Dec 06 2016
Energy is the ultimate currency of our civilization. It takes energy to do stuff, by definition. Food is energy for manual labor, and it takes energy to make food. In many ways energy is a limiting factor for our technology. It is difficult to think of any one thing that would have a more wide ranging benefit than a new technology that affords cheap, clean, abundant energy.
This is the appeal of free energy. No description of an alleged free energy device is complete without a discussion of the impact the device would have on civilization. The appeal suckers investors and draws media attention. It kept Steorn going for ten years (they have finally liquidated), attracting 23 million Euros in investment. They had nothing, and never did – the 23 million was based entirely on a transparently empty promise.
The impending threat of global warming has raised the stakes even higher. Much of our cheap abundant energy is not clean, and putting previously sequestered CO2 back into the atmosphere is another limiting factor. Personal electronic devices also raise the stakes for the average consumer. We all want our smartphones and laptops to last longer on a charge. We will also soon want more mileage out of our electric cars.
For these reasons there will likely always be new free energy devices available to swindle the scientifically illiterate. The latest iteration of this scam is a smartphone app called instacharge that promises to store extra energy and recharge the phone’s battery on demand. One interesting wrinkle in this story is that the first mark for this scam apparently is the Fiji government:
At a glamorous function at a Suva hotel on Friday night, Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama announced the launch of a revolutionary new mobile application, hailed by the government as a “multi-billion dollar venture”.
For any new or apparently amazing claim, the first question you should ask yourself is, how does it work? I understand that asking this question and being able to understand the answer requires a functional level of scientific literacy. I think it is a reasonable goal of public education, however, for everyone coming out of high-school level education to be able to recognize this level of obvious nonsense.
Its creator, Douglas Stewart, claims the app saves excess power after a phone is fully charged, so at the push of a button a user can recharge in under 30 seconds wherever they are.
Where is this energy being stored? Storing energy is what batteries do, and when the battery is full by definition there is no more room for further energy. Energy is not this virtual thing that can be stored in software. It must be physically stored somewhere on the device. Figuring out how to store a battery’s worth of charge in the physical structure of the phone itself (without any accidental discharge or unwanted effects) would be an engineering feat. Needless to say, the phone would have to be designed to store that energy in some way, perhaps by including supercapacitors, for example. (Probably not feasible, I’m just being generous.)
There is no way to accomplish this with software, however. This is not even theoretically possible, and the claim is the scientific equivalent of magic. Stewart’s explanation is this:
“Eventually, we came to a stage to accept, store and release energy back to your phone.”
This is no explanation at all, of course. The scientific community, to the very limited extent it is giving the app any attention, is responding with a skeptical snort, which is about all the claims deserve. Stewart and his partners are responding to this skepticism in the most predictable manner imaginable. They are defending their claims by saying:
“In the pursuit of technology man and woman have always questioned the validity of inventions and creations, InstaCharge App is no different,” a spokesperson from the company said.
“Douglas A Stewart’s creation has indeed caused global intrigue to those who claim to be technical experts, speculation and scepticism has been mentioned yet none have produced any substantial evidence as to why it does not work.”
This is so old and predictable it’s sad. The first statement is essentially the Galileo Gambit – they were skeptical of previous geniuses, and they are skeptical of me, therefore I am a visionary genius who will also be vindicated. Of course, the vast majority of people whose unscientific claims are met with skepticism turn out to be cranks and con artists, but they all think (or at least claim) that they are Galileo or Edison.
The second statement is an attempt to reverse the burden of proof. It is not up to scientists to prove that it cannot work, it is up to the creators to prove that it does work, or at least provide a hint at an explanation that does not defy fundamental physical laws. Further, scientists have already met their burden (if they have any) by explaining the laws of physics, and that the device cannot possibly work because energy needs to be stored somewhere, and software cannot do that, even in theory.
And when pressed for more of an explanation, the creators claim they cannot give any because they need to protect their intellectual property. This is also transparent nonsense. No one is asking for their code, just a basic explanation of how the technology could work.
So you have the con artist trifecta – dismissing skepticism, shifting the burden of proof, and hiding behind the need to hide intellectual property. They add a gratuitous appeal to assumed popularity:
“We completely understand that in time our process will be copied like every other technological game changer that exists today. What is important to us is to provide the public who have the need to utilise the InstaCharge App and don’t care about how it works as long as it works.
It is unfortunate that the Fiji government, in its zeal to attract businesses to its shores, has fallen for this pseudoscience. This is a good example of why governments need competent scientific advisers. They hoped to bask in the shine of a “multi-billion dollar venture,” but instead will suffer the embarrassment of looking like third world rubes.
The creators, as is always the case, could shut up all the skeptics, myself included, by simply providing a working app. So far that has never happened. No one has ever delivered on their promise of an impossible free energy device – scientists so far are 100% in their prediction that promises of free energy (or anything that clearly breaks the laws of physics) are empty.
So far the app is not available in either Apple or Android stores. What typically happens at this point is that the creators fail to deliver on their promise, the media has already lost interest, and the story just fades away. Instacharge will go the way of Steorn with little fanfare. I will try to keep an eye on this one, however, and report any follow up. I encourage my readers to crowdsource this as well – send any follow up my way or put it in the comments.
But it doesn’t matter how many times such claims fail and the scientists are correct. The next free energy or similar claim will attract investors, sucker gullible politicians, and garner whorish media attention. They will have their 15 minutes of fame and then fade away.
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