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.

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