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Skeptical of Free Energy

Posted by Patrick on April 8, 2014

Having studied physics, I’m sometimes asked about the idea of ‘free energy’.  Recently, I came across the movie Thrive.  Leaving aside all the stuff about aliens, here’s the most charitable outline of the movie’s argument:

  1. It paints a picture of how wonderful the world would be if we had free, unlimited energy.
  2. It gives some pseudo-sciency reasons as to why such energy is possible.  To help make this credible, it distorts real science discoveries (by real scientists like Einstein), and uses fancy video editing.
  3. It denounces those who would stand to loose from such discoveries.  Obviously: big oil and car companies are to blame for the suppression of these disruptive technologies.
  4. It lists people with PhD’s after their names who have supposedly disappeared or got killed because they discovered sources of this energy.

Tada!  Free energy exist but big corporations have been suppressing its adoption.

Here’s why I’m highly skeptical:

  1. Sure it would be wonderful to have free energy, but not all science fiction becomes real science.  Even if one day, we find a source of free energy, we’ll still need to address the issue of population explosion. Free energy would not give us the ability to continue growing exponentially.
  2. Unfortunately, the presence of a powerful magnetic field is not enough to produce electricity.  The field must be changing (or moving).  That’s why a dynamo must spin to produce electricity.  Just having magnets is not enough.  But even if that wasn’t the case, the Earth’s magnetic field is actually very weak: it can barely move a compass needle, and that needle is easily influenced by other artificial magnets around.  The fact is: the Earth’s magnetic field is about 20 times weaker than a fridge magnet, and it’s not changing nearly fast enough to produce electricity.
  3. It’s true that such a discovery would be disruptive and big companies would probably try to suppress it.  But we already have potentially disruptive technologies that await mass adoption: solar, wind, geothermal, electric vehicles.  Those are probably being “fought” against by big oil companies, but they are not secrets.  People can go and outfit their houses with solar panels and live off the grid.  It’s just expensive.
  4. A list of people and footage of high tech stuff on the internet doesn’t by itself mean anything.  It reminds me of this funny video.

I happen to understand enough physics to seriously doubt the idea of free energy (as it is presented in this video).  I  know that many real discoveries made today were inconceivable a hundred years ago, and that in a hundred years, we’ll probably have technologies that would look like magic today.  But it doesn’t mean that anything is possible: the technology that makes the internet possible, for example, obeys rules of physics that were discovered about 100 years ago.  Whatever new technologies we invent, it can’t break current physics laws (unless they turn out to be wrong).

But even without a science background, the logic of the argument is very weak:

  1. Free energy would not solve all our problems: exponential growth is not tenable.
  2. The science of free energy from the Earth’s magnetic field doesn’t make sense.
  3. Many disruptive technologies have made it.  If free energy technologies worked, they would leaked to the general public.
  4. Appeal to authority, strawman arguments, and fancy video editing doesn’t add anything to the argument.

One Response to “Skeptical of Free Energy”

  1. Kevin Lan said

    In my opinion Gibbs -free energy, I thought its powerful in theory. However, with the entropy involved its not as valuable, which its just another “free space” of energy from a disordered world.

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