We've all heard claims of green inventions that are too good to be true: the zero-point energy generator, the water-powered car, the device for talking with dolphins to achieve world peace. Sometimes they amuse us; sometimes they confuse us, as we try to determine whether they're legitimate or not; and sometimes they just annoy us. But can they ever help us? Yes: by keeping our imaginations open, and by honing our evaluation skills -- skills which are useful both when deciding between existing technologies, and when thinking about technologies on the horizon.
Some high-quality nutball vaporware that has crossed my desk in the last year or two includes:
(By the way, if anyone wants to share particularly fun lunatic fringe inventions in the comments, go for it!)
Most of these inventors have notoriously poor spelling and grammar, and have extended conspiracy theories as to why their inventions are not being embraced by the public. Those are the sincere ones. The ones with the slick presentations who promise a lot and then call off their demonstrations at the last minute are the con artists, playing off people's desperation to find energy alternatives. And there's the occasional prankster like David Jones, a real scientist who claimed to make perpetual motion machines just to mess with people.
Then there's the grey-area inventions: the ones that are legitimate, and often brilliant rethinkings of how to do things, but are too difficult to feasibly produce or run. The Massive-Yet-Tiny Engine, which claims to have a power-to-weight ratio 40 times better than conventional internal combustion engines, is probably one of these. The folks at AutoBlog had a long list of reasons why the engine is probably impossible to make, yet they encouraged the inventor and his company to keep pursuing it. As one commenter pointed out, the internal combustion engine has 100 years and over a trillion dollars in R&D behind it. Fusion is still in this category, even though there's no fundamental principle of physics keeping it out of reach. Many people think that fuel cells are in this category, and decades of debate have ensued.
Should we just sit back and snicker at these fringe inventions? No. Being skeptical is good, but being cynical is bad, because cynicism is obedience. The cynic assumes nothing can be done, and so does not try to do anything. It's too late for that; the state of the world is too dire for cynicism. We need idealism and we need action. But we need to act with clear heads, and pursue the most promising leads.
So how do we decide which paths lead to massive change, and which are too good to be true?
We need a basic understanding of physics, of course, but moreover we need to ask the right questions. The best list of questions I've seen is at From The Wilderness:
Ansering question number one often requires sophisticated expert analysis. For instance, it comes up often when talking about biofuels, because some studies show that corn ethanol has an EROEI of only 0.8, so you have to put in more energy than you get out, while other studies put it at 1.3, making it a (barely) green alternative to gasoline. (Incidentally, the EROEI of Brazilian sugarcane ethanol is usually quoted at over 10, and biodiesel ranges from around 3 for US crop-based production to a theoretical 10 for algae-based production.)
Questions two, three, four, six and eight above should raise your scam-alert flags: any inventor who refuses to tell you how their device works or let skeptics test it is obviously a fraud. Quesion five is the downfall of the classic crackpot perpetual motion-ist, and is usually easy to spot as long as you have enough information to run the numbers; it's not nearly so difficult as calculating EROEI. Finally, question nine is the killer for many of the grey-area technologies (including, so far, fuel cells).
So keep your mind open to new inventions and wild claims, but know how to evaluate them. And likewise, don't forget to be skeptical of established and well-funded technologies that still don't have a chance in the long run. Bet your time and money on the most promising leads.
Image: Perpetual motion machine. Woodcut by George A. Bockler, 1660. Contained in: Dircks, H. (1870). Perpetuum mobile: A history of the search for self-motive power from the 13th to the 19th century. London: E. & F.N. Spon. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Remember that all brilliant inventions and ideas originally start on the "fringe".
Remember that all brilliant inventions and ideas originally start on the "fringe".
counter: Post-It Notes
I find that the phrase you just invoked is common among the kinds of people Jeremy describes and should be added to his list of criteria.
Nice article. Despite having a physics and engineering background, I quickly moved from sceptic through puzzled and over the fence into the believers side regarding Steorn's impossible claims. Things have moved on. I am a member of the SPDC and now stand back on the safe side of the fence half-expecting to climb over sometime soon. I no longer trust my own judgement and counter my optimism with the odd kick to remind myself of my own subjectivity.
So, is wishful thinking clouding my ability to see the scam? Despite everything, I find it difficult to pull the plug completely and do not believe that everyone working at Steorn is lying.
Perhaps you could have added another factor to the mix:
What do you stand to lose from keeping an open mind on a particular claim?
In Steorn's case, no one should be betting money right now but at least the answer is in the post (by extremely creepy-crawly snail mail). There is a qualified and independent jury and they will report on their findings. This will kill or make Steorn. For this reason and others, I will pay the price of keeping an open mind.
(was it Jeromos- a few generations ago?)
Good paper, however I advise you to make some serious non-prejudicial documentation re cold fusion.
You can start with New Energy Times of Steve Krivit.
I SIMPLY BELIEVE THAT THE "ORBO DEVICE" WILL BECAME ,AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, A REALITY.
I ALSO BELIEVE IN COLD FUSION VERY STRONGLY.
AM I TOO OPTIMISTIC AND "NAIVE"? MAYBE.
DR. KATHRINE MARTIGNONI (SWITZERLAND)
I believe Orbo to be real. I also believe in the conspiracy theorists that say the technology is over 100 years old and repressed by the elite that keep us paying for energy.
I don't think you can define a set of overly simplistic guidelines like that and evaluate a "free energy" technology on that basis. As Steorn has said, only an independent, fair and thorough scientific investigation process can conclusively reveal whether a claim is real or fabricated. Everything else is speculation.
And that is precisely the route Steorn has taken. So I think everyone should just shut the fu** up until the scientists give their verdict about Steorn.
Steorn's claims are, almost certainly, bunkum. Here's the Wikipedia entry's first 2 paragraphs.
Steorn Ltd. is a small privately held technology development company based in Dublin, Ireland.
The company drew the attention of the mainstream media in August 2006 by placing a full-page advertisement in The Economist, claiming to have developed a technology that produces "free, clean, and constant energy" and challenging the scientific community to review its claim.[a] In December 2006 the company announced that they had chosen a jury of scientists to test their claim.
This is, in essence, a claim that the company has developed free energy technology, or a perpetual motion machine. Such technology would violate the fundamental laws of thermodynamics and the first law of thermodynamics in particular. To date no evidence to support the company's claim has been made public.
"In Steorn's case, no one should be betting money right now but at least the answer is in the post"
Why in the post? They said they *HAD* it, signed, sealed and delivered; they said they *WERE* operating a perpetual motion machine. A year ago. But they can't show anyone anything and they don't have a working model and the ball-bearings were too hot. If they've done it, where is it? Stop blathering about your bold ideas and show us the thing you say you have that does what you say it does.
What's funny about Steorn is their *lack* of imagination when it comes down to it. Mobile phones and cars, that's what they talk about. Don't you all realise what perpetual motion / zero point energy would really mean? Steorn pretends to talk cautiously about being 4.8 times over unity and that being enough to charge your cellphone. You foolish, petty people. If you can have over unity, you can have everything your heart desires. If you had what you say you do, the universe would already be decidedly different.
"Do you like strawberry jam? ... [I]f you had that box here, ... you could have a bucket of strawberry jam for your tea and if that was not enough you could have a bathful of it to lie in it full-length and if that much did not satisfy you, you could have ten acres of land with strawberry jam spread on it to the height of your two oxters." -- Myles na gCopaleen, "The Third Policeman".
Life on the fringe gives one a perspective that allows free thinking. If our thoughts stayed "in the box" we would not get anywhere, to Justin's point. It seems at time that most things have already been invented, except for the fantastical, far-fetched and "impossible" ones. In our every changing world of Peak-Oil and Global Warming I feel that the ideas generated by the Fringies will help us transition from a carbon-based-non-sustainable society to hopefully something very different. How we get there will take all of us being OPEN to Fringe thinking, and be skeptical in a helpful way.
ben said: "What's funny about Steorn is their *lack* of imagination when it comes down to it. Mobile phones and cars, that's what they talk about. Don't you all realise what perpetual motion / zero point energy would really mean?"
Ah, but if they exercised more imagination, then they'd be running afoul of Rule 6 above, now wouldn't they?
For what it's worth, I've always found one of the things about Steorn's claim that rings true to be the fact that they really are pretty realistic about the state of their technology and what it can do (apart, of course, from the obviously unrealistic violation of conservation of energy). e.g., they repeatedly point out that this is still early, early prototype technology and isn't ready to be used to power anyone's house and liberate the world from oil, any more than Babbage's computer could have been connected to the Internet.
This sets them apart from "technologies" like, for example, the Searle generator, which as I recall not only produces unlimited energy but also defies gravity and cures cancer.
Though, of course, any credibility they may have deserved for criteria like their relative realism is more than countered by their utter failure to demonstrate anything at all in London.
This is going to sound like Peace Activist propaganda, but you tell me if it doesn't ring true:
Keep in mind the comment by the author that "the internal combustion engine has 100 years and over a trillion dollars in R&D behind it."
Would it not make sense if the U.S Government spend a significant fraction (1/10?) of its trillion dollar per year (!!!) defense budget on coming up with a true energy alternative? A few years of this kind of funding would attract the best minds in industry, and would yield world-changing results.
We don't need brilliant inventors, we have plenty of those; What we need is good politicians with honest agendas, and an educated public who will elect these politicians and hold them to their promises.
(It's about getting our priorities straight.)
There already are energy alternatives out there. Lots of them. But the devil is in the details, and there are simply too many. What will be the future staple energy source? In what form will you store it -- ethanol? hydrogen? electricity? Which of the many competing storage systems for the latter two (there are a lot of them, but as of now, none can beat a tank filled with gas) do you favor? Your research money will quickly evaporate if you don't focus, the public will accuse you of squandring public money, and you'll get kicked out of office. If you happen to focus on the wrong ideas, the problem gets worse.
And, finally (and the most thorny problem of them all), how the hell do you get the military power mongers, both governmental and corporate, to let go of their expensive destructive toys and start to think constructively instead?
A critic is usually someone who is incompitent in a subject and then to make him/herself feel more self inportance they criticize others.
Would it not make sense if the U.S Government spend a significant fraction (1/10?) of its trillion dollar per year (!!!) defense budget on coming up with a true energy alternative? A few years of this kind of funding would attract the best minds in industry, and would yield world-changing results.”
What lovely magical thinking.
Throwing money at a problem, any problem, even ones as fundamental and intractable as thermodynamics, will result in their soon being overcome.
By the same model if we spend a trillion dollars on, say, yoga flying, a few years later we can expect to all be floating about the skies?
I doubt it.
Obviously creative problem solving is required; we call that science & engineering. We do a lot of it, and I think you’ll find little argument we can do more & do it better in many cases.
But haring after extraordinary claims that violate how we understand the universe operates, that’s proven to be unproductive. It makes for a great sunday morning supplement story, but hasn’t been how progress has been made.
As Carl Sagan famously noted “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, a paraphrase of Laplace’s “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.”
So far the wight of evidence for these remarkable, indeed inexplicable claims, has been flimsy indeed. Rolling out a contraption and claiming it worked yesterday, and that it’ll work again at some undetermined future date, yesiree, is the equivalent of claiming the dog at the homework.
You can’t blame those who are well informed about physics, mathematics, and the scientific process (not the business of science, but the intellectual underpinnings) for rolling their eyes at these sort of shenanigans.
Cold fusion research is not done by the lunatic fringe. It costs far too much for that. Cold fusion research has been done at China Lake, Amoco, SRI, Texas A&M, Los Alamos, Mitsubishi Res. Center, BARC Bombay, Tsinghua U. and over a hundred other world-class laboratories. The research has been published in roughly 500 mainstream, peer-reviewed journal papers, and 2,500 papers in proceedings and official publications of the U.S. Navy, BARC, Los Alamos, CNAM, INFN and other national laboratories. Cold fusion researchers and theorists include two Nobel laureates, the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin; director of BARC and later became the chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission; three editors of major plasma fusion and physics journals, and hundreds of other distinguished professional scientists. These people are not in the lunatic fringe.
You will find a bibliography of 3,000 papers and 550 full-text papers from the institutions listed above at our web site:
Let me address your questions:
1. How Much Energy is Returned for the Energy Invested (EROEI)?
That depends on the technique used to create the hydride. Ion beam probably takes thousands of times more energy than the sample produces, whereas some gas loaded and proton conductors samples have produced ~10 to several hundred megajoules with only trifling input energy (a fraction of a watt for a few minutes).
2. Have the claims been verified by an independent third party?
Yes. The experiments have been replicated in hundreds of mainstream laboratories, and these replications are published in mainstream journals of physics, chemistry and electrochemistry.
1. Can I see the alternative energy being used?
Only in small-scale experiments. The reaction cannot be controlled, and therefore it cannot be scaled up.
2. Can you trace it back to the original energy source?
Yes. Helium commensurate with the excess heat indicates that most of the energy comes from D+D fusion. Many other nuclear products have been detected, mainly tritium, neutrons, transmutations, and gamma rays.
3. Does the invention defy the Laws of Thermodynamics?
No, it depends upon them. Heat is principal signature of the reaction (Fleischmann) and heat is measured with calorimeters, which depend upon the laws of thermodynamics. Skeptics who deny that cold fusion exists are -- in effect -- claiming that the laws of thermodynamics are inoperative.
4. Does the inventor make extravagant claims?
No, the claims are ordinary. In all cases, conventional instruments such as calorimeters, x-ray film, and mass spectroscopes are used, and they produce high signal to noise results. There is nothing extravagant or unusual about these instruments or techniques. The experimental results are surprising and some theorists feel they cannot be explained by conventional physics, but it is fundamental to the scientific method that replicated, high-sigma experimental evidence must overrule theory.
5. Does the inventor claim zero pollution?
Cold fusion produces minute amounts of helium, which is not considered pollution, and it produces tritium and radioactive transmuted species, which can be contained.
6. Can I see blueprints, schematics or a chemical analysis of how it works?
Yes, read the scientific papers.
7. Infrastructure Requirements: Does the energy source require a corporation to produce it? How will it be transported and used? . . .
It is too early to speculate on these subjects, but as it happens, I have speculated on them, in an e-book recommended by Arthur C. Clarke. See "Cold Fusion and the Future" at the web site. Clarke also discussed cold fusion and its effect on society in the revised edition of “Profiles of the Future.”