Recently I’ve had a couple of people contact me with some ideas for how to get “free energy” using buoyancy. I’ve also reviewed some ideas using motors and generators, and explained why I don’t expect them to work either. It’s maybe time to have a bit of a rant (again) about the difference between work and energy, and why I think that whereas Free Work may be attainable (and has been demonstrated), Free Energy is most unlikely to be shown.
Let’s start with the paradox. There is the principle of Conservation of Mass/Energy, and since mass and energy are equivalent via E=MC² then in a closed universe we can’t change the amount of “stuff” we’ve got (mass/energy) but whatever we do we will end up with no more and no less. If we then look at a normal physics explanation of a process, we are told that we start with X joules of energy and we can do a little less than X joules of work, and then we have no energy left. This obviously doesn’t agree with the aforementioned CoE (conservation of energy). We really have a semantics problem, since the words we are using are not adequate.
I’m going to separate the words out. We have two forms of energy here (kinetic and potential) and we also have work. Potential energy includes mass, energy that is stored in springs of some sort, gravitational potential (may be stored as mass, but I’ll skip that question for now) etc.. Kinetic energy is stored as things that are moving, so we include photons, moving masses and other unbound energy not stored as mass. Work is on the other hand a bit trickier. Whenever we do work, at the end of it things are just in a different configuration than before. Some work goes into kinetic energy (KE) and/or potential energy (PE), some of it is simply that a lump of stuff is a different shape or location. Hammering a lump of iron into a sword (or ploughshare) takes a lot of work, but at the end of it we have the same lump of iron in a different shape. Work is not a conserved quantity, and that is an important observation.
Generally, when we’re talking of how much energy we’ve got, we don’t look at the whole amount available, since that would produce ridiculous numbers when we count up the number of joules in the various bits of stuff we’re looking at. Instead, what we look at is a local excess of energy over another place and call this what we’ve got. The total energy in a litre of Diesel is massive, but we look at what we get from combustion of it (that converts a very small quantity into KE in the form of heat) and how much more heat we have than the ambient temperature. To convert that heat energy into work we need to let that excess KE move into the ambient and we harness that movement to do the work of moving our car from one place to another. Since we start from stationary and end stationary (and normally end up in the same parking-spot at the end of the day), in fact all that KE we’ve liberated by burning ends up as heat in the atmosphere and we’ve actually done no work at all. Yep, it gets a bit complex when you really follow where all the energy goes to and what has really happened.
I’ll try to restate all this a bit more simply, though. The sum of KE and PE remains constant no matter what you do. We get work done when we harness the movement of energy from one place to another. Energy is conserved, but work is not even though we use the same units to measure it.
A local concentration of kinetic energy will naturally spread out until the energy density is even and without any local high concentrations. This can be seen using water – pour a glass of it into a bowl and you end up with a flat surface where no point is higher than another. Pour the glass of water through a turbine and you can get work done in the process, but you don’t have to do this so the work obtained can be anywhere from zero to (almost) the available excess energy when the glassful gets poured.
Part of Quantum Theory says that there is a residual amount of kinetic energy left even at absolute zero, and that things will thus still move. Some people think therefore that this Zero-Point Energy (ZPE) should be able to be tapped. There’s some logic there, in that if something is moving then we should be able to make it do some work, but in the case of ZPE I suspect it’s a problem of how we measure things and that that that energy is not actually available but is instead imaginary. Just because we measure something to be in a slightly different position does not mean that it’s actually moved, but that since our measurements require us to use some sort of particle to hit the thing we can’t really be totally sure of the measurements. There’s an underlying uncertainty of where the fundamental particle actually is, which is a probability function. ZPE therefore seems to me extremely unlikely to be a source of new energy and thus to break CoE.
With mechanical systems such as the motor/generators, gravity/buoyancy machines or electromagnetic systems, we start by putting some work in to get it going. That work gets stored somewhere as either KE or PE, and if we get work out of the machine then the available stored KE and PE reduces until it reaches zero and the machine stops. An equivalent system would be a bath full of water, where you think that if you pour in a glass of water to make it overflow then you’ll get a continuous stream of water out. It doesn’t happen – you just get a glassful out and then it stops overflowing. You can’t get more energy out than you put in.
So far I’ve trashed pretty well all of the “traditional” Free Energy systems as being non-workable. All is not lost, though, since I’ve pointed out that work is not a conserved quantity. Since I’ve also pointed out that work can be subdivided into stored KE, stored PE and displacement, and it should be pretty obvious that a simple displacement is a zero-energy transaction, there is however a chance that we can get the displacement-type work (which is often what we want) for free. That displacement is a zero-energy transaction has been known since Newton, since he said that a body in motion would continue in that motion unless there was a force acting. So – if you lift something up you’ve put in work which is stored as gravitational potential energy, and if you put it down again you can get that energy out again as work, but if you move it sideways then no work is done except against friction, and that can be reduced arbitrarily asymptotic to zero.
In looking at a purported Free Energy (or perpetual-motion) machine we should thus look at the total interplay over a cycle between KE, PE and the three kinds of work (Stored KE, stored PE, displacement). Count the joules in and out and decide how to assign them in those 5 buckets. Do this assiduously and you can decide for yourself whether any Free Energy invention will actually work. The majority show a zero-sum overall when they are idealised to zero losses, so in real lossy life will just slow down and stop.
So, what does work? We know that solar panels work pretty well. We also know that if we have any cyclic motion or wave then we can rectify it and get some work done. One thing to remember is that the total energy doesn’t change – if we take some in one place it has to turn up in another. All we need to look for is a flow of energy that exists and to divert it so that it does what we want done before we let it go again. Displacement-type work does not take energy to perform, though there is an element of borrowing and returning from the energy bank. Energy is put in to start the motion, then the motion continues until we stop it and get the energy out again. That sword-to-ploughshare change is displacement-type work, in that no excess energy remains after the work has been done. The vast majority of what is normally regarded as work is displacement, where at the end of a cycle there is no work (KEwork or PEwork) actually done. Displacement work does not store any energy, and we should therefore be able to do it without using energy – all the energy we do put in ends up dissipated. At least we should be able to do it with a draw on the energy bank followed by a return of that energy.
I think it’s possible to harvest infrared to get a reasonable amount of electrical power. The Robert Murray-Smith experiments showed that in a small way, and it may be possible to get the harvest up by quite a few orders of magnitude. For this, we’re stopping an IR photon (which is moving energy) and converting it to electrical energy (moving electron in this case) and then either using it in some movement (so it’s re-emitted) or storing it in a battery as chemical potential energy for a later release. Instead of going what path it wants to, we’re redirecting the path of that energy so that it does some work for us while we’re harnessing it. In a while I may have some data to present on performance of real devices. They are however just a wee bit hard to actually manufacture.
What I’d like you to take away from this rant is that “energy” needs to be redefined as to whether it’s a local excess or overall, and whether it’s PE or KE, and that “work” should be subdivided into KEwork, PEwork and DisplacementWork (and remember that DisplacementWork is actually no work at all, takes no energy and should thus be Free Work). Getting the word definitions right should help in seeing whether any system does what it is claimed to. If you don’t have the language right and thus confuse things that should be separate, then you can’t think correctly and get the wrong answers. I’ve used a lot of words in order to try to get across an idea that is really quite simple but is normally obfuscated by the common language.