Oct 17 2016

Where Does the Power Come From?

perpetual-motion-1Yet another perpetual motion machine video is making the rounds. I do have a fascination with these devices, and this one is a great example of the genre.

This device was conceived and created by a Norwegian artist, Reidar Finsrud. He is clearly a talented, intelligent, and motivated artist. He reports that he became obsessed with the idea of his machine and spent many 18 hour days creating it. I do think it is a beautiful work of art and can be appreciated as such.

Finsrud, however, believes that the machine is an example of perpetual motion. At least that is the narrative of the documentary. Finsrud states that when he looks at his machine he feels like he is looking at fire, a the future, a future of free and egalitarian energy.

Perhaps that belief on the part of the artist is part of the art. It’s similar to the crop circle artists who won’t disclose (at least they didn’t for a while) that they were the artists, believing that the mystery about the origin of the crop circles is part of the art form.

At one point in the video Finsrud asks the question, “Where does the power come from?” He recounts how many scientists he has asked could not answer the question. That is another common theme in the genre of pseudoscientific devices or artifacts. The creator or promoter seems to always recount how they consulted experts who could not answer the mystery of the object. I think this is just a form of confirmation bias. When you dig deep you find that they were not consulting the right “experts,” or perhaps they were cherry picking the experts who gave them the answers they liked.

Also keep in mind that saying, “I don’t know,” is not very compelling evidence. It is only an argument from ignorance, and is only as good as the thoroughness with which one has searched. Consulting a few accessible experts who say, “I don’t know,” is not enough to establish that the answer is actually unknown.

Finsrud is asking the right question – where does the power come from? His device is an elaborate machine involving pendulums and magnets, with precisely timed components, allowing for a metal ball to roll endlessly around a circular track. Elaborate mechanical devices are fascinating, which is part of the appeal of Steam Punk as an aesthetic, in my opinion. But no matter how elaborate the machine, you can never get to unity, an efficiency of 100% (that’s the second law of thermodynamics) and you especially cannot get to over unity, and efficiency of greater than 100% (that’s the first law of thermodynamics).

In other words, such a device can never create energy. It can only convert energy from one type to another, from one source to the kinetic energy of the moving ball. In doing so there has to be some loss to entropy, which is why you can never get to 100% efficiency.

At best Finsrud has created a machine with a very high energy efficiency. That ball can roll around the track for a very long time. Just from watching the video we can tell that the efficiency is not 100%. We can hear the ball rolling around the track – that sound represents the vibration of air molecules, which takes energy. When you hear a device working what you are hearing is literally energy radiating away from the system. You are hearing at least one source of energy inefficiency.

Let’s get back to the question in the title of this post. That is always a great question to ask – where is the power or energy coming from? If you can answer that question then you have probably solved the “mystery” of an apparent perpetual motion machine. Inventors and believers typically don’t address that question, or if they do they say it is a source of energy unknown to science. They may speculate about what that energy source is, like zero-point energy or some type of cold fusion, but such claims are never substantiated or they are highly implausible.

They want you to think, however, that they are tapping into some new source of energy, and it is that which makes their machine work, and will one day enable them to power the world.

In this case Finsrud’s machine is of a type that is perhaps the most common in the perpetual motion game. He is using permanent magnets to make the ball continue on its path around the circle. The pendulums move the magnets out of the way so that they don’t slow the ball as it passes. The rolling ball then depresses a spring which keeps the pendulums going. This system should all slowly wind down, as there is no apparent outside source of energy to replace what is lost through friction and air resistance.

There is also, according to the video, a heavy pendulum inside the main central support that is not visible. It’s possible that the heavy central pendulum is the source of power, and can keep the ball going for days before it comes to rest and has to be started again.

There is no way, however, that simply having moving parts using gravity and magnetic fields will create perpetual motion or generate power.

Finsrud makes the same conceptual leap that all the other perpetual motion cranks make. He thinks that because he can get that ball to go around his track for a really long time, all he has to do is tap into that energy in some way and he has a source of energy. Add a little paddle to the device, so that the ball hits it on the way around, turns an arm which rotates a turbine generator and you have electricity. The narrator in this video makes it explicit. If he has the efficiency of his machine up to 99% (even though the one expert they interviewed said 80-90%), then he is close to 100%. And if he can then get to 101% he is creating energy.

That is like saying, we have a spaceship that we accelerated up to 99% the speed of light, we are just 1% away from 100%. Then we can push past to 101%, and travel through time.

Just because there is not much difference in the numbers that does not mean there is not much difference in the physics. You can get to 99% efficiency without breaking any laws of physics (although, of course, this may be impractical), but to get that last 1% you have to break those laws, and then you have to break another law to get to 101%.

Of course, the documentary has a story to tell, and it’s the same story we always hear. The lone genius laboring away in his garage, lab, studio, invents a complicated device that he claims represents perpetual motion. The experts are baffled. Finsrud literally keeps his device locked in a vault in his basement, because he is afraid that the powers that be will try to keep this amazing invention from the world.

He is just one or two steps away from giving the world endless free energy. Of course those one or two steps involve breaking the laws of physics. These inventions are almost always at this same precipice. They never show the device with the arm attached, making a usable amount of energy. That’s because it won’t work. This is not a tedious engineering problem that time, dedication, and presumably money will solve.

Sometimes devices are shown apparently powering a light or something similar. These often turn out to be frauds, however. There is a secret source of energy, hidden from the potential investors that are the real target of the demonstrations. Sometimes the demonstrator has fooled themselves. They think the engine they have running, just to get things going, is not the real source of energy.


You still can’t break the laws of physics. It is amazing to me that so many dedicated, talented, and skilled cranks have spend so much time creating elaborate devices that all essentially do the same thing – turn a little bit of the energy from permanent magnets into the illusion of perpetual motion. They have created an art form unto itself, which part of me appreciates. But I also can’t help seeing all the lost time and effort in such devices. Perhaps that is part of the art form – they are monuments to the crank impulse, the lonely obsession with a big idea.

They are also a reminder of why science has to be a community effort. We keep each other from turning into cranks.

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