Wandering through StumbleUpon.com‘s science links often looks more like a drunken stagger through the realm of crackpot science. The previous one I found, using Coulomb’s law to get free energy, I passed along to Tyler to deal with as it deserved. The latest contender, which is getting a lot of recent attention, is a so-called ‘whipmag’ device, which uses neodymium magnets to supposedly accelerate a disk to a high rate of rpm with no external energy input. The video below the fold…
I hate to waste time discussing such silliness, but the original video has been getting quite a lot of attention (230,000 hits at the time I write this). The credulous website where I originally found the video asks the question, “Could this be the real answer to the energy crisis?”
My conservative response: almost certainly not. Before we discuss the device, let’s talk about the suspicious nature of the claims. The claims appeared first via an anonymous user on the webforums of a company called Steorn, a ‘leading Intellectual Property development company’. According to a credulous but very informative wiki that has been developed on the subject, “Back in July of 2007, Steorn embarrassed themselves by hosting a world-viewing demo of what was supposed to be a free energy device that defies the laws of physics as presently understood (wouldn’t be the first time in history). Unfortunately, their demo was botched.” According to the Steorn website, their “Orbo” technology can do the following:
Orbo produces free, clean and constant energy – that is our claim. By free we mean that the energy produced is done so without recourse to external source. By clean we mean that during operation the technology produces no emissions. By constant we mean that with the exception of mechanical failure the technology will continue to operate indefinitely.
The sum of these claims for our Orbo technology is a violation of the principle of conservation of energy, perhaps the most fundamental of scientific principles. The principle of the conservation of energy states that energy can neither be created or destroyed, it can only change form.
I give them credit for audacity: instead of reconciling their technology with the existing laws of physics, they simply say that they can violate them at will. They are explicitly stating that they can build a perpetual motion device, violating the first law of thermodynamics.
With a failed demo, the company might have been in trouble, but then, according to the wiki, “Meanwhile, a couple of Steorn forum members began kicking around ideas for how to build an all-magnet motor with no other motive force…That video was posted publicly at YouTube on Jan. 4, 2008.”
So a company, presumably with investors, has a public failure in July of 2007; miraculously, in January of 2008, some anonymous forum members produce a demo of a working device that follows the same principles. If this doesn’t make you suspicious, you might be interested in a bridge I have for sale.
But what is the device itself, and how does it allegedly work? Some images are shown at the following link, though I make my own picture below, for comparisons to come.
A rotating ring is outfitted with an even number of permanent magnets (8 ‘rotor magnets’ in this case), arranged with like poles facing one another. An odd number of other permanent magnets (‘stators’) which can rotate on their axes are fixed around the perimeter of the ring. If the stators are aligned properly, supposedly they will attract an approaching rotor magnet, giving it a ‘boost’. As the rotor magnet passes, the stator is forced by magnetism to anti-align with it, making it repel the rotor magnet towards the next stator. The stators are fixed with latches so they can only rotate in one direction and can’t accidentally repel a rotor they’re supposed to attract. The idea is evidently that the stators will constantly be pushing the rotor magnets in the same direction, providing an acceleration and, if possible, ‘free energy’.
It’s an ingenious contraption; unfortunately, it can’t possibly work, certainly not the way it seems to have been designed. We don’t even have to do a lot of analysis to show it; similar devices have been built for centuries and all have failed. We don’t even have to go farther than the Wikipedia entry on perpetual motion, where one finds the following schematic from Villard de Honnecourt (c. 1230):
The ‘perpetuum mobile’ of de Honnecourt is presumably supposed to work by having a constant imbalance of hammers on either side of the wheel, which would result in a net torque on the device. In reality, the system will eventually end up with one hammer hanging from the bottom and three on either side! de Honnecourt was writing well before conservation of energy was understood, so his mistake is forgivable; others should not be let off so easily. Numerous ‘weighted wheel’ schemes have been developed over the years, described as follows on Wikipedia: “Moving weights are attached to a wheel in such a way that they fall to a position further from the wheel’s center for one half of the wheel’s rotation, and closer to the center for the other half. Since weights further from the center apply a greater torque, the result is (or would be, if such a device worked) that the wheel rotates forever. The moving weights may be hammers on pivoted arms, or rolling balls, or mercury in tubes; the principle is the same.”
Such machines fail because of some combination of the first two laws of thermodynamics: the first law, which says that energy is conserved in a closed system (“you can’t get something for nothing”), and the second law, which asserts that the entropy of a closed system always increases. A ‘side effect’, of sorts, of the second law is that devices will tend naturally to wind down and stop, due to useable energy lost to heat, friction, air resistance, and so forth.
Comparing de Honnecourt’s machine to the whipmag, one can already see that the whipmag has a striking similarity in design: in both cases, a fundamental ‘asymmetry’ of the system will supposedly keep it accelerating.
One might argue that de Honnecourt’s crude device is mechanical, and arguments against it don’t apply to cool systems built on magnetism. One should then look at a device, erroneously allowed a patent in 1979 (also through Wikipedia), by one Howard Johnson:
Does it look somewhat familiar? According to the patent description, it consists of “A permanent magnet motor comprising, in combination, a stator track defining a track direction and having first and second sides and composed of a plurality of track permanent magnets each having first and second poles of opposite polarity…” In other words, we have a rotating ring of magnets and a fixed ring of magnets, which will supposedly interact in such a way as to produce motion. This system has a number of differences from the whipmag, such as the rotating exterior magnets of the whipmag, but the general principle seems to be the same. The fact that no ‘free energy’ has been produced since 1979 should tell you the success of this device.
Johnson was somewhat, um, ‘creative’ in his explanation of how the device could overcome ordinary physical law. “It is my belief that the full potential of magnetic forces existing in permanent magnets has not been recognized or utilized because of incomplete information and theory with respect to the atomic motion occurring within a permanent magnet. It is my belief that a presently unnamed atomic particle is associated with the electron movement of a superconducting electromagnet and the lossless current flow of Amperian currents in permanent magnets.” (Emphasis mine.)
And radically new physics would be required for this device, or the whipmag, to truly provide ‘free energy’: conservation of energy of electromagnetic fields is well-established.
But couldn’t there be some previously undiscovered ‘loophole’ in the laws of physics, which this device takes advantage of? I now take a little digression and mention the recent lawsuit filed to try and prevent the new high-energy physics collider (the LHC) from going operational. The filers fear that the exotic energies produced by particle collisions at the LHC might spawn mini-black holes which could gobble up the planet, or spawn exotic new particle types that could eat the entire universe!
The official website for CERN ( European Organization for Nuclear Research) addresses the issue nicely, in a way that should be mentioned more often:
Accelerators recreate the natural phenomena of cosmic rays under controlled laboratory conditions. Cosmic rays are particles produced in outer space in events such as supernovae or the formation of black holes, during which they can be accelerated to energies far exceeding those of the LHC. Cosmic rays travel throughout the Universe, and have been bombarding the Earth’s atmosphere continually since its formation 4.5 billion years ago. Despite the impressive power of the LHC in comparison with other accelerators, the energies produced in its collisions are greatly exceeded by those found in some cosmic rays. Since the much higher-energy collisions provided by Nature for billions of years have not harmed the Earth, there is no reason to think that any phenomenon produced by the LHC will do so.
In other words, the CERN accelerator isn’t doing anything that hasn’t happened in the Earth’s atmosphere since the origin of the planet – the only difference is that the collisions done at the LHC will be in a location where they can be measured!
This is a good guideline when looking at the likelihood of dramatic violations of the known laws of physics: The universe is a big, big place: if there is the remotest chance of it happening, it’s probably happened already, lots of times.
A nice example of this is the laser, which is often described as “a remarkable source of light, not to be found in nature.” (I’m paraphrasing Goldfinger.) This is, strictly speaking, true, but a close microwave analogy is observed all the time by astronomers, and is known as an astrophysical maser.
The LHC won’t destroy the universe, and one should view the claim of perpetual motion with similar skepticism. If it were so easy to violate conservation of energy as to assemble a nice collection of permanent magnets and spin them in just a certain way, I would expect to see violations pretty much everywhere, to such a degree that nobody would have ever even suggested ‘conservation of energy’ in the first place! Someone may yet find a way to cheat the universal energy bean-counters, but they’ll need to do something far more exotic.
Let me conclude with two observations. First, it is worth asking, how have attempts to replicate the experiment been working out? To quote from the whipmag wiki again,
“We expect that additional replications will continue to emerge, documenting, characterizing, and improving on the effect, though the initial difficulty has put a damper on the enthusiasm that initially ensued after Al’s first video was posted.
The design, apparently, is quite temperamental with very narrow tolerances. Not all the original specs are known because Al did not source things from catalogues, but basically used what was lying around in some cases, such as magnets.”
(Emphasis mine, again.) Not surprising at all. A characteristic of a lot of ‘voodoo science’ is the fussiness and lack of repeatability of the experiments. (Speaking of which, Bob Park’s book Voodoo Science is an excellent resource for further understanding the problems with perpetual motion.)
Finally, if you don’t believe me, I think the following fellow does a very nice job of summarizing the problems with the whipmag: