How to Avoid Falling for Energy Technology Scams
Anyone can learn to apply the first two laws of thermodynamics to uncover scams.
Popular Science cover 1920 Norman Rockwell / Public domain
I’ve been a professional engineer for 15 years, and I can’t stand the way that engineering is communicated to the public.
Engineering shapes the world we live in, and it is incredible to me that we still haven’t figured out how to communicate engineering developments in a way that the general public can understand and would be attractive to them, but also getting the technical part correct.
Writers are so concerned to make engineering reporting sound exciting that they often sacrifice accuracy or even plausibility. It doesn’t need to be this way.
One topic that is especially prone to misrepresentation or overselling is renewable energy (my field of expertise), particularly new renewable energy technologies.
Reporting on individual new technologies often presents the new tech as the solution to all existing problems and, in the process, overplays the problems with current technologies and ignores challenges with the new tech. I get it. Writers want to write about exciting topics, significant new developments, brand new technologies that their audience hasn’t heard of.
And traditional engineering and technology development can seem slow and incremental in today’s fast-paced news cycle. But this type of sensationalism gets in the way of progress towards what should be our real goal: zero emissions as soon as possible.
Reporting like this is not only a matter of sloppy journalism; I worry that it can cause people to avoid implementing mainstream technologies. We already have the technologies we need to achieve this, but there are economic and practical challenges to be solved along the way.
If we exaggerate problems with existing technologies to the point where it doesn’t seem sensible to use them at all, it will hinder consensus for action now on climate change. Also, when seemingly perfect brand new technology is just around the corner waiting to solve all problems at once, it doesn’t seem necessary to put in the hard work to implement existing technologies.
Pinning all of our hopes on a radical new technology is like buying a lottery ticket instead of going to work. And worse, many of the enthusiastically reported “revolutionary” technologies do not even have a lottery ticket’s chance of working. Sometimes technologies are promoted that cannot work — they don’t obey the laws of physics.
Examples of this include traditional perpetual motion machines or the more recently-popular “over-unity” motors. These are good, old fashioned con jobs by modern snake-oil salesmen such as Patrick Kelly, president of Genesis World Energy, who went to jail for stealing $2.5 million investors funds for his water-as-fuel “technology”. Other times, more commonly, the reported new effect that is real but could not proceed beyond the laboratory, to reach the scale and economics needed to make it work.
In this article, I am going to focus on the first part: perpetual motion scams. I will share how you, a non-expert, can interpret a new technology to see if it obeys the laws of physics. If not, it is a scam and you shouldn’t write about it or invest your money in it! I hope that writers and readers alike will be able to make better judgements about engineering developments and avoid being deluded or scammed by technological “developments” that have no promise.
I am certainly not anti-new technologies. It is my job to innovate and develop new energy technologies. But I do so with an engineering mindset, not magical thinking.
Am I saying that you need a PhD in engineering to write or read articles about new energy technologies?
No way! You don’t need to understand every detail of a new technology to be able to assess whether it is a perpetual motion scam. The method you can use to do this is to recognise and apply two thermodynamic principles:
1. Energy cannot be created or destroyed — energy can only be transformed from one form to another
2. Systems tend to disorder — differences in temperature, pressure, and density even out and never concentrate without energy being added
Scientists developed these principles in the 19th and early 20th century, and since then there has not been a single demonstrated exception. So, just like you feel comfortable to accept that gravity is a natural law that can’t just be eliminated by new technology — you can apply these principles without wondering whether they apply to any specific case.
The first law (energy cannot be created or destroyed), is straightforward to understand, but it is incredibly powerful. There is a certain amount of energy in the universe, and this amount will never increase or decrease, but its form can change.
Examples of energy transformation include when wind energy (the energy contained by moving air particles) is transferred to mechanical energy when it hits a wind turbine. Then the generator inside the turbine converts the mechanical energy into electric energy.
Fossil fuels convert chemical energy stored in coal, oil or gas into electric energy also via a turbine and electric generator. All methods of generating electricity involve such a transformation of energy from one type to another.
The second law of thermodynamics (systems tend to disorder) is slightly trickier to understand. It says that every time you convert energy from one form to another, some of the energy changes to a less ordered and less useable form.
For example when fossil fuels burn, heat energy from the reaction heats the surroundings. The energy is all still there, but the heat in the environment is in a less ordered state than the chemical energy was, and you can’t use it easily.
The second law is the reason why when you reverse an energy transformation process, you never get all the energy back in a usable form. Imagine that you connect a generator to an electric motor and then use the motor to power the generator.
This is the basis of any “over unity” motor, it doesn’t matter how many other components you add (alternators, inverters, etc are common in over-unity motors you can find on the internet), the following is still true. The energy within the motor/generator system will gradually decrease as some of this ordered, usable energy becomes sound and heat.
The sound and heat energy are disordered and less usable forms of energy, and the usable electric and mechanical energy in the motor and generator will eventually fall to zero.
The application of these two laws of thermodynamics provides a very powerful way of assessing energy technologies. And the best part is that you don’t even need to understand all the details of the technology you are evaluating, you only need to check whether the technology claims to be creating energy from nothing, or to create ordered energy from disorder.
Let’s look at some examples of energy technologies with respect to these two laws of thermodynamics. First, let’s look at hydrogen.
Hydrogen is the basis of many renewable energy scams (e.g. cars that can run on water as a fuel source) and also real sources of energy (e.g. fuel cells). Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and it releases energy when it reacts with oxygen, another abundant element. And the only byproduct from this reaction is water. Sounds perfect.
So how can we distinguish real hydrogen technologies from the scams? We can start by applying the first law of thermodynamics: “energy cannot be created or destroyed.” If electrical energy is created, it must be converted from another form of energy. This is not negotiable, not something that any technological breakthrough will solve. Ever.
A molecule of hydrogen on its own, H2, contains chemical potential energy that is released when it reacts with oxygen. But large amounts of hydrogen are not just hanging around in the atmosphere as H2 molecules.
Nearly all hydrogen is present in compounds such as water or organic compounds. H2 makes up only 0.00005% of air… which is fortunate because concentrations above 4% can ignite.
Several industrial processes can make hydrogen in high concentrations: from natural gas, from coal, from water. All these processes require energy as an input to the process. Using water as a source of hydrogen and oxygen molecules is a well-known process and the basis of the production of “green hydrogen” that is the topic of much excitement around the world currently.
A process called electrolysis passes an electric current through water, which causes it to decompose into hydrogen and oxygen molecules. The resultant hydrogen is a potential fuel source. A fuel cell for example, produces an electric current when hydrogen reacts with oxygen with water as the output. If the hydrogen is produced through electrolysis of water, then we have a nice neat loop:
1) water + electricity → hydrogen + oxygen
2) hydrogen + oxygen → water + electricity
A fuel cell car running on hydrogen produced by electrolysis is, in a way, a water-as-fuel car. But no one ever went to jail for taking investors’ money to develop a fuel cell car. The reason is that fuel cell cars and hydrogen produced by electrolysis are technologies that obey the laws of thermodynamics. Let’s look at this in more depth.
First, the second law: systems tend to disorder. Every time you have a transformation from chemical to electrical energy or the other way around, some of the energy changes to a less ordered form such as heat or sound. So for completeness, the processes should be written like this:
1) water + electricity → hydrogen + oxygen + waste energy
2) hydrogen + oxygen → water + electricity + waste energy
Now we can apply the first law: energy can’t be created. Since each stage produces some unusable waste heat, we know that the amount of electricity produced in process 2 must be less than the amount added in process 1. If this weren’t the case, we would end up with more and more energy each time we looped through the two processes: a violation of the first law.
There are no problems here, we didn’t just disprove the concept of hydrogen fuel cells. You just need to be aware that there are losses involved. In the case of hydrogen produced by electrolysis used in a fuel cell to produce electricity, the roundtrip efficiency is around 35%. In other words, nearly two-thirds of the total energy is accounted for by the “waste energy” portion of processes 1 and 2.
There are a large amount of energy technology scams that purport to run on a similar process but claim to have discovered a new (vaguely described) process for separating hydrogen from water. They claim that the new process uses vastly less energy than the current state of the art.
Improvements in processing technology occur all the time, so this in itself does not prove the technology to be a scam. But the second law of thermodynamics demands that some energy changes to a more disordered, less usable state in the process. This loop of processes 1 and 2 will always consume energy overall.
And the same is true for any other pair of reactions where the product of one reaction is the input for the other. This is the power of the laws of thermodynamics, and you don’t need to understand the chemistry involved to understand the conclusion.
Don’t believe it? That’s ok. Science doesn’t ask you to take anything on faith. Thousands of sceptics before you have tested out this law on supposed perpetual motion machines and without exception, every case eventually turned out to obey the laws of thermodynamics.
There are many examples on the internet that claim they have found the exception to the rule, but no independently verified experimental evidence.
So, now you know how to assess new energy technologies according to two laws of thermodynamics. First, ask where is the energy coming from as energy cannot be created. Second, check whether the technology relies on one form of energy being transformed to another without any losses.
If there are no clear answers, then the technology is either not understood, or it is a scam. In either case, it is not the next big thing in renewable energy so don’t write a breathless article about it, and don’t invest your money in it.
I am passionate about engineering communication! I believe that the general public are capable of understanding much more than most media give them credit for. And I believe that if the general public had a better understanding of engineering then we would make better political decisions with respect to action on climate change. I started a YouTube channel to talk about topics like this — check it out: Engineering with Rosie