A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

The Impossible Dream

Posted by apgaylard on September 25, 2007

Recently the Daily Mail reported on a device, Ecowatts’ “Thermal Cell”, which “… violates almost every known law of physics.”  Basically it’s a water heater powered by an electrolysis cell. 

What laws of physics are allegedly violated?  Well, the article states that the electrochemical reaction “… releases an incredible amount of energy compared to that put in …” and Jim Lyons from the University of York is quoted as saying “…we were getting 150 to 200 per cent more energy out than we put in, without trying too hard ..”

So it’s clear that the claim involves breaking the first law of thermodynamics.  This law states that the total energy of the universe remains constant, energy is conserved.  So energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only change form.

A device that claims to break this law is actually classified as a perpetual motion machine.  This type of device has a long and ignominious history:  many have been proposed; all have failed.

So what are the chances that Ecowatts’ “Thermal Cell” actually produces more energy than it consumes?  They are so small that zero is a pretty reasonable approximation.  It matters not one jot that people with scientific credentials make claims on its behalf.  If these claims are true then much of modern physics would need to be thrown out.  This seems highly unlikely.

What could explain the puzzling results claimed by the “scientists” and “engineers” evaluating the device?  Experimental error is the most likely.  Is the catalyst acting as a fuel?  Perhaps the measurements of energy input are not right?

The way this “discovery” has been announced also tells an important story.

The core of this device has been around for a while.  There was a patent application in 2000.  It featured in the Daily Telegraph in 2003.  To be fair, at that time the claim did not include violations of the first law – just merely tapping into a “… previously unrecognised source of energy.”  They were six months away from a conclusive demonstration.  That was four years ago.  Now there are new claims and new academic investigators.   Now a device to heat radiators is claimed to be nine months from production.

This is not how real science works and with good reason.  In real science investigators carefully check anomalous results.  They share them with colleagues and discuss them in small groups.  Once they are sure that they have not made a silly mistake they will present preliminary results at conferences.  This exposes surprising results to some scrutiny.  Once this hurdle is passed a peer-reviewed journal paper disclosing complete details will follow.  This will be evaluated by the scientific community at large.  Debate will ensue.  If the measurements survive this check then other groups will seek to replicate the work.  If the anomalies persist then we know there is most likely something in it.

The results claimed for this device have not been through this process.  Instead we have science by press release.  There’s been time, just not the inclination.  Why should they bother?  This mechanism helps science to correct itself, to filter out human error and hubris.    

Instead It’s cold fusion all over again, but thankfully on a smaller scale.

So what will happen to this device?  My confident prediction is that it will fade into the background again.  True believers will continue to believe.  Any investors will lose their money.

If it really worked it would have been in production by now and Nobel Prizes would follow.

 As Scotty would say: “A canna’ change the laws of physics…”

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4 Responses to “The Impossible Dream”

  1. ambrielle said

    That’s a nice post. Would that the investors and journalists read it.

    [spelling nazi] Sorry, I can’t help myself…’confident’ rather than ‘confidant’ and ‘lose’ rather than ‘loose’?[/spelling nazi]

  2. apgaylard said

    Thanks Ambrielle. Spelling is not my greatest strength. I’ll edit.

  3. kelvinthroop said

    There seems to be a flood of perpetual motion stories at the moment. Your critique could be applied to all of them but the true believers aren’t going to listen to you.

  4. apgaylard said

    Kelvinthroop: Thanks for the observation. This is just therapy for a ticked off physicist.

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