The Phantom of Free Energy

Vic Stenger
For Skeptical Briefs June 1999

Many ideas that we label "pseudoscientific" are not called that because they violate any known scientific principles, but simply because they fail to make sense quantitatively. For example, the brain emits electromagnetic waves. But when you put in the numbers you find that they are far too weak to transmit detectable signals to another brain even just a few meters away, and so are an unlikely mechanism for ESP.

A decade has now passed since Pons and Fleischmann held their infamous press conference announcing their discovery of "cold fusion." Most physicists were immediately skeptical, though not just because one should always be skeptical of astounding claims. And, they were not skeptical because they believed cold fusion was impossible. Indeed the phenomenon had already been observed in the laboratory. What was new here was the claim that cold fusion could be a practical source of unlimited and essentially free energy.

Cold fusion of the Pons-Fleischmann variety is possible by a process known as quantum tunneling. Two hydrogen nuclei held in a palladium lattice can tunnel through the repulsive electrical barrier that results from their mutual positive change. However, a calculation using formulas that can be found in any lower division university physics textbook quickly confirms that the probability for such tunneling at the distances involved is infinitesimal, fifty orders of magnitude or so less than unity. Other mechanisms have been proposed that are equally improbable. And, of course, no positive net energy output has ever been verified in any experiment. Everyone you read about was still plugged into the wall outlet.

Still, cold fusion research lives on in a few small labs around the world. Diehards continue to claim effects, largely ignored by the physics and chemistry communities. The promise of infinite free energy is seductive, with untold riches awaiting the one who can achieve it--sort of like the promise of eternal life.

Cold fusion diehards were joined by others who have fallen under the spell of the phantom of free energy at The First International Conference on Free Energy, April 29-30 in Bethesda, MD. Sponsored by Infinite Energy magazine and hosted by the Integrity Research Institute, the conference was originally to be co-sponsored by the U.S. State Department. When, after looking closer, State withdrew, the Commerce Department assumed co-sponsorship. Finally, Commerce withdrew leaving the event a private one.

Besides cold fusion, one of the other central themes of the conference was a different source of "free energy" that has received considerable media attention over the last several years. The proposal is to mine the zero point energy that exists in what we normally think of as an empty space.

A major promoter of zero point energy is physicist Harold Puthoff, well known to many readers of Skeptical Briefs. (See Martin Gardner's column in Skeptical Inquirer May/June 1998 and Puthoff's response in the following issue).

We know, from quantum field theory, that the vacuum is not really empty but swarming with "virtual" particle-antiparticle pairs that are constantly being created and destroyed by quantum fluctuations. In 1948, the Dutch physicist Hendrick Casimir showed that if you had two plates separated in a vacuum, a net force pulling the two plates together will exist. This force comes from the fact that fewer states are available to the virtual particles between the plates than those outside. An energy imbalance results in the plates being pushed together.

The reality of the Casimir force was confirmed in 1996 by Steven Lamoreaux, at precisely the quantitative level predicted by Casimir's equations. Extracting this energy is in principle possible and Puthoff promotes it as a practical possibility. However, here again we have a not impossible idea that can be quickly eliminated as impractical with a few simple calculations that a sophomore can do.

I have taken Casimir's formulas, which are in Puthoff's papers, and calculated that two highly polished metal plates 200 kilometers by 200 kilometers on a side separated by one micron (a millionth of a meter) have enough potential energy to light a 100 Watt light bulb for a second. If we were to stumble upon 30 million or so of these structures out in space, we could hook them up to our light bulb and keep it lit for a year.

Now, Puthoff is no dope. He knows these numbers and argues that perhaps we will discover some microstructures that can be utilized. But the chances of that are slim indeed. Basically these micro structures would have to already exist in a form ready for this energy to be extracted. The energy is not really free. If two plates are separated by some distance, the energy that is produced when they crash together had to be put into the system originally, to assemble the plates at that distance.

It's like the power we extract from falling water. We find this in nature, so it is "free" in that sense. But the sun provided the original energy that evaporated the water and raised it up into the air where it could then fall back down as rain and snow. It does no good to suggest that we put a line of slaves to work carrying buckets of water to the top of a hydroelectric dam built out on a flat plain. We still have to feed the slaves to give them the energy to do the lifting.

Similarly, we cannot expect to manufacture any microstructures to provide for zero point energy extraction. They would have to already exist in nature, assembled by natural forces and primed for our exploitation. And, what kind of objects might we imagine finding? Using the same formulas, we can visualize two flat plates of pure nuclear matter, like the inside of a neutron star, separated by a nuclear diameter. To keep our 100 Watt bulb lit for a year, we would need such a structure covering about one micron by one micron.

If these or any other micro structures capable of providing practical energy output existed in nature, I think we would have found them by now. I do not recommend that you invest your retirement funds in any companies that promise to develop this technology.