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The Chemical Free Lunch

by Brynn Hibbert

Once in existence force cannot be annihilated; it can only change its form. (Mayer, 1842)

The energy of an isolated system is constant. (First year university chemistry textbook)

There is no such thing as a free lunch. (Brynn Hibbert)

The stars twirl apparently endlessly in their orbits and if God happens to ask a chap in Utah to solve the World's energy problems he should see no great problem in obliging the deity. Mind you, this was Utah in pre Fleischmann and Pons (cold fusion) days, but one of the Middle East wars was in progress and the price of oil had just taken a hike, so the prospect of running your motor car on cheap water rather than expensive oil was too good to miss. Thus was the story unfolded unto me by a producer of the television program Beyond 2000 some years later.

A salutary tale

The producer had been sufficiently enthused to send a reporter over to Utah to view the device, a perspex cylinder about 50 cm tall by 20 cm in diameter containing metal tubes running vertically. From the top it looked like a latter day gatling gun. The video that they brought back showed the putative inventor pouring "pure" water into the cylinder, then switching on a generator upon which bubbles swirled up from the metal tubes. Evidently the electricity from the generator was used to produce hydrogen and oxygen. If a lid was bolted on then a rapid rise in pressure could be seen on a gauge. The gases escaping from an orifice could be ignited and lo! they burned with a clear flame.

Stop me if I'm wrong but was not electrolysis discovered by Volta in 1800 and communicated to the Royal Society in London (whose President was Joseph Banks the Australian explorer), and would not any student of science explain that bubbles of hydrogen and oxygen are exactly what would be expected. The difference (according to the inventor) was that the generator was there merely to provide an oscillating electric field and that the process was not electrolysis but resonance. Springs resonate, atoms in molecules resonate, so it was argued that by hitting just the right frequency the hydrogen atoms and oxygen atom in water will fly apart. The analogy with soldiers walking over a bridge in step causing it to collapse, or the note on the church organ that brings the roof in, was perfect. Why could not a suitably directed electric field do the same with a molecule? To add to the credibility there was a interview with a gent with donnish half-glasses purporting to be the Dean of Engineering at London University who, while clearly trying to hedge his bets, said that there was something in this resonance theory and perhaps it should be taken seriously. The brochure that came from the inventor invited investors to set up their own resonators, while counselling that this opportunity was for the 'financially sophisticated' only. I shall leave you to ponder on the problems of resonance. ( Or you can jump there now).

Two hours later a sadder, and I hope wiser, TV man left my office. I knew I had got the message across when he inquired whether the First Law of Thermodynamics did work everywhere. "Yes", I assured him, "it would be a very strange God who suspended the Laws of Physics only in Utah".

Much to my surprise the man and his device reappeared in a New Scientist article in September of that year [1]. Resonance had fallen out of favour, now it was zero point energy. I could not help but write to that magazine pointing out that zero point energy like resonance was a chimera as far as useful work goes.[2]

More woe for science

What astounds me is the sheer gullibility of people, not the least journalists. A few years earlier I had been involved with an Australian invention that claimed to make a new form of hydrogen and oxygen. The front page article in the Sydney Morning Herald [3] blasted Fire from Water .. an inventor's triumph, and started "A cramped workshop at the back of a suburban house in Sydney's west seems an unlikely place to trigger a global energy revolution.". There clearly has been no global energy revolution emanating from a Sydney back yard, but there is a race memory that major problems are being solved, so that when Professor Hibbert turns up offering a more tame discovery, he hears that all this has been done, and why are the taxpayers wasting their money on pompous academics who bag independent seekers of truth.

Some history

These modern day perpetual-motion vendors have a long pedigree that was only mildly disrupted by the statement of the First Law of Thermodynamics by Mayer in 1842. Water features large in these efforts.

The energy crisis in 17c England was caused by the lack of mill streams to turn water wheels. Robert Fludd (1574-1637) left a number of illustrations of a device to recirculate the water in an overshot water wheel. In this device the falling water that turned the water wheel provided enough energy to both grind the corn and return the water to the mill race via an Archimedean screw.

Fludd was not a charlatan and neither was the Bishop of Chester who in Mathematical Magick (published in 1648) discussed the use of a magnet to attract a steel ball up an inclined ramp, "which steel as it ascends near to the lodestone may be contrived to fall through some hole in the plane, and so return to the place from whence at first it began to move; and being there the lodestone will again attract it upwards till coming to the hole it will fall down again; and so the motion will be perpetual...". The good Bishop seems to have invented the first executive desk toy, as he proposed no way of exploiting the work done by this recirculating ball.

Whatever the current energy fad, a perpetual motion machine was made to exploit it water, wind, electricity, steam, magnetism [4]. I have always particularly liked the Zimara (1460- ca 1523) self-blowing windmill, in which the rotation of the sails of a windmill work enormous bellows to provide the wind to turn the sails to work the bellows...

a putative magnetic perpetual motion device

The Bishop of Chester, Bishop Wilkins' demonstration of Magnetic virtues, 1648
The lodestone sits atop the pedestal and the small shot is supposed to race up the inclined plane, then drop through the hole at the top and reappear at the bottom to be carried up again ...

The USA joins the party

The American Patent Office tried to cope with the steady stream of putative perpetual motion devices by issuing the following notice:

"The views of the Patent Office are in accord with those scientists who have investigated the subject and are to the effect that such devices are physical impossibilities. The position of the Office can only be rebutted by a working model. ... The Office hesitates to accept fees from applicants who believe they have discovered Perpetual Motion, and deems it only fair to give such applicants a word of warning that fees cannot be recovered after the case has been considered by the Examiner."

One of the great perpetual motion frauds was John Worrel Keely who claimed to invent a generator that turned tap water into high pressure etheric vapour when vibratory energy was applied. The Keely Motor Company raised $5 million from spurious inventions based on a hydro-pneumatic-pulsating-vacu-engine, sympathetic equilibrium, etheric disintegration and even quadrupole negative harmonics. Even when Keely was dropped by his eponymous company he found a rich widow to support him. On his death in 1898 his house in Philadelphia was searched to reveal a labyrinth of pipes that conducted compressed air to power his perpetual motion machines. The New York Journal ran a banner headline in January 1899: Keely the Monumental Fraud of the Century.

Advice ...

My advice to skeptics when faced with fanatical inventors is to remember the First Law is always right and to cut through the circuitous explanations. Draw a box round the device with one arrow in and one arrow out and invite the inventor to say whether he claims that there is more energy coming out than going in. If he says there is invoke the First Law, if he prevaricates thank him kindly and take your leave. Do not get drawn into arguments about "High Temperature Confined Carbon Plasma Magnetic Mirrors And Electronic Fields In Our Ioffe Bar Carbon Maser X-Ray Chromatic Turnable Particle Accelerator Laser" [5].

The answer

Finally the resonance argument fails because it is upside down. Think of resonance as helping a structure to go where it wants to go -- the bridge into the river or the church roof into the nave. Water is already where hydrogen and oxygen are heading (that is why hydrogen burns in oxygen, the heat is the excess energy after they are turned into water). Just as no amount of organ playing will re-roof the church, resonance, without all that energy, will not disassemble water.

spontaneous processes
The most stable states of bridges, and hydrogen and oxygen.
The collapsed bridge and the water molecules are both at a minimum energy.


[1] New Scientist, Just Turn on the Tap to Fill up the Tank? 18th September 1993, p20.

[2] New Scientist, 30th October,1993, p49

[3] Sydney Morning Herald, 13th September, 1988

[4] A.W.J.G. Ord-Hume, Perpetual Motion : The History of an Obsession, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1979.

[5] Noel Henry Wilson, Sydney, 1992

Back to 'Perpetual Motion.'