Perpetual motion is scientifically impossible, right?
The impossibility of energy for nothing is not merely a matter of habit of thought with science. It is enshrined in one of the most fundamental and important laws of physics: the first law of thermodynamics or the law of conservation of energy, which says that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but can only change its form.
In every kind of machine, you always get losses, never gains of energy: the bicycle always runs down eventually once you stop pedalling. You might gain some temporary advantage from rolling downhill or a fortuitous following wind and, over the centuries, some inventors have been fooled by such short-lived freak conditions into thinking they had built a machine that would run forever. But, in the end, the temporary gain will disappear and your machine will eventually slow to a halt.
This law is so important in western culture that it has come to occupy a place of honour not only in science but also in western philosophy generally. In its modern form it is summed up in economist Milton Friedman’s dictum that, ‘There is no such thing as a free lunch’.
But if the Law of Conservation of Energy is buried so deeply in the western psyche, how did it get there? So fundamental a law must have been arrived at by science’s greatest minds, mustn’t it? In fact, the truth is rather more prosaic.
In 1847, a 26-year-old German medical doctor, Hermann Helmholtz, gave a presentation to the Physical Society of Berlin. The young man’s lecture was to have a profound influence on the entire international scientific community.
Helmholtz had graduated from the Berlin Medical Institute three years earlier and had been appointed as military surgeon to a regiment in Potsdam. His military duties were not pressing and the young man occupied his time in a makeshift laboratory he set up in the barracks, conducting experiments in the subject that was his primary interest; human anatomy and physiology. Unlike his teachers, he was convinced that there was nothing mysterious about living things. The human body, he believed, was simply a machine. To back up his theories he collected results from physicians doing research into subjects such as how the human body uses energy.
Helmholtz was particularly interested in the work of his fellow countryman Julius von Mayer who had likened the human body to a machine that takes in fuel and converts it to work and heat. He also studied the work of England’s James Joule who had been able to show experimentally the equivalence of work and heat as simply different forms of energy.
Now, Helmholtz transformed his thinking into a mighty principle which he made the subject of a paper destined for the prestigious journal Deutsche Annalen Physik. No-one had ever succeeded, he wrote, in building a perpetual motion machine that worked. Therefore, such machines must be impossible. If they are impossible it must be by reason of some natural law preventing their construction. This law, he said, could only be the law of Conservation of Energy.
The peer review committee of the journal examined Helmholtz’s paper and rejected it as being too speculative. Helmholtz turned instead to a fringe meeting of the Berlin Physical Society where he delivered his paper as a speech in 1847.
No-one seemed to be struck by the fact that the 26-year-old recent graduate was a medical doctor with neither experience nor training in physics, and, indeed, virtually no experience even in his chosen field of medicine. And, incredible though it may seem, it was this conjecture by Helmholtz that is the foundation stone of science’s belief in the Law of Conservation of Energy.
Nor does it seem to have struck anyone in physics that the circularity of Helmholtz’s reasoning is a perfectly self-fulfilling prediction. No-one has ever built a perpetual motion machine, therefore there must be a law of conservation of energy that forbids such machines. If an inventor comes along claiming to have constructed such a machine, he must be mistaken and can safely be ignored because the law of conservation of energy shows them to be impossible!
Of course, few would dispute that Helmholtz was justified in his historical assessment: every attempt at perpetual motion before 1847 had indeed failed, just as though some natural barrier existed to achieving a self-sustaining mechanism. Where the controversy begins is that in the past ninety years, there have been more than a dozen scientists and engineers who have developed machines they claimed to be over-unity, but which have simply been rejected as impossible without any detailed investigation and without any serious study of the evidence.
Some of the claims of this sort have been made by inventors who were undoubtedly crackpots or charlatans and who were unable ever to demonstrate anything to back up their claims. Some inventors did not so much defraud others as delude themselves — a few even died in poverty believing they had solved the problem.
Inventors of both kinds still exist today and present a major difficulty to any researcher who wants to get to the bottom of their claims. How exactly do you tell a real inventor from a charlatan? And how can you tell if an inventor is deluding himself about what he has achieved?
The answer, of course, is by replicable experiment. And this is one area where science may well have fallen down on the job.
For years debate has raged on the Internet about an ordinary-looking metal drum sitting on the concrete floor of a factory building in Rome, Georgia, 50 miles from Atlanta. Its inventor, the man about whom the Internet debate is raging, is James Griggs, an industrial heating engineer. The invention that has brought Griggs such notoriety is a device that he began developing in 1987, that he calls the ‘Hydrosonic Pump’ and that many of his supporters believe is over-unity, in that it generates around 30 per cent more energy as heat than is put in as electricity.
To the skeptics, the Griggs Gadget is, at best, a case of self-delusion on a grand scale, and, at worst, a case of scientific fraud. To his supporters, the pump (US Patent 5,188, 090) is the first unequivocal public demonstration of undoubted over-unity.
When I spoke to him at a meeting of ‘over-unity’ scientists, Jim Griggs told me, ‘the pump is based on a theory of what takes place when a shock wave is created in a fluid. We know that when you create a shock wave in a liquid there is a minute amount of energy released into the fluid in the form of heat.’
‘Most of the previous studies had been done in how to eliminate that shock wave, instead of putting the heat to a useful purpose. We’ve designed a system to take the shock-wave heat energy, capture it, and produce hot water or steam.’
Griggs believes that his device works on perfectly normal principles and violates no laws of physics. Just what happens when the Hydrosonic pump is filled up with water and switched on is described by over-unity investigator Jed Rothwell who conducted a detailed engineering investigation of the device in January 1994.
‘During one of the demonstrations we watched,’ he says, ‘over a 20 minute period, 4.80 Kilowatt Hours of electricity was input, and 19,050 BTUs of heat evolved, which equals 5.58 Kilowatt Hours, or 117 per cent of input. The actual input to output ratio was even better than this, when you take into account the inefficiencies of the electric motor.’
But if there are kilowatts of excess heat available, why doesn’t Griggs simply use the steam to turn a turbine-generator and connect the output to the input — thus getting a perpetual motion machine?
One reason is that converting steam into electricity is an extremely inefficient process. You would be lucky to convert 5 per cent of the output heat energy back into electricity — and 2 per cent might be nearer the mark. The Hydrosonic pump would therefore have to be massively over-unity before you could recover enough energy to make it self-sustaining, and at present the margin is a ‘modest’ 30 per cent.
More importantly, the excess energy does not actually appear at the output steam pipe for a constant input of energy. What happens is this; the pump is started and after five or ten minutes reaches a steady state where it is converting water at room temperature to steam. Once this steady state is reached, the pump, according to Griggs, goes into an over-unity mode where the output temperature is maintained, but the amount of energy needed at the input to maintain it, drops by 30 per cent.
Griggs has been working with a number of physicists and engineers to try to get to the bottom of just how his device works. As well as Jed Rothwell’s consulting engineering firm in Atlanta he has worked with Professor Keizios, dean emeritus of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology and past president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Professor Keizos supervised the design of the instrumentation that measures the energy input and output of the Griggs Gadget.
In a second test, during which the over-unity effect was measured, the adjusted co-efficient of power was a remarkable 168 per cent — the machine produced 1.68 times the energy that was input. A third test did nearly as well with a Co-efficient of power of 157 per cent.
If the only evidence for these claims were the colour brochure printed by Griggs’s company, Hydro Dynamics Corporation Inc., and reports of his supporters, then most observers might be inclined to side with the skeptics: Griggs’s claims seem fundamentally improbable. Yet surprisingly, Griggs has not only patented his device and started manufacturing a commercial version on a small scale, he has also sold and installed devices to users in the Atlanta area.
The customers include the Atlanta Police Department, a fire station, a dry cleaning plant, and a gymnasium. Interestingly, the Hydrosonic pump was installed in the public buildings by the county engineer after evaluating the device. The buildings are using the device mainly for heating purposes, and they have been running for more than a year. The customers have bills from their local electric utility company showing a year on year decrease in bills equivalent to 30 per cent.
What precisely causes the claimed excess heat? Griggs himself rejects the popular idea that his pump has something to do with so-called ‘cold fusion’.
‘We have kind of been lumped into the cold fusion field’, he says wryly, ‘because we have experienced excess energy out of the pump. As far as cold fusion goes, we don’t believe that we’re accomplishing any type of nuclear reaction within our system. We feel that it can be explained through the theory of cavitation or sonoluminescence.’
Griggs’s gadget has been examined by a steady stream of investigators, both friendly and skeptical. So far, they have all gone away mystified. Unlike most ‘over-unity’ devices, however, you can buy and install a hydrosonic pump in your own home.