Free Energy

I’ve been reading a recent comment thread on “Fuelless (sic) Engine Plans” at the Above Top Secret website. I found the website after a skeptic on the thread linked to my postings on the Steorn perpetual motion machine fiasco.

The thread starts with a question about the company, “Creative Science and Research” that claims to offer the plans for “fuelless (sic) Engines”. I’ve never heard of the company before. A brief glance at the website does cause me to be suspicious. Lots of big promises of new technology that you can make from junkyard scrap according to their plans. Of course their plans are all for sale. They have testimonials in the form of customer letters, but no real mention or even links to the science behind the technology.

The whole pitch smells like snake oil, but hey, I could be wrong. Perhaps it is possible, for a mere $70.00, to build a 350 Horsepower (260 Kilowatt) Free Energy Motor that can be slaved to an AC Generator ($70 for plans) and then used to run your house. (They don’t say how to do AC / AC conversion to get the correct frequency – but they do sell plans for a DC / AC 60 Hertz inverter for $25.00)

The Above Top Secret forum thread continues with plugs for Tom Beardon’s MEG device. (James Randi has handily tore the MEG to pieces.) It mentions a couple of other bits of pseudoscientific crud, and there some discussion about a guy who claims to make a cell phone interceptor out of a television remote control, an electret microphone, and a steel salad bowl. (I had to look that one up – there’s a Youtube video of this supposed feat that is gut-splittingly funny to anyone who has a clue about modern cellphone compression and modulation methods – the idea that the guts of a standard television infrared remote control have any bearing whatsoever is hilarious.)

But I’m not really interested in these various bits of woo, no matter how entertaining.

The reason why I’m writing is that one skeptic seemed to go a bit overboard in poo-pooing everything that forum members brought up. And I think what was triggering his skepticism was the insistance of others in the forum in using the words, “Free Energy” in place of the words “Ambient Energy”.

There is a such a thing as “Ambient Energy”, and it can be tapped for use. It is both “Free” in that you can get this energy without paying for it, and it is also NOT free, in that the energy has to come from somewhere.

When I was young I lived in a trailer park with my mom, my sister, and some other guy. Through the magic of Google Street View you can see where I lived here. Not far from me were some high tension, high power lines. The kids in the neighborhood figured out that on a dry day (unusual in Houston) you could hold a fluorescent bulb under the the high power lines and watch it light up. One artist has actually made a display out of this, using hundreds of fluorescent bulbs. You can see that project here.

So, if you lived near some high power lines, wouldn’t it be possible to create some sort of antenna system to pick up the radiated energy, and use it to power your home? This would be “Free Energy”, right? Not quite.

The energy that you could pick up from your antenna goes through a load (your home appliences and such) and then to Earth ground. This would act as the secondary “coil” of a transformer where the high power lines act as the primary “coil”. The power to your home would be created by induced EMF from the power lines, and attaching your antenna to a load would oppose this flow of power through counter-EMF. The high power lines would experience a “load” in your location from having to drive your antenna, and the power company might have to increase the amount of electricity generated to compensate. The power company could detect the additional load, and depending on the size of the load they might investigate. If they find your antenna system, you could be charged with theft of power.

The forum also talks about using an onion as a battery – which is very possible. Lemon batteries are a standard demonstration in many science classes. This is also not “free” energy. Lemon trees get their energy from the sun in order to produce lemons, so a lemon battery is very indirectly (and inefficiently!) tapping energy from the sun.

Another battery discussed is the “Earth Battery“. I had to investigate that. Earth Batteries work off of Telluric Current, which are caused by differences in electrical potential in the Earth’s crust, allowing an electrical current to flow from point to point. Telluric currents are powered by the interaction of the Earth’s magnetic field and the solar wind. Telluric currents were not discussed in my physics or electronics classes – I’m guessing that they would discussed under soil science. However, ground loops are a big problem in electronics, and they are somewhat similar.

The big problem in harnessing telluric currents is that they are unstable. They waver in position, and fluctuate in intensity. Sometimes they disappear entirely, especially during drought.

Although there is “free” ambient energy here, it also ultimately comes from the sun. It is not easy to harvest it either. And I have to wonder what effect there would be on the Earth’s magnetic field if a couple billion humans were tapping the Telluric current? Lenz’s Law would work here too – eventually damping the magnetic field (and maybe affecting the Earth’s rotation? I dunno. “Dammit Jim, I’m an Engineer, not a Scientist!”)

And this is what I wonder about when people start talking about “free” (meaning “ambient”) energy. We can harvest energy from the oceans, from the wind, from heat chimneys, but there is a price to pay in our environment. In most cases, that price is very small, even unnoticeable.

But what happens when several billion people are harvesting energy from their environment? I certainly don’t know, but perhaps it should be investigated.

Science Fiction writer Larry Niven talks about the problems on the other end of free energy – that civilizations may have to deal with the waste heat that is the primary by-product of abundant cheap (or “free”) energy. This isn’t just a greenhouse effect, this is actually adding heat to the planet as a byproduct.

As a skeptic, it is really easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of snake oil salesmen, some of which are merely cons, and others who actually believe in their own products. The knee-jerk denial is something that we all have to guard against, and I’m just as guilty as anyone else.

Still, there are ways of rating claims to see if they stink of pseudoscience. Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit” and Dr. Robert Park’s “Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science” are good starters. Richard Feynman’s lecture on “Cargo Cult Science” is also good to help determine the difference between science and woo.

I also think that those people who enjoy poking around in the “Borderlands of Science” must also be careful in their terminology. It is too easy to slip into language that isn’t based upon reality, and from there slide a little bit further into the realm of magical thinking.

I think it fair that skeptics demand more precise language in these fuzzy areas, that greater evidence must be demanded than for more mainstream claims, and that in these areas experiments must have unequivocal, repeatable results.