Jan 14 2014

Inertial Propulsion and Other Delusions

Some ideas are so compelling and seductive it seems there will always be those who succumb to their siren song. We easily understand how transformative these technologies will be and can’t help feeling that if we work hard enough, we can achieve them – the panacea, free energy, anti-gravity, and regeneration to name a few.

Free energy and anti-gravity machines attract engineers and tinkerers who cannot help but think that if they can figure out the proper arrangement of moving parts, they can bypass the laws of physics. Over the decades they have produced often complex and sometimes elegant machines that seem like they might work, but always always they miss something subtle.

The pattern by now is very clear, and depressingly repetitive. The inventor spends years developing a machine to exploit some physical property, such as the interaction of magnets, or the seemingly funny physics of rapidly rotating systems. Their scale models seem to do what they are supposed to – usually they spin. At some point the inventor believes they are ready to show their incipient invention to the world, perhaps now they are ready to attract major investors to help build the full scale operating versions of their technology.

What they present to the world are complex diagrams, and scale models that do something, but never what they are claimed to do. We never see a free energy device actually producing energy and running electrical devices without any outside input or burning of fuel. We never see anti-gravity devices levitating.

Of course, if the inventors could actually produce what they claim, they would garner serious attention. Instead they are largely ignored and criticized – their years, even decades, of loving labor dismissed. How can this be? They must simply be too far ahead of their time for the rubes to understand their genius. Plus, there must be some sinister conspiracy working against them – Big Oil or whatever.

It’s sad – another mind, perhaps even brilliant in their way, lost to the allure of the impossible.

Inertial Propulsion

There are many phrases that are used to refer to impossible technologies. What seems to happen is that proponents come up with a term for their invention. Their invention is found to be nothing but a fantasy, and the term becomes associated with negative connotations. The next generation of proponents then come up with a new technical term, and the cycle continues.

So perpetual motion machines become free energy machines, then zero-point energy, then over-unity machines, etc.

Last year, January of 2013, an inventor by the name of Rick R. Dobson revealed his “closed loop propulsion” technology – the product of 27 years of development. Closed-loop propulsion is a synonym for inertial propulsion, or massless propulsion. He also calls his technology centrifugal propulsion.

The idea behind such technologies is to produce propulsion without any propellant. Propellant is one of those annoying necessities of physics. It is based on Newton’s laws of motion – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you want to produce thrust, you have to propel something with mass in the opposite direction you want to go.

In most conventional rockets today, the fuel is the propellant – the fuel reacts with an oxidizer producing a hot gas which is ejected out of the bottom of the rocket at high speeds, producing thrust. In ion propulsion charged atoms are accelerated to very high speeds and shot out of the engine to produce thrust.

The faster the propellant is expelled, the more thrust it produces for its mass. Therefore high velocity engines are more efficient because they can carry less propellant. Since space ships will typically have to carry their propellant with them, you have to also accelerate the propellant, which requires more fuel and propellant, etc. This is referred to as the rocket equation – how much fuel/propellant does the rocket need to carry with it in order to get to its destination?

Now – imagine that you could design an engine that produces thrust with no propellant. This would bypass the pesky rocket equation, the need for large rockets, and essentially the primary limiting factor of getting stuff off the earth and into space. Such a system would behave like anti-gravity.

That is what Dobson is proposing, as have many before him. Such an invention would be amazing. We would finally have our flying cars and jet packs, and space travel would become much more accessible. When you look at Dobson’s website, however, there are many videos displaying his technology and basic principles, but none showing an actual working anti-gravity device. He doesn’t have the money shot.

Just like spinning magnets are endlessly fascinating to free energy developers, the gyroscopic effect is to inertial propulsion enthusiasts. We have all played with this as a child – a rapidly spinning top will not fall over, rather it will move around in circles, which is called precession. Dobson shows some videos of precession and devices that use this effect to, for example, keep from tipping over.

But not tipping over due to precession is not the same as propulsion. In a spinning top the rotation causes the translation of axial movement (tipping over) into movement at a 90 degree angle to this force, so that the top spins around. This has long been described in detail by physicists and obeys the conservation of momentum. (The Wikipedia page on precession goes into full detail.)

But still, the precession of a spinning top looks magical and seems to defy gravity. However, a spinning top will still fall to the ground when dropped. It will not float in the air. There is no propulsion.

Another way to look at the problem is this: imagine a ship in deep space with nothing around it. The idea of “closed-loop propulsion” is that you can propel that ship without interacting with its surroundings. This, of course, violates the conservation of momentum. Momentums have to balance – so if you want to move the ship in one direction you have to propel something in the opposite direction, or else Newton will get very cranky.

The fallacy is in thinking that because you have some engine in the ship which is expending energy, this energy can be translated into the kinetic energy of momentum – therefore we’re not violating the conservation of energy. It’s OK to translate energy from one form into another.

But the conservation of energy is not the objection for closed-loop propulsion – it’s the conservation of momentum. All of physics has to be satisfied, not just the parts you want.


The Dobson machine is no different than the many that have come before it. It is a compelling delusion. Physics, it turns out, is a cruel mistress and will not be denied.

Of course I understand the temptation – the desire not only for such a device to exist, but to be the one to bring it to the world. I also don’t mind that there are dreamers in the world working on the seemingly impossible. One can dream, however, and still remain grounded in reality.

Unconventional thinking and innovation is great, but it is most productive when it is tempered with a bit of humility and reality. I do wish that Dobson had spent the last 27 years developing something that might actually work. I want my flying car as much as the next guy, but I don’t think it’s going to come from the garage of a tinkerer who thinks they can ignore the laws of physics.


18 responses so far

18 Responses to “Inertial Propulsion and Other Delusions”

  1. wfron 14 Jan 2014 at 8:54 am

    2013, huh? Either that’s a typo, or you must be on the mailing list of potential investors for my time machine. The scale model is already working – all I need is a bit more funding, thanks.

  2. linwoodon 14 Jan 2014 at 9:15 am

    Mr Dobson could have learned a thing or two from another engineer – “Ye cannae change the laws o’ physics, Captain”.

  3. ccbowerson 14 Jan 2014 at 10:05 am

    I watched a few of the videos. I was very impressed with how diagrams of the various parts of the machine could flash blue, and then rotate.

    I am wondering what it means to work on such a project for 27 years, given such obstacles as the laws of physics.

    wfr – 2013 looks more like the future. His website appears to be from 1993.

  4. tmac57on 14 Jan 2014 at 12:14 pm

    I really wish inventors like this would put their minds to utilizing real potential sources of energy that are being wasted such as the 140 F + attic space in my home when it is in the 90s outside. Sure you can use it for heating water,but I don’t need that much hot water. It always just seemed to me that that much energy must be able to be tapped,but I suspect that many have tried,and it just isn’t all that efficient to make it worth the investment. But who knows? Maybe a billion dollar idea yet to be taken advantage of…at least more realistic than free energy.

  5. Heptronon 14 Jan 2014 at 12:42 pm

    The description of closed-loop propulsion reminds me of a discussion we had in physics class in highschool. We discussed jumping from one end of a canoe to the other and, provided you didn’t tip over, the canoe had no net movement because of you pushing it back when you first jump and them moving it forward when you landed. You have to interact with the environment outside (of the canoe) to go anywhere.

    @tmac, Agreed. Capturing energy is far more realistic than inventing energy. I work in the petroleum industry and one thing that bothered me was flares and how they are necessary but can’t be really utilized to generate steam or electricity. They are too unpredictable and the turbines for them would be so huge that the cost to operate them when flares are low would be more than the benefit brought by them. The only real option is to flare as little as possible.

  6. Bronze Dogon 14 Jan 2014 at 12:55 pm

    I took some physics classes. I did okay, but I didn’t get far enough in to study the really fun stuff like electromagnetism. I remember being able to do the math involved in the perpendicular gyroscope demonstration by plugging and chugging the equations, but I didn’t “get” why it behaves that way. I try to stay scientifically literate, but magnets and gyroscopes still tap into some primal, semi-mystical feeling. My monkey brain just goes into fascination mode when I fiddle with magnets, feeling the invisible pushes and pulls. (Yet gravity doesn’t count, probably because it’s everywhere I’ve ever been.) It also happens when I watch some of the strange things gyroscopes can do.

    So I think I understand the fascination. They do weird things that defy my monkey brain’s understanding of the rules, therefore I should be able to find ways to break or bend the universe’s rules if I diddle with them enough. Presumably. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize just how much real scientists have diddled with everything, so rather than get up to speed by reading the literature, they waste effort on doing the same things countless others have tried and failed.


    Mr Dobson could have learned a thing or two from another engineer – “Ye cannae change the laws o’ physics, Captain”.

    Annoyingly, someone usually finds a way in Star Trek. One instance that annoyed me was when Dr. Bashir asked Chief O’Brien to make a device that worked at a certain level of precision, and O’Brien says he can’t, and it’s not a matter of time or resources, but physical limits. Then Bashir is surprised when he finds his genetically enhanced associates have already built it. “You can’t break the laws of physics, but you can bend them!”

    Sometimes it seems to me that engineers should have been born as dwarves from Dwarf Fortress. DF is an incredibly complex game with procedural generation, strange emergent behaviors, and a lot of creatures and toys to play with. There’s no end to the crazy contraptions people will build in their forts. There are a lot of players who perform Dwarven !!SCIENCE!! (the double exclamation points signify being on fire) on the forum in order to answer questions about gameplay mechanics, determine the causes of buggy behaviors, and, most relevantly, find ways to exploit new features. One of the longstanding exploits is the Dwarven water engine, made of two water wheels connected to the sides of a screw pump. After a dwarf manually primes the pump, the water wheels are powered by the water pouring out of the high end of the pump, producing more energy than the pump consumes.

  7. Bronze Dogon 14 Jan 2014 at 1:13 pm

    @tmac: I once made an observation that a lot of sci-fi technology “works harder,” so a lot of stuff involving energy generation involves the phrase, “off the scales.” Meanwhile in the real world, we just aren’t making the huge strides in energy production that science fiction promised. We haven’t stumbled on any energon, elerium, or other energy-dense unobtanium, either. So, it seems to me if we want our energy economy to grow, we need to “work smarter,” as you’re suggesting, by finding ways to use otherwise wasted joules along with cutting down the amount our existing devices use.

  8. tmac57on 14 Jan 2014 at 7:11 pm

    Bronze Dog, I agree,and in fact I think there are many strides being made in energy recovery and efficiency that the average person is not aware of. I have (or had) a news aggregator that flagged alternative energy and such stories,that I followed daily,and there are so many things going on that it is really hard to keep up with.The advances tend to be incremental,but that’s how real progress is made.It just kind of sneaks up on you,and then one day you realize the world has changed.

  9. Nitpickingon 14 Jan 2014 at 9:37 pm

    Science fiction fans of my generation remember the Dean Drive, which was promoted by brilliant editor John Campbell. The many scientists and engineers who wrote for him never convinced him it was nonsense.

  10. Will Nitschkeon 14 Jan 2014 at 11:09 pm

    “I do wish that Dobson had spent the last 27 years developing something that might actually work.”

    As opposed to someone else who spends 27 years collecting stamps, or going to Star Trek Conventions, I guess.

  11. Bill Openthalton 15 Jan 2014 at 4:12 am

    As opposed to someone else who spends 27 years collecting stamps, or going to Star Trek Conventions, I guess.

    Well, if I would have spent 27 years collecting stamps that turn out to be bits of toilet paper, I would certainly be disappointed.

    27 years of Trekkie conventions… shudder.

  12. Kawarthajonon 15 Jan 2014 at 7:53 am

    Will & Bill: lol!

    I think the key to the energy problem is not coming up with some new breakthrough from some obscure inventer. IMHO, the key is improving efficiency. The vast, vast, vast majority of energy we produce (i.e. burning/using fuel of any kind) is wasted. Take your car – 80% of the energy is expended in wasted heat and only 20% goes to actually moving your car! (http://www.cbc.ca/newsblogs/technology/quirks-quarks-blog/2014/01/organic-batteries-put-clean-electricity-future-within-sight.html) Any kind of power plant (other than wind) generates huge amounts of wasted heat. Even solar panels heat up a lot and all that heat is wasted and makes the solar panels less efficient. If we can find a way to efficiently use up that heat and make it into electricity, we have solved the energy crisis. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermoelectric_generator

  13. guson 15 Jan 2014 at 9:33 am

    Great article. A wise friend of mine said once, you cant shit more than what you eat.

  14. The Other John Mcon 15 Jan 2014 at 10:29 am

    Anyone see the recent Shark Tank episode in which some *inventor* designed an energy machine that uses the spinning of the earth to create a hurricane inside of some 100 ft tall contraption. This inputs only sea water and outputs (no joke) clean energy and gold particles as waste byproduct.

    Of course no working model exists but a prototype can be ready in only 9 months with a 1 million dollar investment!! What a deal!!

    The “drawing” schematic was so poor and dumb-looking I was literally laughing out loud…looked like a 3rd grader drew it.

  15. Steven Novellaon 15 Jan 2014 at 10:43 am

    Waste heat is a tough nut to crack.

    But – distributed creation of electricity, near the point of use, has an advantage in that waste heat can be used directly without turning it into electricity.

    So – if you produced electricity in your home the waste heat could be used to heat your hot water tank, and in the cold months to heat your home.

    The only catch is that such systems would have to be low or zero emission, or else we would also be producing pollution near where we live. That was the whole reason for moving power plants away from populations centers (where the electricity is used) in the first place.

  16. tmac57on 15 Jan 2014 at 11:29 am

    Here’s an example of some of the promising research being pursued that you might have missed if you don’t regularly follow those kinds of articles:


  17. Kawarthajonon 15 Jan 2014 at 11:45 am

    You are correct, Steve, in that recovering heat can be tough. However, some cities wisely use waste heat from power plants to provide heated water to residents (greatly reducing energy demands) and, in some northern countries, to heat roads/sidewalks in the winter to melt snow (ohhhh, I’m so envious of that!!!). This works best with nuclear power, considering the HUGE amounts of water used to cool the reactors. You could also use the ground as a heat sink in the summer, extracting the heat built up for the cold winter months. In Canada, all of that waste heat goes into the air/water.

    I think there are lots of simple solutions to improving our use of this waste heat that don’t require any new technology. We, as a culture (speaking on behalf of Canadians), are wasteful by nature and we don’t think things through when designing our energy system. While I don’t have any delusions of 100% efficiency, I do believe we could improve things a ton. The energy is all there, being produced, we just have to figure out how to make use of it.

    I don’t know what it’s like in the US, but here in Canada most power plants that use fossil fuels are located in cities, not far from where people live. They cause huge amounts of air pollution, as well as soil and water pollution from the fallout. This is why, in Ontario, there has been a huge push by the provincial government to introduce solar and wind power generation, with the ensuing backlash saying that wind turbines cause health problems and all kinds of other nonsense.

  18. Isulon 15 Jan 2014 at 12:03 pm

    @tmac57 – Capturing energy from the hot air in your attic space reminds me of an article in Popular Science a few years ago that was a proposed design for a solar plant that looked like a huge inverted funnel. The sun would heat the air beneath the plastic structure, causing it to travel up the funnel and spin the turbines. you could do something similar on your roof, but the HOA might not be pleased with you adding a large plastic chimney to your roof peak…

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