the gear teeth will become as warm — if not warmer — as the gas in the container. So what? You're probably thinking. Well, that extra heat will cause the ratchet peg to bounce upwards regularly, and statistically speaking — since the shaft's motion is by definition random — sometimes the shaft will slip backwards instead of turning in the desired direction. In fact, if the wheel gets warmer than the gas, the cog will move in the opposite direction than Feynman originally planned.

Okay, you say, let's just make the spring stronger to prevent this inconvenient bouncing. Nice try, but no cigar. If we do this, the molecular motion won't produce enough force to overcome the stiffer spring and allow the ratchet to turn — in any direction. Bottom line: as often as the machine ratchets forward, it will slip back, canceling out any extra "energy" it produces, and most likely losing energy in the long run, unless we find some way to replenish that lost energy from an outside source. Ironically, while Feynman's device was purely hypothetical and designed to teach his students the inviolability of the second law, it led to the development of Brownian motors, which do produce useful work, without violating thermodynamics. (You can find technical explanations of how and why here, here and here, and probably about 8 million other places on the World Wide Web.)

As recently as 2002, the University of San Diego sponsored the First International Conference on Quantum Limits to the Second Law, and maintains a Web site devoted to new challenges and accompanying critiques. So this isn't a question of the "Scientific Establishment" simply being close-minded to the possibility. Physics is all about the ongoing quest for knowledge, after all, and if physicists sometimes seem a bit dogmatic about their stance on the second law's inviolability, that's because it's backed up by massive amounts of empirical data amassed over centuries of experimental observation. The odds are definitely in the second law's favor. There has not been a shred of convincing scientific evidence to date demonstrating any exception to it. As Sir Arthur Eddington famously observed in 1948's The Nature of the Physical World:

"The second law of thermodynamics holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations, then so much for the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation, well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation."

Eddington's statement is as true today as it was almost 60 years ago; in fact, the US patent office routinely rejects applications for free energy schemes outright, based solely on the second law of thermodynamics. McCarthy and his colleagues at Steorn know all of this. That's why they've placed an ad in The Economist asking for skeptical scientists to sit on a 12-member panel to help validate the company's new process. "If we're right, that will come out in due course. If we're wrong, that will come out. It's such a big claim that it has to be validated by experts," McCarthy told Wired News. It sounds so fair-minded and sensible, right?

Wrong. Frankly, it strikes me as more than a bit disingenuous. The ad quotes playwright George Bernard Shaw, who once observed, "All great truths begin as blasphemies." So anyone who refuses to at least consider the claim risks looking like a close-minded protector of the Scientific Status Quo. McCarthy is deliberately evoking the persecuted specters of Copernicus and Galileo to goad the scientific community into lending credence to his claims. (We offer Carl Sagan's classic retort: "They laughed at Newton. They laughed at Galileo. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.") It worked, too: not only have I written this post, but thus far, some 1500 scientists have offered to help test a claim that has about a 0.0000001% chance of being scientifically valid — and we're being charitable. The odds might not even be that good. Yet the company has already filed numerous patent applications, and has
announced its plans to incorporate the technology into long-lived batteries for cell phones and
laptops. Can you say "overconfident"?

As a writer who frequently must work while traveling, I would love to have a laptop battery that lasts longer than a few hours between rechargings, never mind indefinitely. But I am, at heart, a pragmatic realist and will not succumb to mere wishful thinking in this matter. My money's betting that the "panel of experts" concludes, in record time, that Steorn's engineers are either committing fraud, or have erred in their energy calculations. Repeat after me, people: when it comes to energy, you can't win, and you can't break even. Energy is never "free." Please, we beg of you, make this your mantra. Because we're all getting just a wee bit tired of having to constantly remind everyone of such a fundamental point. Over. And. Over. Again.

26 thoughts on “FROM THE ARCHIVES: in perpetuity”

  1. As long as there are potential investors to seperate from their cash, we’ll continue to see this kind of nonsense.
    There *is* a sucker born every minute, as whoever actually said that first said.

  2. Nice article, as always.
    An interesting test, that for some reason free energy machine makers are often reticent to perform, is as follows: Turn on the machine, and plug the output power into the input and remove the original power source. If it’s truly >100% efficient, the machine will run indefinitely.

  3. Give everyone a computer and connect all the computers. Opinions will then perpetually drive keyboards.
    Sounds like a winner!

  4. *
    It does beg the question where was the Great Collider (accelerator) in the sky that produced the Big Bang plugged into, does it not???
    Is the Universe or spacetime a classic example of perpetual motion albeit with possibly a finite life (you know a short 3 trillion years life span)

  5. Great article – you’ve summarized (!) it nicely.
    I’ll introduce a mild counter-point: Keep an open mind.
    We thought we had the universe doped out at one point. Everything circled the Earth. Done, simple. There were some inconsistancies around the edge but as a model for the universe it worked. Tools and insturments got better then we discovered that – lo – it was all backass and widdershins. Commotion ensued and we re-arranged our model of how the universe worked.
    I’m simplyfying a few thousand years of progress of course.
    There are no promises that this is the right model. We think so, we’re pretty sure with nearly 100% certainty. But we could all be wrong – again.
    Now, don’t lump me into the camp of free energy guys and so on. I know the universe is not – and will not – be arranged for my convenience. I’m merely saying investigate with care and don’t prejudge. Guy could be a nut, or he could be spot on.

  6. Brian’s “counterpoint” is, in fact, already addressed in the post. I was quite careful to make the point that physicists ARE keeping an open mind — within reason. They continue to test, and retest the laws of thermodynamics, propose thought experiments, etc. The latter have resulted in interesting new innovations (eg the Brownian motor) even if the second law still stands.
    For the record, I don’t think this most recent guy is a nut; I think he’s a crass opportunist, and he’s playing on the tendency of scientists to “keep an open mind” to play them and thus lend credence to his “invention” in the media. We can keep an “open mind” and still strongly make the case that the odds are several trillion to one, at this point, that any such claim is viable. We NEED to strongly make the case to counter opportunists like McCarthy.

  7. As bc pointed out earlier and Jen agreed, this guy sounds like P.T. Barnum’s distant relative (that’s who said there’s a sucker born every minute). Of course, the creeping lack of interest in and knowledge of science contributes to this as Tim Radford points out in his column in today’s Guardian:
    “The paradox is that the nation that led prodigious advances in physics, chemistry, biology, geology, engineering, medicine and computing is populated by a very large number of people who either know but don’t care, or don’t know and don’t want to know.”,,1855040,00.html
    How do you reach people who don’t want to know? They’re just asking to be suckered.

  8. No need to withdraw the comment — I write long posts and it’s easy to miss the occasional point. This exchange draws attention to it, especially since you brought up Copernicus and the heliocentric solar system…. precisely the reaction that Steorn’s _Economist_ ad was meant to evoke….

  9. Slightly off topic – but by special request:
    Jennifer – you may very well be a pig-fucker.
    (there – I hope you are satisfied)

  10. Okay, that last comment nearly made me spew my drink all over my keyboard. 🙂 For the benefit of those not in on the joke, I expressed envy over on PZ Myers’ blog, Pharyngula, because he got far more foul-mouthed and colorful hate mail that I did. My plea: “What’s a girl gotta do to goad someone into calling her a “pig-******’?”
    Briefly considered editing CHeeto’s comment with asterisks (pig-******), mostly because my parents (among others) read this blog, but what the heck, its all in fun…. hopefully they’ll skip the comments on this one.

  11. Wonderful post, as usual — thanks for such a thorough but entertaining review of the topic.
    And also, thanks for the intro to the FSM — at last, I’ve found the answers I’ve been seeking …
    And before I forget: HI MOM! HI DAD! 😀 (There — got you covered now.)

  12. Regarding the whole heliocentric – vs – Earth-centered thing being used as an example of change in scientific thought:
    Keep in mind that the arguments used to support the claim for the Earth-centered solar system / universe were either outright religious or at best pseudo-scientific. As such I don’t think it’s the best choice for a metaphor about how scientific theories get refined/abandoned, because it realy represents a shift to sceintific thought from non-scientific thought.
    It wasn’t just that “instruments got better”, which allowed us to develop the heliocentric model. It was that we CHOSE to refine those instruments – in other words the underlying shift to rationality (the Enlightenment) was the big change, not just the development of better tools.
    Since you bring up FSM, it’s kind of the equivalent of saying that scientists believed that the world was created in 7 days, but eventually “refined” their ideas…this ends up glossing over distinctions between science and religion, and between “bad” and “good” science.
    A distinction I’m at pains to point out because I’ve become particularly sensitive to it during this peculiarly anti-intellectual phase in American history…..

  13. Not so sure the impulse to think of Earth as the center of the universe should be laid off to religion. I think there’s an excellent chance that viewing the physical totality from that perspective is a hard-wired characteristic of the human observer.
    Also, Copernican theory survived as long as it did because it worked so well. You might say it was perfectly backward, and required the attention of a man who was a religious fanatic to finally disprove.
    I’m talking about Newton, of course.
    Not to say I’m counting on Steorn to come through with a winner here, but rigor is rigor.

  14. Anselpixel said:
    “Not so sure the impulse to think of Earth as the center of the universe should be laid off to religion. I think there’s an excellent chance that viewing the physical totality from that perspective is a hard-wired characteristic of the human observer.
    Also, Copernican (oops Ptolemaic) theory survived as long as it did because it worked so well. You might say it was perfectly backward, and required the attention of a man who was a religious fanatic to finally disprove.
    I’m talking about Newton, of course.”
    Of course all observers of the Universe from Earth are young earthlings (or terrans)
    Of course all pixelated models of the Universe on Earth are hardwired to computers
    Of course most mathematical theories of the Universe are Earth related theories ‘conjured’ up by earthlings – no one has seen beyond the cosmological event horizon. And Susskind’s landscape could well be shown to be ‘within’ the Universe we inhabit. We’d need to travel to the cosmological event horizon, to be able to look further. As Martin Rees points out the Universe as we know it (or rather see it) has a rather wide diameter – and it is still only a fraction of the picture. Perhaps we should invest more time in travelling to these far flung galaxies to see for ourselves (or rather open the way for future ‘generations’ 500 years down the road) rather than speculating or blowing hot air about what may or may not lie beyond – after all it could all be a lie or a figment of someone’s imagination. And current experiments, applied physics, particle physics or even gravitational lensing can barely scratch the surface of the visible as in within our cosmological event horizon, never mind any hocus pocus maths or even pseudo-science (all speculative) about what may lay beyond.
    But hey it is the nature of man to speculate to theorize, and to debate, dream up or conjure up images of other worlds, existence in other forms – even life after death!

  15. I don’t understand the science puritans’ hostility towards new ideas, what harm is it doing? What harm if physicists go and look at this thing and prove you right? Why the vendetta? Many in science are like religious fundamentalists in some ways, they look at these laws they have the way an evangelist looks at the gospel. The truth is, we know so little so it is in fact these scientists (and not Steorn) who could be genuinally accused of overconfidence.

  16. Physicists would have us believe that the speed of light is constant and will never slow. Therefore photons are perpetual motion machines and light must not exist.

  17. I remember first reading about the idea of entropy in the “Energy” book of the old Time|Life Science series. The chapter starts by describing how a bright child who knew a little about motors and generators would reason that you could drive a motor with a generator, drive the generator from the same motor, and the combination could run indefinitely. It went on to describe that the same child, either by experimenting or reading further, would find that this did not work [this was a bit of a disappointment to me, because this was exactly how I was planning to power my 3rd grade spaceship designs].
    The chapter went on to describe the basic problem with perpetual motion devices, and described several classic examples (and the flaw with each design). There was a two page graphic, following the path from a hydroelectric generator through several steps to the home, showing how energy is lost, and heat created, at each step along the way. It drove the point home for me.
    The books are a bit dated nowdays, but there is still worth in most of them. Well illustrated, which I think helped capture the imagination. Better than some of the more recent offerings by Time|Life publishing (books about ghosts and UFOs come to mind).

  18. SciBlog Anthology suggestions so far

    Wow! I posted the call for suggestions on Friday night, it is a weekend and a holiday, the traffic is down to a half, yet I got so many suggestions already, both in the comments and via e-mail! I am…

    It is a new kind of of clean energy!!!
    Clean the air? It is possible. Clean water? It is possible too.
    Clean energy? It is possible as well.
    My idea is very difficult for understanding. It is not difficult for engineer – mechanic, who knows very good the Pascal’s law and even-arm lever.
    Please open GOOgle and find metozor and next :
    index of metozor.
    Overthere is all about idea of main .
    example : or
    Too good to be true ???
    I am inventor and owner of Metoz machine invention. Everyone can take absolutely and legitimate the METOZ invention and build the Metoz machine. I can help only. I can not build METOZ. I am moneyless.

  20. I am afraid that this time you are wrong in your assumptions about Steorn. There is now a public demo planned for the first week of July in London where the public will be shown the world’s first perpetual motion machine.
    As for Park, he is a debunker of the first order and his strange alliance with James Randi beggars belief. I mean a magician for god’s sakes. Don’t make me laugh.
    Orbo technology successfully operates just as Steorn describe, it will be fun to come back to this blog to see the huge climbdown that you will have to do.

  21. physics phd student

    I don’t see the point of all this discussion. Nobody is trying to say that energy is not conserved, it’s just that people want to try to convert the constant supply of one type of energy into a directed motion of Brownian particles
    if you want to do it properly here is a rather old and basic article about this by somebody (not me) who is in this business for a while

  22. I’m not sure, but you may be being a bit harsh on Fludd. Going by the diagram, on the right, the water coming out under the wheel is vapourised by the fire and then condensed again at the top. The fire is putting in the necessary extra energy. No claim to perpetual motion is being made here.

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