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Dr. Christopher S. Baird

How do free energy machines work?

Category: Physics      Published: March 24, 2013

Free energy machines do not work. No machine can create energy out of nothing, as this would violate the law of mass-energy conservation, which is fundamental and universal. The law of mass-energy conservation states that mass-energy can never be created or destroyed. It can only be redistributed throughout space and transformed into different states. Mass can be converted to energy, and energy can be converted to mass, but together they must be conserved. For instance, when a positron from the tracer liquid of a medical PET scan hits an electron in the patient's body, the positron and electron completely destroy each other and all of their mass is converted into energy. This energy is emitted as two gamma particles (high energy light) that fly off in nearly opposite directions. The PET machine detects the gamma rays, uses them to pinpoint the location of the positron-electron annihilation event, and therefore discovers where in the patient's body the tracer liquid is congregating. Nuclear bombs and nuclear reactors also convert mass to energy, but the conversion is very inefficient and only a fraction of the bomb's mass is converted to energy. Mass is also converted to energy during radioactive decay.

PET medical scanner
PET medical scanners depend crucially on the law of conservation of mass-energy holding true. Public Domain Image, source: NIH.

In contrast, energy is converted to mass in particle accelerators such as the LHC. In particle accelerators, large tracks of magnets speed up particles such as electrons and protons to incredible speeds. The particles have therefore gained a high amount of kinetic energy from the magnets. The particles are then guided to collide with a stationary target (or collide with other particles that have been accelerated in the opposite direction). Upon collision, the kinetic energy is lost because the particles are stopped. But energy cannot just be destroyed; it must go somewhere. As a result, the energy is converted to mass and hundreds of new particles are created in the collision. These new particles are detected and give physicists clues about what types of particles can exist. Every time a particle accelerator is used, a nuclear reactor is turned on, or a medical PET scan is taken, the conservation of mass-energy is experimentally verified. In fact, the energy taken in or given off by ordinary chemical reactions results from the transformation of energy to mass and mass to energy. In chemical reactions, the mass of the system before the reaction is different from the mass of the system after the reaction. The mass difference is miniscule, but measurable, and is the source of the energy. Because of this fact, every chemical experiment ever done is a validation of the conservation of mass-energy. Out of all the scientifically-sound, repeatable experiments ever performed, a violation of the conservation of mass-energy has never been observed. If the law was broken, and energy was created out of nothing, then the first place it would be observed would be in particle accelerators. Particle accelerators have huge stacks of sensitive detectors that can track the movement of every last bit of mass and energy in the system; electrons, protons, photons, etc. Additionally, the accelerators pump incredible amounts of energy into the particles, so that exotic and rare phenomena are readily observable. If a bit of energy did appear that was unaccounted for, the detectors would see it, but they never have.

Beyond overwhelming experimental verification, the law of conservation of mass-energy is required by theory. If energy could pop into existence out of nothing, then in such a big, old universe,  energy would eventually pop out of nothing. With the limiting mechanism of conservation out of the way, the energy that pops out of nothing could be as large as infinite. As the age of the universe becomes large, the probability that an infinite energy will pop out of nothing would become 100%. The problem is that an infinite energy (or even a non-infinite one that is large enough) would destroy our universe. The fact that our universe is still around is direct evidence that the law of conservation of mass-energy is fundamental and universal. If this law applied on earth, but not on Alpha Centauri, then infinite energy would pop out of nothing on Alpha Centauri and destroy the universe. The universality of mass-energy conservation is literal and strict. People who believe in free energy machines must also logically believe that the universe does not exist.

Proponents of free energy may argue that conservation of mass-energy is usually obeyed, but can be broken in exotic experiments. The center of stars and supernova are far more exotic environments than a tinkerer's basement. Violation of mass-energy conservation would be observed far sooner and far more easily in a star than in an inventor's table-top contraption. And yet, it has never been observed. Free energy can be tempting to people who want something for nothing. If you could build a machine that created energy out of nothing, then you could sell the energy and everyone would get rich without ever doing any work.

Free energy machines that seem like they should work are always the product of wishful thinking and sloppy science. If you build a machine and underestimate the amount of mass-energy you have to put into the machine to get it going, and overestimate the amount of mass-energy it will output once going, then your calculations predict that mass-energy has been created out of nothing. But this end result came from poor estimations, and not from ground-breaking science. Most people who "feel" like a certain free energy machine should work simply don't grasp how much mass-energy it takes to get the machine going. For instance, magnetic free energy machines are essentially spinning electromagnetic motors. The machine is plugged into an electrical source, which gets the motor's wheel spinning. The machine is then unplugged and the wheel keeps spinning under its own inertia. Then electrical energy is extracted from the spinning wheel. This energy was not created out of nothing. It was put in the wheel by the original electrical power inputted to the motor. The electric power extracted from the wheel in the end will always be less than the electrical power put into the wheel in the first place. Energy is simply converted from electrical to kinetic (the spinning motion of the wheel is a form of energy), and then back to electrical, while some of the energy is converted to waste heat due to friction. When the inventor of a  "free energy" or "over unity" machine claims that his invention really creates energy out of nothing, he is either deluding himself or is outright lying to take advantage of others. The self-delusion usually happens because the inventor does not realize the large amount of external energy he has put into his machine to turn it on, which is more than he could ever get out. A straight-forward measurement of all the energy being inputted to his machine and all the energy being outputted would quickly reveal no actual free energy. But doing real science is hard, so countless "inventors" tinker in their garage and think that "pretty spinning wheel" = "free energy" without doing any actual measurements. For those who do take actual measurements, they think they are always just one step behind from reaching over-unity performance; believing that adding just one more complicated gadget to their machine will put them over the top, when in fact they never actually reach a free-energy result.

Consider a canal of water that flows through a turbine. The turbine generates electricity. The electricity is then used to pump all of the water from the bottom of the canal to the top of the canal where it can enter into the turbine again and repeat the cycle. This seems like a closed system that could run forever and continually output electricity; it's free energy! But if you actually do measurements or calculations, you will find that the electrical energy generated by the turbines will never be enough to pump all the water back to the top of the canal. It would require externally provided energy to get the water back to the top and thereby run continuously. But at that point, it's not a a free energy machine. It's just a complicated wheel running on external power. River turbines do extract energy from rivers, but this energy does not come out of nowhere. The river water gained its gravitational potential energy when it was placed at the river head by the evaporation-precipitation process. River water was once ocean water that absorbed sunlight energy from the sun and converted it to gravitational potential energy as it evaporated. The energy outputted by the sun results from mass being converted to energy in its core. The mass of the sun was created by slow accumulation of intergalactic dust that was created by the Big Bang. Because mass-energy cannot be created or destroyed, every bit of mass-energy in the universe can be traced back to its creation in the Big Bang. Real river turbines don't generate energy from nothing. They are simply extracting energy created by the Big Bang and converting it to a useful form.

Some people misunderstand vacuum energy and believe it is a form of free energy that can be extracted. An absolute vacuum indeed contains quantum fluctuations, but these do not constitute usable energy. The effects of vacuum energy are already factored into everyday reactions. In the strict sense, you are already using the effects of vacuum energy every time you light a candle or drive your car, but there is still no permanent removal of energy from the vacuum.  Every particle is "dressed" or surrounded by a cloud of quantum fluctuations in addition to its regular fields. If you were somehow to remove the cloud, the particle would be left naked and would interact very differently with the world. The mass-energy gained by removing the cloud would cancel the mass-energy lost by changing the way the particle interacts with the world, so in the end mass-energy would still be conserved. You would still end up with the total energy created from nothing equaling zero. For instance, in the Casimir effect, two plates are placed very close together so that the cloud of quantum fluctuations in between the plates is less dense than the cloud surrounding the plates. As a result, the plates attract each other. It would seem that this effect extracts energy from nothing. In reality, the energy that comes out of the system in the form of moving plates comes from the particles in the plates. As their cloud of quantum fluctuations changes, they lose mass. Even quantum fluctuations obey the law of conservation of mass-energy.

Historically, free energy machines were called "perpetual motion" machines. This name is confusing because perpetual motion is possible, you just can't extract free energy from an object in perpetual motion. The earth is in perpetual motion as it repeatedly orbits the sun. If we were to build a giant generator and extract a large portion of the energy contained in the earth's orbital motion, it would destroy the orbit and the earth would spiral into the sun. From a socioeconomic perspective, it should also be obvious that free-energy machines don't work. If a free-energy machine actually worked, it would make its inventor instantly rich. If such free-energy machines were possible, high-tech corporations such as Intel or Apple would pursue them because they would literally yield an infinite return on investment. And yet, no big-name technology company sells free-energy machines, or is even researching their possibility. Corporations know that reading up on, researching, or developing free energy machines is a futile waste of time and energy that is better diverted to more productive channels.

Topics: conservation of energy, energy, energy revolution, free energy, overunity, perpetual motion, zero point energy