Oct 22 2013

Free Energy and the Casimir Effect

Free energy is to physics what creationism is to evolutionary biology. Both offer a teaching moment when you try to explain why proponents are so horribly wrong.

Free energy proponents have been abusing the laws of thermodynamics (come to think of it, so have creationists), and more recently quantum effects a la zero-point-energy. Now they are distorting a new principle of physics to justify their claims – the Casimir effect. Apparently this was a hot topic at the Breakthrough Energy Conference earlier this month.

Before I get into the specifics, I do want to address the general conspiratorial tones of the free-energy movement. I wonder if anyone influential in the free-energy subculture realizes that their conspiracy-mongering over free energy is perhaps the greatest barrier to their being taken seriously. There is also the fact that they get the science wrong, but if they think they are doing cutting edge science (rather than crank science), then convince us with science and ditch the conspiracy nonsense.

Here is the opening paragraph from a recent blog pushing the Casimir effect as a source of free energy:

Who is benefiting from suppressing scientific research? Whose power and wealth is threatened by access to clean and free energy? Who has the desire to create a system where so few have so much, and so many have so little?

OK – you lost me right there. This is a naive child’s view of the world, where “the adults” form a monolithic inscrutable force controlling the world. When you actually become an adult you may realize that no one has total control. No one and no institution is that competent, powerful, and pervasive. It would take an obviously totalitarian state to exert that much control.

If free energy were real, someone would be making it happen. Ironically the very existence of the free-energy movement proves their own conspiracy theories wrong. If a company could produce a genuine free-energy machine, they would, and they would become the wealthiest company in the world. Further, free energy would improve everyone’s quality of life. No matter who you are, your life would become better with free energy.

Free energy proponents, apparently, would rather believe the world is run by megalomaniacs who are simultaneously brilliant (in executing their conspiracy) and idiotic (in wanting to execute their conspiracy) rather than entertain the possibility that they have the science wrong.

The Casimir Effect

Scientific American has a good quick discussion of what the Casimir effect is. The Casimir effect is related to zero point energy, which refers to the fact that a perfect vacuum in space still contains energy in quantum fluctuations. This is sometimes referred to as the quantum foam, out of which virtual particles are created and destroyed.

This quantum vacuum energy exists as various wavelengths – in fact, infinite wavelengths. When you place two mirrors facing each other in a vacuum, some of these waves will fit in the space between and some will not. This creates a situation in which there is more energy in the vacuum outside the mirrors than between them, which in turn results in a tiny force attracting the two mirrors together.

This effect was predicted by Dutch physicist Hendrick Casimir in 1948, and later confirmed by experimentation. I must emphasize that this force is extremely tiny.

Here is where the free-energy gurus, however, have their fun. Our current understanding of quantum effects predicts that there is an infinite amount of this zero-point energy in the vacuum. Imagine if we could somehow tap into that energy – infinite free energy. You can see why this is an exciting idea.

There are two problems with zero-point energy as a source of free energy, however. The first is that there almost certainly is not an infinite amount of zero-point energy in the vacuum. If there were, then relativity predicts that space-time would be infinitely curved in on itself by this energy, which it obviously isn’t. In another article for Scientific American, physicist Matt Visser explains:

Observation indicates that in our universe the grand total vacuum energy is extremely small and quite possibly exactly zero. Many theorists suspect that the total vacuum energy is exactly zero.

Visser also explains that the total quantum energy in the vacuum is a property of the universe known as the cosmological constant. He explains:

From a particle physics point of view, however, these limits are extremely stringent: the cosmological constant is more than 10(-123)┬átimes smaller than one would naively estimate from particle physics equations. The cosmological constant could quite plausibly be exactly zero. (Physicists are still arguing on this point.) Even if the cosmological constant is not zero it is certainly small on a particle-physics scale, small on a human-engineering scale, and too tiny to be any plausible source of energy for human needs–not that we have any good ideas on how to accomplish large-scale manipulations of the cosmological constant anyway.

The total amount of zero-point energy therefore ranges from exceedingly tiny to precisely zero. It is clearly not infinite, and it is not even a usable amount.

The second problem is that it is impossible to tap into this zero-point energy as a source of usable energy. This is because, by definition, zero point energy is the minimum energy state. Again from SA:

“The zero-point energy cannot be harnessed in the traditional sense. The idea of zero-point energy is that there is a finite, minimum amount of motion (more accurately, kinetic energy) in all matter, even at absolute zero. For example, chemical bonds continue to vibrate in predictable ways. But releasing the energy of this motion is impossible, because then the molecule would be left with less than the minimum amount that the laws of quantum physics require it to have.”

So, if zero point energy is a real thing rather than just a convenient mathematical artifact, the amount of energy it represents is too small to be of any use, and we could never tap into that small amount of energy anyway because by definition it is the lowest energy state that can exist.

None of this stops free energy enthusiasts from thinking that the Casimir effect proves that zero-point energy is real and a potential source of free energy. Again from the blog linked to above:

The implications of this are far reaching and have been written about extensively within theoretical physics by researchers all over the world. Today, we are beginning to see that these concepts are not just theoretical, but instead very practical and simply very suppressed.

Suppressed? You can Google it and find all the information you could ever want. How is this information suppressed?


To summarize, it seems that zero-point energy gurus are only looking at a small slice of the physics. They see the equations for zero-point energy as it relates to electromagnetic fields, for example, and get all excited when the equations show infinite energy. However, physicists understand the full picture – when you look at all the stuff in the universe, these mathematical artifacts all average out to zero. Maybe there is a tiny residue of minimum energy left over, but you could never tap into it anyway.

There is no conspiracy – just a willful misunderstanding of complex physics.

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