This post here got me onto the topic I had always dismissed as myth without further research. Cold fusion, free energy … we all know there’s no such thing as a free lunch, no?
Turns out there is a scientifically proven phenomenon called Zero-Point energy which advocates of the machines supposedly capable of producing more energy than they consume (over-unity machines) think may at some point in the future be able to explain why they work. It appears that the effectiveness of such devices has not been proven, nor (so some people claim) completely disproven. On the basis of current scientific theories, however, free energy should be impossible unless we have hitherto overlooked something fundamental. The theoretical problems with free energy is largely due to the laws of thermodynamics and the discussions are summed up fairly well here.
So, the first law of thermodynamics says you cannot create energy out of nothing. The second one says you don’t get stuff to a level of higher energy by itself. For example hydrogen and oxygen separately are more energetic than water. That is why you normally see the two react and result in water and some energy in the form of heat and potentially motion (explosion). You don’t typically see water split into hydrogen and oxygen by itself. And if you make it split by electrolysis you need to put in more energy than goes into breaking the covalent bonds and therefore more than you can later get out again, because again you lose some energy in the process. All this is normally regarded as making over-unity machines (or perpetual motion machines, because if you can produce more energy than you consume, you can use that energy to move something for ever) impossible. Enter zero-point energy to the rescue.
Zero-point energy (or residual energy or vacuum energy) was proposed by Einstein and Otto Stern in 1913 and proven e. g. by the Casimir effect. It has a somewhat more specific meaning, though, than what’s typically inferred by popular reception. In the context of quantum theory where all amounts of energy are quantized it means that the amount of energy anywhere cannot be zero. There must be a minimal quantum of energy everywhere. This can be understood as a consequence of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. One way of putting it is this: If you have a particle moving it essentially behaves like a wave and can pop up anywhere on the wave at a given point in time. Thus the zero point energy must be able to materialize as what is called virtual particles, a couple of matter and anti-matter particles. They annihilate each other eventually but can interact with their environment during their lifetime. Which is more or less another way of saying that the energy can have an effect on the world around it. For more information on this read this presentation. By the particle explanation, this also becomes the source for the Hawking radiation which is radiation emitted by black holes when the event horizon separates one half of a virtual particle couple from the other. The one is sucked into the black hole, the other emitted.
Now, this would be a handy explanation to reconcile over-unity machines with the laws of thermodynamics. It could mean that in fact the machines do not create more energy than you put in, but just produce energy from what you put in plus additional energy taken from the store of vacuum energy. The over-unity machines would then be a kind of catalyst for causing the vacuum energy to flow e. g. into a process of electrolysis with a little bit of energy added by the user to get the process going. Of course, because zero point energy is the lowest possible energy a system can have, it cannot be removed from the system. But then, we’re not in a vacuum on earth, and there is enough energy around us all the time, anyway. So, I think, it would be feasible to have the vacuum energy flow somewhere because the lack of energy in the system could easily be refilled e. g. from the warmth of the environment. In that way, producing energy with over-unity machines could help fight global warming 😉
What I don’t quite get (is there a physicist in the house?) is (a) in which way the virtual particles could create energy in the macroscopic world (it cannot be electricity because if the virtual particle pair is electron and positron, the electron cannot move as an electric current because it will be annihilated shortly) and (b) what happens if with the Hawking radiation the black hole swallows the particle and emits the antiparticle? Shouldn’t it annihilate some other particle somewhere? Also, there is this nagging question why life on earth depends on the sun if we have all this free energy around us (in other words: If this form of energy is exploitable, why haven’t the last million years provided an example).
Fascinating as the whole issue may be, though. There actually is enough free energy around us without resorting to extravagant theories. The sun provides loads of energy for free, and if the human race were capable of jointly exploiting it by e. g. putting in place a giant solar power plant in the Sahara, we wouldn’t need to rely on oil. But then there’s politics again.