Free Energy Scams (Episode Scripts)

Thermodynamics Bonus episodes on why free energy is always a scam first released in Nov 2018.


If there is one argument for scientific literacy being such an important topic, it’s the fact that — in the modern world — people *still* fall for free-energy scams and perpetual motion machines, despite the laws of thermodynamics: which have been verified time and again by experiment — being very, very clear on this point.

It’s perfectly true that we don’t yet understand everything about physics. But I would just point out a couple of super-obvious facts: if it were possible to obtain huge amounts of free/clean energy without going through some super-complicated process, it’s quite likely we would have found out by now. If anyone has a working device that they can demonstrate under reasonable test conditions, and that can be reproduced, they really don’t need your investment: they’re about to become insanely rich and would probably seek real money from high-tech venture capitalists. Please, please, please, do not fall for this scam. A lot of people talk about how scientists should have an open mind, and it’s true: we all should — but there comes a point when, perhaps the fiftieth time someone claims to have constructed a wheel that will spin forever, you’re allowed to show a little bit of exasperation. There should be a fourth law of thermodynamics tacked onto the other three: No, you really, really, really can’t win. Please be very sceptical of any claims that you can.

With that in mind, while I was researching the Thermodynamics episodes, I came across a whole bunch of really entertaining stories about people who have claimed to have perpetual motion, or free energy. You guys should know by now that I really can’t resist a lurid tangent; I have so many lurid tangents I should open up a lurid tangent shop. So, for your listening pleasure, here are some tales from the annals of free energy. Some are crackpots, some are genuine (but mistaken) scientists, and some are out-and-out hoaxsters. Enjoy.

In 1812, a travelling inventor called Charles Redheffer appeared in Philadelphia. He claimed to have developed a special generator that could power other machines. [5] He showed curious onlookers, for a fee of $1, his machine — which he claimed was powering another, connected machine. By the way, some sources report that he charged men $5 and women $1, or allowed women in for free. So, maybe today’s physics-based chat-up line should be: “Hey, baby, do you want to see my perpetual motion machine?” There’s no way that could be misinterpreted. By the way, I think any claims of perpetual motion in the bedroom should be met with exactly the same amount of scepticism as claims of free energy in the lab. You’ve got to generate heat somewhere.

AAAANYWAY, back to Redheffer’s schemes. Supposedly the two machines that were linked together allowed one to power the other. I love this as a scheme, it’s practically like saying “Look, if you ignore the power cord and the massive energy infrastructure behind it, THE LAMP LIGHTS ITSELF!!!” But engineers noticed that the gears were worn the wrong way if this perpetual-motion machine were truly driving the other one. Turns out that you could get this effect if your machine contained a little clockwork motor. They exposed his scheme by hiring an engineer called Isiah Lukens to build a similar machine which used a hidden clockwork motor as a power source. Redheffer, showing an amazing amount of gullibility for a scammer, apparently actually believed that the machine was real and offered to buy the device. Seriously: the guy was supposedly like “WOW, I only claimed to have perpetual motion, but these guys actually managed it! I’m rich! Richer than astronauts!” DUH-DOY.

After the good people of Philadelphia got sick of him, Charles Redheffer set up shop in New York City with another, almost identical device. Robert Fulton exposed Redheffer’s fraud when the device was exhibited at a special display in New York. He thought he heard mechanical motion, and ripped away some floorboards to reveal a hidden wire made of catgut. On closer examination, it was revealed that the true source of the power was “a poor old wretch with an immense beard who appeared to have suffered long imprisonment,” according to Fulton’s biographer. Literally, there was some old guy turning a handle to power the machine. As crackpot perpetual motion schemes go, locking up an old man to turn a crank for you is spectacularly unsophisticated. Charles Redheffer, the Scooby-Doo villain of perpetual motion, four years later — as late as 1820 was getting patents for ‘a device to produce power’, but unfortunately the patent was lost in the great US Patent Office fire of 1826 (yes that is a real thing) so we can’t laugh at it. I’m gonna guess his major innovation in those four years was using two old men instead of one — TWICE AS EFFICIENT! He disappears from the historical record at this point. If there’s justice in history — evidence doesn’t stack up in favour of that hypothesis — he’s stuck somewhere turning the crank on someone else’s machine.

The internet absolutely loves Nikola Tesla — you know, the eccentric, brilliant scientist who did all of the research and inventing that was clearly so much better than Edison, but lost out to Edison in terms of actually making profit? You’ve probably heard the stories, for example, about the electrical current wars: Thomas Edison supported DC current, while Tesla supported AC current. Edison probably didn’t electrocute an elephant to prove his point — although Topsy the elephant was electrocuted by AC current by Edison engineers, but it was years after the format war had been settled and Edison didn’t personally attend.

Anyway: Tesla (who was honoured by giving his name to the SI unit of magnetic flux density) has taken on this mythical status in popular culture. Part of this is down to his eccentricity — he left behind all kinds of papers, crazed schemes and inventions. Amongst them, an idea to improve human brain capacity using electricity:

In 1912, he crafted “a plan to make dull students bright by saturating them unconsciously with electricity,” wiring the walls of a schoolroom and, “saturating [the schoolroom] with infinitesimal electric waves vibrating at high frequency.”

According to Tesla this would, um, make them smarter? Not really clear on how this was supposed to work.

Towards the end of the life, he hosted rather crazed birthday party press conferences:

At the 1932 occasion, Tesla claimed he had invented a motor that would run on cosmic rays.[203] In 1933, at age 77, Tesla told reporters that, after thirty-five years of work, he was on the verge of producing proof of a new form of energy. He claimed it was a theory of energy that was “violently opposed” to Einsteinian physics, and could be tapped with an apparatus that would be cheap to run and last 500 years. He also told reporters he was working on a way to transmit individualized private radio wavelengths, working on breakthroughs in metallurgy, and developing a way to photograph the retina to record thought.[204]

At the 1934 party, Tesla told reporters he had designed a superweapon he claimed would end all war.[205][206] He would call it “teleforce”, but was usually referred to as his death ray.[207] Tesla described it as a defensive weapon that would be put up along the border of a country to be used against attacking ground-based infantry or aircraft.

So am I saying that Tesla was a total crackpot, and risking the wrath of the internet? Well, sort of. He was clearly extremely eccentric. But at the same time, it’s obvious that when Tesla lived, people were still getting over how incredibly useful ‘electricity’ was — indeed, in many ways, we’re kind of *still* getting over how incredibly useful electricity is, right? — and people really did think it was a panacea while the applications were still being explored. People wanted to use electricity on everything — kind of like the hype around Big Data today, but only magnified by a factor of a hundred. The fact that Tesla had a scheme to make kids smarter by wiring the rooms in the classroom and pumping their brains full of “electromagnetic waves” should probably tell you that he, too, was convinced and evangelical about the possibilities of electromagnetism to solve the world’s problems. For example, the famous ‘flying saucers’ — yes, magnetic levitation absolutely is a thing, and people are still working on and building trains that operate via magnetic levitation — but is it practical to lift a flying saucer many feet off the ground and use this as a means of transportation? Turns out no, certainly not with current technology — it seems, to me at least, like Tesla got a little bit carried away. And he should never have claimed to have a “new” or “free” form of energy.

Tesla did discover, alongside several others, the fact that you can harness ambient electromagnetic radiation as a source of energy — this, for example, is how certain types of crystal radio work. The problem here is one of energy density: you can get a few millivolts from it, and Nokia even considered once using it to charge phones (although they later decided it was uncommercial). But to get anything substantial, you need a huge generator. And — why bother harnessing little dribs and drabs of ambient radio waves and electromagnetic waves when there’s a HUGE source of electromagnetic radiation in the sky… what’s that called… ah yes, the Sun.

Especially the claims that, at the end of his life, he was close to a breakthrough in terms of producing a “new form of energy” — these have really inspired hoaxsters, fraudsters, and other various miscreants. It’s a perfect storm, really: everyone recognises that Tesla was a genius who was often battling against scientific convention; he’s considered misunderstood; and he made some wild claims about his own research. He really is the perfect guy to prop up as your hero — but, in most of these cases, you imagine that these people have little idea about the real significance of Tesla’s work. They just want to borrow some of his scientific credibility to hawk their ludicrous schemes. It’d be like me trying to get published by claiming to have found a lost Shakespeare manuscript.

One such fraudster was a guy who clearly understood the zeitgeist. In the 1950s, people were obsessed with flying saucers. [PLAN 9 CLIP: SAUCERS? YOU MEAN THE KIND FROM UP THERE?] For some reason, with a few big abduction stories and so on, there was a real thread of belief that flying saucers had visited earth and that the military was keeping the technology a secret from the rest of the population.

Enter Otis T Carr.

Otis Carr claimed to have a spaceship that could travel to the Moon and return in less than a day. It was powered by the “revolutionary Ultron Electric Accumulator” which would be “activated” upon entering outer space, which would fuel the return journey. He managed to fool many into parting with large sums of investment for his flying saucer schemes, with one witness saying: “For all most people know, he might well be a great scientist. After all, he is completely unintelligible, isn’t he?”

Carr and Colton secured hundreds of thousands of dollars from wealthy investors and contactee-oriented saucer fans. Perhaps he was so successful in his scheme because he knew how to pick a gullible mark — if people already believed in flying saucers and alien abductions despite the lack of proof, perhaps they’d also believe that he’d managed to build on. One of the more colourful investors was Warren Goetz, who claimed to be an actual space person. Warren wasn’t born, you see — instead, he materialized in his mother’s arms as a spaceship hovered overhead. Another associate, Margaret Storm, wrote a secret unauthorised biography of Tesla, who turns out to have been a Venusian. So — everyone — this is very important. We’re not saying Tesla was a Martian — that’s an absolutely ridiculous claim. But there is incontrovertible evidence that he did, in fact, come from Venus.

Early demonstrations showed nothing more than a device that could produce a low hum, but Carr, apparently convinced by his own invention, went for a large public demonstration in 1959. This is a really common thread with these lunatic inventors — what they usually do is set some date for a huge, public display of the technology. Then, when they’re trying to get people to invest in it, they can say: “Look, of course this is real, I called a big meeting and invited a whole bunch of people! My reputation is at stake! I don’t want to spoil the surprise by demonstrating it too early — I just need a little money to get it off the ground.” Literally, in the case of Otis Carr’s flying saucers. If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

And, sure enough, at the last moment, he claimed to be feeling unwell and skipped town: the excited crowd that had gathered to see his saucer were only shown a small wooden model of his ‘ideas’. Imagine how you’d feel if you’d signed over your savings to him. In 1961, Carr was fined for securities fraud and spent some time in prison, before retiring to obscurity in Pittsburgh — likely still with a good deal of the profit he’d made from the guillible ‘investors’.
One of the things I’ve found absolutely astounding while I’ve been researching some of these scammers is just how difficult it is to find unbiased research about them. When you look up specific individuals, more often than not, there are still websites out there that are trying to claim that these people were genuinely onto something — decades after they were exposed as fraudsters.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so shocked at the idea that the internet is full of conspiracy theory websites — and naturally, they’re all trying to sell you something or other. But it never ceases to amaze me that in the 21st century, people are still following the careers of someone like Otis Carr.

OTC: Escaping from the immediate gravity pull of the Earth plus the heavy atmosphere of the Earth enables us, just as our satellites are doing now, to join a universal free energy system. They have a velocity now of 18,000 miles per hour, more or less, without any expenditure of energy whatsoever. Now any energy attached to this would immediately throw them into a higher velocity orbit which would expand them further into space…This is extremely easy to do. We feel that our craft will gradually escape and possibly escape the atmosphere of the Earth and then we can handle velocities almost unimaginable in reaching other gravity systems…

Describing this as “free energy” shows a lack of basic scientific literacy. You can do the calculations that he’s talking about, to a high degree of accuracy, with Newton’s Laws. Yet I sourced this quote from a webpage that is insisting that Otis Carr’s research is real, that the government not only knows how to build flying saucers but has also colonised other worlds, and that NASA is a hoax.

It’s downright depressing — and a shame that so many people who evidently recognise and understand that we’re in an energy crisis, and that space-travel is exciting — aren’t using their intelligence and time more productively than chasing after a decades-old scam.

I have a lot more sympathy for the perpetual-motion pursuers from long ago. As we mentioned in the episodes on thermodynamics, it wasn’t always entirely understood that conservation of energy was such a fundamental law of nature. After all, there seemed to be all kinds of things that — to a naïve point of view — violated this. Magnets, for example, seemed to move when you brought them close together without external forcing. There was obviously something weird going on with gravity. And the second law, you can’t break even, entropy increasing — this is even less obvious. For example, take a spinning wheel. It was clear even to the ancients that if you designed a better wheel, it would spin for longer once you set it in motion. So they played the dangerous extrapolation game — surely if you designed the perfect wheel, it could spin forever?

We now call this a ‘perpetual motion machine of the second kind’. And I see some people say in various places — most recently in the Youtube comments section for yet another claimed ‘perpetual motion machine’ that, like all the rest of them, does not work — that such a machine is useless since you can’t get free energy out of it. But that’s not strictly true — if you could set a wheel spinning, and it spun forever, it would be a perfect store of energy. And that’s not something that we currently have — it would be incredibly useful. Energy storage is a huge problem, especially given the current restrictions on the availability of some renewable energy sources. So, if we could find something that could perfectly store energy for all time — such as a perpetual motion machine — it would be incredibly useful, and better than many systems that we currently have.

Indeed, to store energy, people do still build spinning flywheels. The only problem is that, even if you do your best to make them as frictionless as possible, they’ll still spin down over time as friction, air resistance and so on robs you of rotational kinetic energy. But flywheels can be very effective for shorter-term energy storage — a classic example is some of those new systems you can get in cars. You know, the ones that convert some of your braking energy into charging the battery, or ‘save’ it somehow? Usually they use it to spin up a flywheel and the energy is extracted later.

If the flywheel has mechanical bearings, they usually lose 20% of their energy in a couple of hours. But with magnetic bearings, that involve less friction, you can reduce that to only 5% of energy per day. So you can already see that flywheels might be useful under certain circumstances if you had an electricity grid powered by a lot of solar and wind. During the day, the solar power is used to power everything and accelerate the flywheels until they’re storing a lot of energy. Then, at night, energy is extracted from the flywheels. Of course, this involves losses — but since you waited less than a day, you won’t lose too much due to the flywheel spinning down: most of it will be in the conversion, but since we generate electricity by rotating things (essentially) that conversion rate will be pretty good. And, indeed, in some places the grid already uses these as a storage system: when excess power is generated, they automatically spin up, and when it’s needed, they extract energy from the wheels. They’re also really useful if you need to produce a sudden surge of power for a very short amount of time without worrying too much about the grid. So, for example, the JET experimental fusion reactor in Culham, in Oxfordshire. It needs to operate incredibly powerful electromagnets to contain the plasma, but only for a few seconds or minutes at most since they’re just doing experimental runs. If you suddenly made demands of the local grid, it might cause blackouts: so they have an array of flywheels that they gradually “charge up” in the hours before doing an experiment that can deliver the power they need.

So the point of all of this is: one, a perfect rotating wheel that never lost any energy would be incredibly useful. Two, people have been working on wheels for literally thousands of years — and in the modern era we’re still making improvements to their efficiency and capacity as energy storers — and, surprise surprise, no one has managed to make a perfect one yet. I have a lot of sympathy for ancient figures who tried this trick — like Bhaskhara II of India should get a pass compared to some of the other figures on the list — he invented his wheel in 1150, hundreds of years before we understood the Laws of Thermodynamics. The concept behind the machine [1] was a wheel of spokes partially filled with mercury; as the wheel span, the mercury would tilt into different parts of the wheel, driving its rotation. The gravitational force of the mercury sloshing in the bottles acts to pull the wheel around, so once set in motion, it continues rotating.

This overbalanced wheel type design is still used [2] by perpetual motion advocates today. The wheel essentially converts between rotational kinetic energy, as the bottles rotate, and gravitational potential energy, as the bottles are lifted. While such a design can carry on running for a very long amount of time if friction is kept low, and even cheap iterations can run for hours, it’s not generating energy, and such flywheels are less efficient at storing energy than other technologies. Eventually, friction will cause the rotation to decay. Bhaskhara may have constructed an impressive wheel, and thought that if he polished it enough, he would attain perpetual motion — but if this method was possible, we would probably have worked it out in 850 years. It amazes me that you can still find people on YouTube with similar designs claiming that they’ve figured out perpetual motion — and that you can find gullible people in the comments saying “I’m very keen to learn more about your device, please contact me on this number…”

Of course, some energy scams don’t even use all that much pseudoscience in their definitions at all. Take the infamous case of Hongcheng Magic Liquid. In 1983, a most incredible scam was perpetrated in China by a bus driver with no formal scientific training called Wang Hongcheng. He claimed to have invented a miraculous liquid that could turn ordinary water into fuel as flammable as petrol, simply by sprinkling a few drops of the magic liquid into the water. Amazingly, despite producing little explanation as to how this was supposed to work, Wang was able to convince the Chinese military and government to fund his research for a brief time in the 1980s: he must have had a convincing ‘practical demonstration’ or magic trick, maybe a vat of water and a vat of ethanol or something like that.

By 1992–3, Wang was riding high: his magic liquid had led to a company that had received over $34m in investments, despite never selling a working product to anyone. He probably benefited from the low state of science literacy in China at the time, as his claims contradict all known laws of physics and chemistry. Eventually, the Chinese government — deciding the situation had gone far enough — published articles debunking Wang in national newspapers. After refusing to demonstrate his invention for scientific appraisal, he was arrested and charged with fraud, and spent ten years in prison from 1998. Little is known of his current whereabouts, but one thing is certain: he does not possess a magical liquid that can turn water into gasoline.

Since reading about Wang Hongcheng, I’ve been questioning my own life decisions. Why work hard at scripting this show and studying when I’m clearly missing where the big bucks are? All I need to do is find a large population of scientifically illiterate people, make a whole bunch of crazy claims about what I can achieve, mention a few famous scientists, and then convince them to give me their money. Maybe my machine uses the intrinsic zero-point energy of quantum oogly-boogly, or the unexplained spooky action-at-a-distance attractive power of chat-up lines. Either way, it’s free energy, but I still need your money, caspiche? But something like this would never happen in the modern world, right? People would never be taken in by such an obvious conman.


Okay, satire aside — yes, this absolutely still happens in the modern world, and people still make incredible amounts of money. I know that the tech world has the potential for fraud and manipulation. At the same time, there are legitimate reasons why you’d want to keep your technology a secret — so that others don’t imitate it before you’re ready for market: so that you can continue working on the revolutionary breakthroughs that just need a few more tweaks… that kind of thing.
This kind of argument might just persuade me to invest in, say, a new type of video game console or smartphone without seeing a convincing demonstration that it actually works. This is because people regularly build new types of video games and smartphones. What people do not regularly build, what people hardly ever build, is an entirely new way to generate energy with ridiculous efficiencies, or no apparent source for the energy. If anyone claims they have such a device, after hundreds of years of scams, centuries after the Royal Society stopped listening to crackpots who claimed to have one, with the laws of Thermodynamics confirmed by countless experiments: YOU SHOULD ASK TO SEE A DEMO, right? This is obvious.

Well, not always. People still get away with this scam to this day. Take the case of Steorn Ltd. They were an interesting company that appeared at the height of the dot-com bubble — back when people were throwing money at anything that claimed the internet. When the bubble burst, in 2000, they lost 5 million euros after their website, “World of” failed to rake in the $300m in first year sales that they thought. They went dormant for a few years, before re-emerging as an electronics/energy company, looking to lengthen mobile battery life.

Steorn had some interesting claims. They claimed they wanted to power mobile phones with micro-wind turbines. (Incidentally, renewable energy experts are often sceptical of micro wind-turbines; generally, bigger is better in terms of efficiency; little windmills are more of a waste of money and usually take longer to pay-back.)
“We wanted to improve the performance of the wind generators — they were only about 60–70% efficient — so we experimented with certain generator configurations and then one day one of our guys came in and said: ‘We have a problem. We appear to be getting out more than we’re putting in’.” They claimed this device, based on rotating magnets, produced more energy than it took to run it; they claimed that their scientists had independently verified this although the scientists with “multiple PhDs” didn’t actually turn out to back up the claim when questioned. With an infamous full-page ad in the Economist; they solicited scientists to test their claims.

Let’s be clear: this was not some minor claim about an unusual experimental result. The ad said “Imagine: a world with an infinite supply of pure energy… our work has always been done behind closed doors, always off the record, always proven to work.” Sounds legit, huh? With a lot of swagger, promising a revolutionary source of “clean, free energy”, they managed to attract an incredible 23 million euros in investment. But a public demonstration was cancelled at the last minute due to mysterious technical difficulties — they actually blamed excessive light from the camera bulb flashes of journalists, which makes zero scientific sense. The jury of scientists that they’d hired with the ad in the economist said that the technology didn’t work. Initially, many people were sympathetic, believing that the inventor was simply mistaken and had deluded himself about the power of his invention. Ten years later, they were less sympathetic.

Amazingly, they continued to pull this stunt after being publicly rebuked by scientists and failing to demonstrate their technology on the world stage. Given that they had now failed to convince scientists of their invention, Steorn now began to prey on consumers; they offered a smartphone for a thousand euros and a USB device for hundreds of euros. Neither ever needed to be charged, claimed Steorn, because they worked on their magical technology. Naturally, Steorn raked in thousands in pre-orders before releasing any products to people or demonstrating them. Surprise surprise, they were soon inundated with requests to return the devices, which… didn’t work as advertised.

In May 2015, Steorn put an “Orbo PowerCube” on display behind the bar of a pub in Dublin. The PowerCube was a small box which the pub website claimed contained a “perpetual motion motor” which required no external power source. It was powered by a battery. The whole thing was an elaborate con — not even an original one, as scientists have been claiming to use magnets to generate perpetual motion for centuries — and in November 2016, the company went into liquidation, after stringing along the gullible and the people who didn’t believe in science and squeezing every last drop out of them. The founder and CEO described himself as “unemployable” because of his association with Steorn and now has his occupation listed as professional poker player. Given that he’s evidently highly skilled in the art of bullshit, this could also be lucrative.

There are loads and loads of examples of scammers in the modern era who claim to have free energy devices. But Steorn stands out for me. First off, their claim is especially ridiculous. We have understood the laws of electromagnetism for well over a century; people have attempted to use magnets to build perpetual motion machines for hundreds of years and failed. The laws of electromagnetism, Maxwell’s equations, are probably the most successful part of physics as we know it today. If you’re going to make something up, at least claim that it uses some new piece of physics that people don’t yet understand; not something that’s been thoroughly investigated over the years. The founder of Steorn, who clearly has little understanding of science, claimed that conservation of energy is “a scientific dogma.” This rubs me up the wrong way. Are scientists subject to groupthink? Absolutely. Are there some scientific ideas that later turn out to be incorrect? Of course. Are there some ideas that are currently considered to be true by science that will later be disproved? Almost certainly. But conservation of energy is the closest thing we have to a universal principle. Every time it appears that it’s violated, it turns out to be a false alarm. There is no evidence that energy has not been conserved *anywhere* in the Universe; from the interactions of quantum particles to the hearts of black holes. You really need extraordinary evidence to demonstrate that this is untrue: a USB phone charger is not gonna cut it. Second, they managed to receive an astonishing amount of investment — millions of euros. That 23 million euros could have funded so much genuine scientific research! Or it could have bought me a really nice house! And third, they managed to keep their ridiculous scam going for almost a decade, after numerous public failures and debacles, and never convincingly demonstrating a product that did anything like what they claimed: a claim that any scientist will tell you is ridiculous.

Of course, free energy has proved a very fertile ground for straight-up conspiracy theorists too. After all, it fits into all of the perfect conspiracy theory tropes, right? One one side, you have a plucky, genius inventor like Nikola Tesla who stumbles onto something incredible: free limitless energy, an invention that could save the world and advance mankind. Then, on the other, there’s a big, sinister cabal of governments and scientists all working together — with funding from the energy industry, JP Morgan, or possibly the illuminati — who are working to suppress it for their own diabolical or nefarious ends.
Except, like all conspiracy theories: how the hell do you keep all of those people silent? If the laws of physics permit free energy, which can be generated, then why aren’t all physicists mysteriously driving around in Lambourghinis and going back to their incredibly-well-lit homes? It’s just depressing and ridiculous that people don’t seem to realize: keeping a ridiculous number of people quiet is really, really hard. Just look at the White House leaks. They can’t even keep a dozen people quiet about stuff that’s far, far less important. Plus, do you not think this would be discovered and used by people who want free energy for their own purposes? Internet datacentres alone cost $7bn a year just for the electricity to run them. Amazon, or Google, or whoever, pay hundreds of millions of dollars in electricity costs. I guess they’re just suckers for not looking at Tesla’s papers.

Yet still they come. Nowadays you can see literally dozens of free energy conspiracy theorists all over the place: some are standard fringe/bizarre websites hawking their unlikely claims, while others are people who are genuinely trying to sell you something. The advent of crowdfunding websites has made this even easier: they’re like the modern version of the snakeoil salesman, drifting from town to town, looking for easy marks — but with absolutely no subtlety at all.

Any American Gods fans in? The TV show if you must, but the book is best. Remember the elaborate scams and grifts that Mr Wednesday would describe — all involving the long con, a convincing narrative, subtle manipulation of the people you’re scamming, psychology and kidology… and now you can rob people just by cracking their passwords by brute force. I guess this is the equivalent of the difference between free energy hoaxsters in the old days and the new days. Back in the day, you’d at least have to mess your hair up a little bit and look like a mad scientist, maybe mention Tesla and quantum energies, maybe earnestly appeal to your mark. Now you can just stick up a kickstarter with a sob story and a dodgy video, promote it, and watch the cash roll in. There is no counter-narrative, no science, no back-and-forth, no people there to disprove your claims. The first few free energy kickstarters I looked at had raised tens of thousands of dollars each — and, of course, nothing ever came of any of these projects. It’s a shame: crowdfunding does have real potential to help people with genuine products and genuine solutions to the energy crisis, but the prevalence of this kind of con (and the lack of oversight) has ruined its reputation.

There is another major area to cover while we’re talking about free energy, conspiracy theories, and thermodynamics. That area is cold fusion.

So, first, a little word on fusion. Nuclear fusion is the process that powers pretty much everything on Earth, because this is what gives the Sun its energy. We’re going to do a couple of episodes on nuclear fusion in the future, so I won’t go into too much detail here. But, essentially, it happens when two nuclei — the dense lumps of protons and neutrons in atoms — join together. If the combination is right, the new nucleus contains less energy, and so energy is released by the process.

The only problem is that nuclei are all positively charged — protons and neutrons, and the protons are positively charged. But like charges repel — so there are amazingly powerful forces that keep nuclei apart. Only when they get very close together does the strong force take over and pull them together, allowing fusion. And it’s a good job, too — because it’s energetically favourable for pretty much every nucleus up to iron to fuse together into bigger nuclei. This means that, for example, if there weren’t these strong repulsive forces… everything would fuse together under pressure, releasing tonnes of energy. Complex chemistry could not exist, and neither could life.

But this presents a problem for those who want to harness the power of nuclear fusion for good. It promises a lot of clean energy, and your fuel is pretty much just ordinary matter. But you need incredible temperatures and pressures to make fusion happen. You need to approach conditions in the heart of stars like our Sun to make fusion happen. It’s been said “What we want to do is easy; put the Sun in a box. The difficult bit is making the box.” Which is why we don’t have a fusion reactor that can make more power than you put into it — yet. More on this, as I said, at a later date.

So trying to create plasmas like those in the heart of the Sun, at crazy temperatures and pressures, is super difficult. It would be much easier if it were possible to harness the nuclear fusion power at much cooler temperatures. And, in 1989, there were scientists who thought they had found it: cold fusion.

Fleischmann and Pons were looking for cold fusion. Their theory was that, by using deuterium — heavy hydrogen — in an electrolysis process, they might be able to accelerate the deuterium atoms (in the electric field applied) to the point where they might fuse together. Deuterium fusion has a lower energy barrier than hydrogen fusion — which is why some stars (brown dwarfs) can fuse deuterium but not hydrogen, which we discussed briefly way back in our very first episodes. But this apparatus was only at a temperature of 30 celsius, around 300K. Which is substantially less than the millions of kelvin at the heart of the Sun where deuterium fusion normally takes place.

Fleischmann and Pons — in an incredibly controversial experiment — managed to obtain a temperature increase of 20 degrees that they couldn’t explain — but this isn’t necessarily unusual in this sort of experiment. They also claimed, in the most controversial part of the experiment, that they’d seen radiation — neutrons, gamma rays, that kind of thing — that would be evidence that this wasn’t some unknown *chemical* reaction producing the heat, but perhaps a fusion reaction.

This took the scientific world completely by storm and generated an enormous amount of interest and discussion. If Fleischmann and Pons were wrong, their reputations would be ruined; you have to remember people stake entire careers on this kind of thing. If they were right — there was potentially a new, low-cost form of energy that could be harnessed on Earth, requiring nothing more than some heavy water, the proper anodes and cathodes and an electric current to kick it off. So naturally what happened next was what always happens in experimental physics, when you get a weird result: people try to replicate your experiment. This is where cold fusion falls down.

If there was a genuine fusion phenomenon behind the experiment, then the people who tried to replicate it should have been able to reproduce it. After all, this is kind of a necessary step for harnessing this supposed ‘reaction’ to create a new source of energy. But none of the people who have tried to replicate this experiment in the last thirty years have been able to reliably obtain the same temperature increases; they haven’t found the neutrons or gamma rays that Fleischmann and Pons claimed to find. Dozens of variations of the experiment were tried, and none could reproduce the excess heat. What’s worse, several experimenters noticed that they got false readings on their neutron detectors due to changes in heat — which may suggest why F+P thought they’d seen neutrons. Further analysis of data from the original experiment cast more doubt on whether they’d seen radiation. And Fleischmann and Pons themselves didn’t stop — they were given budgets of millions of pounds, working in the University sectors and then later in the private sector — but they could not reliably reproduce their results. Overall, probably $100m has been spent chasing what was effectively one anomalous result in one experiment — that almost certainly wasn’t cold fusion. It’s very possible that the initial finding could be explained by experimental error (or worse, if you’re being uncharitable.)

This is just my opinion — I’m not an electrochemist, and I wasn’t around and closely following the debate when the cold fusion claims were made. But I think Fleischmann and Pons probably made an honest mistake. It seems quite likely to me that there’s some chemical or electrochemical reaction going on that we don’t quite understand. But it seems extremely unlikely that it’s fusion. There is no theoretical model that could even begin to explain how this worked. When superconductivity was discovered — initially a bizarre experimental result, as we discussed in the episode on superconductivity — soon enough, a theory was developed that could explain it and make decent predictions. Not so for so-called ‘cold fusion’. And, since the setup has proved incredibly difficult to reproduce, there are two further problems. One, this means experimental error is far more likely to explain the initial results: reproducing the truth should be possible, but recreating someone’s exact mistake is more difficult. Two, it means that, if there is a real effect — whatever they saw — it’s not especially useful. The fact that F + P, with years and millions, couldn’t convince private companies they were onto something… it tells you quite a lot.

There is actually quite a lot of legitimate research going on, both in private companies and public research, that’s basically looking into cold fusion — but because of the massive popular furore and debacle when the whole thing fell apart and didn’t live up to the hype, there really is a big stigma around using the words cold fusion. So code for it is “low energy nuclear reactions” instead. And, you know, it would be just wonderful if one of these quiet experiments produces something miraculous. But I think the Universe, and the Earth, has given us plenty of miracles that we’re currently hardly appreciating. I don’t think you can rely on another one — or believe in it, unless there’s incredible evidence.

Of course — the hype and furore around cold fusion, which a lot of people remember, has led to its own generation of scammers, hoaxsters, and purveyors of dubious solutions. Take Andrea Rossi’s E-Cat, or electronic catalyser. This device claims a kind of cold fusion, where protons are fired into nickel powder and turn it into copper. And Andrea Rossi has done a number of public demonstrations of the device, alongside apparently getting some pretty serious investment from various companies. But the problems with Andrea Rossi’s E-Cat are even worse than the original claims of cold fusion.

For a start, the reaction they’re talking about has a huge energy barrier. In fact, the energy barrier is so high that it can’t happen anywhere in the known universe — not even in the hearts of stars. Part of what made Cold Fusion 1.0 slightly more convincing was the low-energy nature of the fusion reaction, but this one is pretty ridiculous in terms of energy.

Rossi won’t let anyone else test or demonstrate his equipment. If it worked, you feel like he might be perfectly fine with someone else testing it. He’s been offered a million dollars just to allow someone else to test the apparatus, and turned it down. In at least one public demonstration, the additional power that was “generated” was coming through a secret wire hidden under the desk; in another, there’s evidence the power-reader was tampered with. He has been sued by the company that hired him, who claimed that they could not reproduce his results (the case was recently settled out of court.) Since there has never been a test that Rossi wasn’t involved in, it’s perfectly possible — and indeed likely — that he’s doctoring any results you may see in some obvious way, by putting extra Nickel and Copper into the outputs, and wiring an external supply to the power reader as he has done before. As of 2017, Rossi is still claiming to have a working cold fusion reactor. As I hope the last few episodes about free energy have demonstrated, I think we need to be incredibly suspicious of anyone who claims to have such a device and A) Won’t let anyone else test it; B) isn’t already insanely rich.

And, perhaps a little more reason for scepticism appears when you look at the websites that are in favour of this so-called Ecat device. Here I quote from the main pro-Rossi website that shows up when you google the thing:

Rossi’s Leonardo Corporation is planning to move into the domestic market within between a year and eighteen months, and has already started production of parts for one million small 10–20 kW E-Cat units that can provide heat and air conditioning to homes. Rossi has said that his target price for these first units is going to be around $1000 each.

Rossi has said that while electrical generation is possible with this device, there is still work to do in order for E-Cats to produce electricity efficiently. The first generation of small E-Cats will not come with electrical generation capacity, but these units will be able to be retrofitted with electricity generating modules once that technology has been perfected. Second generation E-Cats will be able to produce heat, cooling and electricity.

Okay, so, hang on a minute: he’s having trouble getting the big generator to work, so he’s going to try lots of little ones? This is almost NEVER how generating electricity and energy works — bigger is almost ALWAYS better, more efficient, less prone to bugs. We know this, really: prototypes aren’t usually tiny, are they? And this is especially true in energy generation; I can’t think of a single exception.

But then you find out that he’s priming his fans to spend $1000 on a so-called ‘first-generation ecat’ that won’t even be able to generate electricity. So what the hell will it do? How will this capacity magically be added back in? Why not just build a device that works the first time? And how is it going to produce both heat and cooling via one chemical reaction? The science itself is dodgy enough: when you look at the marketing, it really, really seems like he’s trying to rip off the easily led and the guillible.

If the laws of thermodynamics tell us one thing, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The road to nuclear fusion, which we’ll cover soon, has been long and arduous. But — more than all of this — science is increasingly a collaborative effort as our understanding deepens, but the experiments that need to be performed grow more and more complex. Free energy was never possible. But, in the modern era, it’s very difficult to have good science without peer-review and engagement with the community. Wild individuals streaking out on their own are unlikely to be the source behind major breakthroughs (although it’s wonderful and romantic when they are, which is partly what the scammers feed on.) At the end of the day, when it comes to free energy, you don’t even need the laws of physics or thermodynamics: just a more fundamental, more widely applicable law.

If something seems like it’s good to be true, it probably is.


[Rossi’s e-vac? (emac?]