What's All This Perpetual Motion Stuff, Anyhow?

April 3, 2000
Once upon a time, the greatest minds in Europe were trying to meet the challenge of turning lead into gold. Lead is heavy and cheap. Gold is heavy and quite valuable. Surely it can't be THAT hard to transmute lead into gold, can it? So the greatest...

Once upon a time, the greatest minds in Europe were trying to meet the challenge of turning lead into gold. Lead is heavy and cheap. Gold is heavy and quite valuable. Surely it can't be THAT hard to transmute lead into gold, can it? So the greatest alchemists in medieval Europe tried to find ways to convert lead into gold.

It wasn't so easy. After much effort, some guys said they had learned how to convert lead into—well, it looked like gold. The skill needed to do this was that of the magician, or prestidigitation—sleight of hand. They would start out with a piece of lead and put it into a magical machine. After a suitable delay, it came out as (apparently) gold. If the moves were done properly, it could even pass assay. The opportunities for bunco artists were quite good in those days.

People really wanted to BELIEVE that they could get a ton of gold just starting from a ton of lead. The development of modern chemistry put an end to this. These days, almost nobody wastes much time trying to convert dross into gold. There are better projects....

As we've seen, these better ways to generate money involve perpetual-motion (P/M for short) machines. Sometimes, euphemistically, they're called "over unity" or "free energy." They claim they can provide an energy output that is "over unity" compared to the amount of energy input. Of course, people have long been trying to make P/M machines using obscure mechanical or electrical schemes.

Many times, these inventors were sincere—but mistaken—about how their scheme did (or did not) have fatal flaws. But since the demand and desires were so great, some of these "inventors" would make up elaborate fakes of getting out energy with no visible input. Whether the basic scheme was mechanical, chemical, or electrical, they would make sophisticated cheats to keep it running. Some guys used compressed air in hidden chambers to keep it running. Other times, it was hidden batteries or cords and cables activated by a remote partner. So the art of ingenious contrivance made it seem that the energy was generated INSIDE the invention. Actually, it was just the power source that was hidden inside. (Recently a sphere was shown that would rotate for an indefinite time—just sitting there spinning—and it wasn't even in a vacuum. Yeah, it would spin until the hidden battery in it ran down.)

I remember the Dean Drive. That goes way back. Mr. Dean first invented a set of levers so that his invention would climb up a pole or rope (U.S. Patent 2,886,976, filed 1956, issued 1959). Then he claimed that he had improved the invention so the machine would ascend and levitate in the air without any pole or rope! The mechanism he designed was a set of levers and counterweights and gears. The principle was claimed to be "rectifying centrifugal force." This was demonstrated by setting this machine on a bathroom scale and applying ac line power to a motor that turned the machine's input shaft. The scale would show a decrease in weight!

Wow, just keep that up, continue the improvements, and it will levitate right off the ground! (Of course, the possibility that a bathroom scale would have some dynamic nonlinearity and could give a false reading in the presence of ordinary vibration wasn't obvious to most people.) If you could generate a little force with a little power, you could generate MORE levitation force with more power.

So let's connect a whole ARRAY of these "Dean Drives" to a nuclear submarine, which would provide the electrical power. It took only a little arm-waving to prove that this could levitate and lift the nuclear submarine right up into space. Back in 1955, we could use a batch of Mr. Dean's drives to generate our space program without any need for expensive rockets.

I recall reading this in ANALOG Science Fiction magazine. I was a little skeptical. There MUST be something wrong with this scheme. Then I figured it out: If you could use a Dean Drive to generate a force in the middle of the air, without grabbing onto anything, then you could put it on the end of a long arm and provide it some power. The force it generated would start the arm rotating. When the arm got up to a high enough speed (e.g., in a vacuum), that force multiplied by the speed would be LARGER than the input power. One could extract more energy than the input and generate a perpetual-motion machine. Since this was not possible, the Dean Drive was surely a hoax.

Of course, the marvelous disclaimer in the front end of the magazine was a clue: "Everything in this magazine has no basis in fact, and nothing is necessarily true..." (a paraphrase). It was hard for me to reconcile this with the sincere statements in the stories, but I finally figured out where the truth lay.

The study of thermodynamics has been very serious and intense for over 150 years. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy is always conserved and is not created or destroyed. Thus, you cannot get out of a system more energy than you put in. (Let's leave e = mc2 out of this.)

The Second Law of Thermodynamics can be phrased this way: While the quantity of energy is conserved, the quality of it may be degraded. This is expressed in terms of entropy. One fairly obvious example is that a container of hot water and an adjacent container of cold water will tend to share their heat to become warm. However, two containers of warm water will never turn into one hot and one cold container unless a lot of energy is added. Entropy always tends to increase, unless the special addition of energy makes it SEEM that entropy is decreasing. Refer to www.entropysystems.com/Historyofentropy.htm.

The Third Law states that the amount of effort to cool an object down toward Absolute Zero becomes progressively greater as that minimum temperature is approached. It's related to the statement that the efficiency of a heat engine can not exceed 1 − TMIN / TMAX.

Sophomores have paraphrased these into the format of a gambler's lament:

  • Rule 1: You can't win.
  • Rule 2: You can't break even.
  • Rule 3: You can't get out of the game.

On their web site (www.entropysystems.com/Product.htm), Entropy Systems does admit that some people think its inventions are NOT GOOD SCIENCE, while others think they are GOOD STUFF. It claims that using its inventions, entropy doesn't have to increase any more while low-quality energy is converted to high-quality power. Most scientists consider this quite unlikely, but can't get enough details about the processes to show where that is wrong. I have my own opinions, especially when they say they can take in energy at ANY temperature ("even sub-zero temperatures") and convert it to usable power.

Their machine, based on the "Amin Cycle," claims to put out power (high-quality power, such as electrical power) while taking in only very LOW-QUALITY energy, such as warm or even cold water. You can read about this on their web page: www.entropysystems.com/WhatisEntropyEngine.htm. They claim this is based on a couple of patented devices (U.S. patents 5,547,341 and 5,765,387) that can take in air and split it into hot and cold air, even while putting out high-quality power.

Hey, isn't it illegal to convert motion or power into a separation of hot and cold air with no moving mechanical parts? No, it is NOT against any law of thermodynamics. But this process, often done with a vortex or impeller, is very inefficient and quite noisy. It's not likely to be found at the heart of any machine that generates power. Yet here we have a machine that claims to put out high-quality power while taking in just low-quality heat, using inventions that are patented. Did you just hear something that sounds like "a patented Perpetual Motion machine?" Well, not exactly, but close. Just keep moving your lips, and it sounds about the same....

My big file that I keep on perpetual motion is marked as "dimbulb." I find that some of the guys who promote P/M do fall into this category. I conversed by e-mail with a guy who was proposing to make a light bulb run on MUCH LESS POWER than any normal light bulb. Check the web page at http://members.aol.com/Apsinfo. He claimed to put in 30 W and generate more light—12 W of light energy—than an ordinary 100-W bulb.

How did he make this high efficiency? He used an SCR chopper circuit to generate narrow pulses of voltage and current to apply to a low-voltage light bulb.

How did he measure this? He measured the averaged voltage and the averaged current—with ordinary dc voltmeters—and multiplied these, VAVERAGE × IAVERAGE, to show the "average power." I tried to explain to him why this was not correct, but he did not want to listen to me. I even volunteered to talk to his old science teacher to see if his teacher could talk him out of it. But he did not want to listen to anybody because he was right and everybody else was wrong. The mathematical analysis of why people ought not to fool themselves with this old and simplistic error has been well documented by Don Lancaster in his web pages at www.tinaja.com/glib/muse113.pdf.

I said to the inventor guy, "Now, your present scheme puts out 12 W of light (about the same amount of light that a 100-W light bulb puts out in view of its 12% efficiency) with only 30 W of input power. That's because your patented invention (U.S. patent 5,463,307) chops the voltage and current. If you can chop the input power with a small duty cycle to get this improved efficiency, why not chop this with a higher input voltage and smaller duty cycle? Then you can generate MORE power output in the form of light than the electrical power you are putting in." He quickly backpedaled, saying, "No, I could not do that." I tried to ask him, "Well, why not?" But he bailed out.

I suppose I should mention Joe Newman, who claimed he could drive an electric car on the same dc current as a transistor radio battery puts out. What could be clearer evidence than that of great efficiency??

Of course, he would assemble a SERIES STACK of a few thousand 9-V batteries and connect these (250 lb. of them) to his special high-voltage electric motor in a car. He could drive this car around at a very slow speed for a few minutes. So much for the concept that MOST laymen would be impressed by "no more current than a transistor-radio battery."

His motor, especially designed for high-voltage, would run on 50 mA × 15 kV. That is 750 W, or about 1 horsepower. That's enough to drive, with suitable gearing, a car with high-pressure tires for a short time at low speed.

Newman also showed everybody that this motor would put out more power than it takes in. His instruments did seem to show that the V × I was smaller on the input than the output power. The courts presented this "ultra-high-efficiency" motor to the NBS (now NIST) to determine if it really had more power out than coming in. The NBS observed that Newman's instruments were not suitable to measure the waveforms of V and I, which—not surprisingly—had very NARROW spikes and small duty cycles. When they used proper instruments, which had enough bandwidth to handle the narrow spikes, the efficiency was of course well below 1. Newman claimed that the NBS was incompetent to measure such things and stormed off. He has not been heard from for several years.

I mentioned a few months ago that Dennis Lee had a big barnstorming tour pitching his "free energy." As I said: "HOT ITEM!!—Free Energy? Electricity for free? Perpetual-motion machines? Don't you love that stuff?! Check out these web sites, and see which one YOU believe: www.teslaelectriccompany.com; www.ucsofa.com; www.phact.org/e/z/leelee.htm; and www.voicenet.com/~eric/dennis.html. Aren't you glad you paid attention in Science class?! /rap"

I don't think Mr. Lee has yet delivered any free-energy generators. If the authorities put Dennis Lee in jail, he would just point out that he would've delivered free energy, but he was being suppressed and oppressed by the power companies. He'd love to be able to say that.

My justice would be simple: Lock him up in a laboratory and don't let him out UNTIL he shows a valid demonstration of a "free-energy machine" that puts out more power than it takes in. That might take him a while, and it would serve him right!

When I mentioned in "Retrospective Stuff" (Electronic Design, Jan. 10, p. 145) that Thomas Edison had been a great inventor in the 20th century as well as the 19th, several people asked me why I didn't say anything good about Nikola Tesla. After all, Tesla's ac motors have eclipsed many of Edison's inventions.

True, but in later life, Tesla was involved in many "over unity" inventions. For example, "Tesla's mechanical oscillator...was built in the form of an air cylinder and contained several chambers, each of which successively cools the air until it becomes liquid. Tesla stated that the device was highly efficient and could be used as a power-generating system if magnets were attached to the oscillating pistons." Yeah, sure, and "death rays," too. His proposals to transmit a billion watts from one side of the world to the exact opposite side, using huge coils and towers, never accomplished a thing—except blowing out the power house.

This is NOT perpetual motion, though it seems pretty close. It is really just a HOAX. I heard about it from Tom and Ray Magliozzi on the radio show "Car-Talk," as well as from several other places:

"What if a guy sends you a letter every week—for eight weeks in a row—and he predicts something, such as the outcome of a football game? And after you get the letter, the game does come out the way he predicted! At the end of eight weeks, this person asks you to send him $1000 and then he will tell you the winner of the NEXT game. Should you send him $1000?" They pointed out correctly that this was the scam of an opportunist who sends out 256 letters to 256 randomly chosen people. Half of the letters predict that one team will win, and half of them predict the opposite.

After the first week, there is no point in sending any more letters to half the people where he guessed wrong, but he keeps sending split predictions to the other 128, 64, and 32, etc., suckers. Football games are better for this than trying to guess the stock market. After eight weeks, 255 people will know his predictions are imperfect. But one person will have gotten the sequence of letters that indicate he is a wizard at guessing the winners. A lovely scam!

But one of the Magliozzis proposed that they ought to demand just $50, rather than $1000, because $50 is a good amount. Their pop psychology is good, but they neglected to check their math. Sending all those letters at 33 cents of postage (plus printing and overhead costs) will be over $170. So the $1000 "advice fee" would give a moderate return on the hoaxer's investment.

The $50 would work only if he set the hook after about four rounds. So this is consistent with the idea that, "If something seems too good to be true, it probably is." You probably won't be SUCKERED. I don't get suckered very often, but you never can tell for sure!

Some people thought I was badly fooled by the platinum injector. It took me quite a while to convince some of them that I was not fooling myself or them. With the "platinum injector," you can't get "something for nothing." But if you have an older car, it's possible to generate an ROI that is POSITIVE.

All for now. / Comments invited!
RAP / Robert A. Pease / Engineer
[email protected]—or:

Mail Stop D2597A
National Semiconductor
P.O. Box 58090
Santa Clara, CA 95052-8090

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