Dec 08 2023

A Bit of Energy Pseudoscience

Remember the 1980 film, The Formula? Probably not, because it was a mediocre film that did not age well. The basic plot is that Nazi chemists during WWII developed a formula for synthetic gasoline. A detective investigating a murder gets embroiled in a conspiracy to cover up the existence of this formula, and he struggles to expose it to the world, but is ultimately foiled by the many layers of this conspiracy. At the heart of the conspiracy is the fossil fuel industry, who wants to protect their golden goose. I remember thinking at the time that this was dumb, and now I appreciate how dumb it is on a much deeper level.

There is a scientific and critical thinking layer to the superficial thoughtlessness of this plot. From a critical thinking perspective, a conspiracy to suppress such a formula makes no sense. Such a formula (if we buy the premise of such a thing, which I don’t, as you will see) would be incredibly valuable to anyone who controls it. An oil company could (again, given the film’s premise) in a single stroke dominate the world’s energy production and crush the competition. But perhaps more critically, it makes no sense that such a formula would have been discovered almost 40 years prior to the timeframe of the film and yet was never reproduced. Have you every noticed that for any significant invention there are often a host of people claiming they really invented it. That’s because they likely did, or at least contributed to the invention. When our science and technology are at a point where a breakthrough is possible, it is likely that many people/labs/companies/nations will converge on the discovery at roughly the same time.

However, popular culture is stuck in the “lone genius” narrative, thinking of scientific breakthroughs as the unique product of a singular genius. This is just not how science typically works. Increasingly, it is a tangled web of collaboration with many players each contributing incrementally to an overall progress. Major inventions are “ripe”, and they have a paper trail. The notion that Nazi chemists were decades ahead of the rest of the world in such an immense technology is not plausible.

But even more fatal to the plot of this film is the premise of the title – that the limiting factor in the ability to fuel the world with synthetic gasoline is knowing the proper formula. Having a chemical formula for synthesizing hydrocarbons is not the tricky part. Whenever dealing with any energy technology, I find it extremely useful to ask the basic question – where is the energy coming from? If you don’t have a very thorough answer to this question, be skeptical.

In a formula for synthetic gasoline, where is the energy coming from? High energy molecules, like gasoline, either need to be synthesized from other high energy molecules (like hydrogen) or be manufactured in a high energy process. The reason we run the world on fossil fuels is because they are simultaneously a convenient storage medium for energy, but they are also a source of energy. Crude oil comes with the energy already inside it, presumably solar energy trapped over millions of years in biological molecules. Even if we had a formula for synthetic gasoline, who cares? What is it made from? Can the process be done on a massive industrial scale? And critically, what is the energy efficiency of the process? If the synthetic gasoline is just a way of storing energy, and not a source of energy, that can be still useful, but it’s not a threat to the fossil fuel industry.

Think of biofuels, which are essentially synthetic gasoline. The source of energy is the feedstock, but there is still an energy requirement in the manufacture. They are not as good as fuel as gasoline, and the net energy they provide is getting better but is still somewhat marginal. Their advantage is that they are carbon neutral, not that they are good fuel.

So, with this formula, are we using molecules like hydrogen which could be used directly for fuel? Also, we have no massive source of free hydrogen. If you have to spend energy to make the hydrogen (or get it from fossil fuels) then there is no advantage. If you make the synthetic gasoline by inputting a lot of energy, where is that energy coming from. Better formulas for things like biofuels are helpful to improve efficiency, but they don’t change the fundamental question – where is the energy coming from?

Another example of when this question is critical comes from a recent Tik Tok video that I responded to.  This is an old claim, but these keep cropping up over and over on social media because they make great click bait. The video shows a self-made inventor, Maxwell Chikumbutso, who claims to have made an electric car that never needs charging. Where does the energy come from? He claims that he invented a device to harvest radio frequency electromagnetic waves to charge the battery to run the car. Similar to The Formula, the assumption here is that the mere ability to change EM radiation into usable electricity is the trick, rather than the amount and source of energy.

This technology is not new, and is called energy harvesting. There are working devices that can harvest tiny amount of energy from existing EM radiation to power very low energy devices, like sensors. These energy harvesting devices are not very efficient and also there isn’t that much energy to be harvested in any one location. They typically produce milliwatt or even microwatt energy. An electric vehicle, on the other hand, has a battery with a capacity measures in kilowatt hours. Being generous, this means that an EM energy harvesting device would likely only yield about one-millionth of the energy necessary to operate an electric vehicle – and that’s just one vehicle. Imagine if we have millions of such vehicles on the road competing for the same EM waves.

Wireless charging technology is also a thing, and not new. Generally it takes two forms. There is close up charging, which operates at a very short distance (inches). Then there is longer distance energy transfer, which uses either microwaves or visible light lasers. They generally don’t use radio frequency waves. Further, these long distance wireless energy transfer devices beam the energy in a coherent direction, not in every direction.

And again, there is the energy coming from. If for some insane reason we decided to have wireless electric cars, we would need to be beaming massive amounts of energy at them at all times. This would be an incredibly inefficient waste of energy.

How does Chikumbutso address this issue? He claims he has also invented a device that “magnifies” the energy. What? This is not a thing. You can’t just “magnify” energy. That is not even a coherent scientific concept. You can add more energy, but again, where is that extra energy coming from? You cannot just create energy from nothing – that violates conservation of energy. Chikumbutso has invented essentially a free energy device. Pure pseudoscience.

But if you read the comments to the Tik Tok video you would think we are still living in the plot of the 1980s movie. Many of the commenters seem to think that Chukumbutso is a singular genius, who has invented something unique, and that now his life is in danger from the powers that be, who of course would want to suppress his technology (because reasons).  Certainly no auto maker would want this technology. No nation would want to free themselves from gasoline imports and reduce their pollution and carbon footprint. Zimbabwe, his country of origin, likes to promote their hometown genius, but I guess they are powerless to exploit his invention also. And even knowing for years that this technology exists, no one has been able to reproduce it, because it’s just that revolutionary. At least that is the fantasy world in which these commenters must live.

Or – simpler answer – he is a crank and free energy doesn’t exist.

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