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Editorial Science

News Media Scammed by 'Free Energy' Hoax 928

Posted by michael
from the not-even-free-beer dept.
Dozens of submitters, some of them quite credulous, have written in pointing to this Reuters story about an anonymous inventor who claims to have solved the universe's energy woes. It's amazing that Reuters ran this story. It's even more amazing that news media across the country are running it too. Check your local newspaper, see if they were taken in. Update: 01/24 16:38 GMT by M : Contest is over; see below.

The General Electric corporate empire was scammed - they modified the story with a skeptical headline but otherwise left it alone. The AOL/TimeWarner corporate empire didn't have any problem with the story. The Environmental News Network, which probably should know better, didn't.

Now I know that wire stories are often run with minimal verification - each paper or website assumes that Reuters, or UPI, or AP has checked the story for veracity before it went out. And I know that reporters and editors can't be experts on every field of endeavor that they report on.

But this is Basic Science. The Three Laws (everyone loves the Second Law[1]) are not a new thing, and they're not going away any time soon. This should have been taught in junior high. There's a simple, well-known test that Reuters could have applied to this story: "Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof". This claim is the most extraordinary of all - free energy, perpetual motion, whatever you want to call it, and it demands proof beyond question. Reuters is running this story based on an anonymous inventor. Is that extraordinary proof?

But wait, I said perpetual motion. The phrase "perpetual motion" is one which sets off alarm bells in people's heads, so the anonymous inventor was quick to head off that thought process:

"But he is keen to head off the notion that he has tapped into the age-old myth of perpetual motion. ``Perpetual motion is impossible. This is a self-sustaining unit which at the same time provides surplus electrical energy,'' he said."

This quote is simply embarassing. It parses to "Perpetual motion is impossible. This is a perpetual motion unit." The inventor must be snickering in his Guinness right now to have snuck that one past.

The story gets better when you read it several times. Three 100 Watt light bulbs created a drain of 4500 Watts, according to the nameless inventor. That would be an impressive feat all by itself, except that it's total nonsense.

The piece would have made a good humor article. A properly skeptical and properly educated Reuters reporter could have examined these claims, poked holes in them, and published a story that simultaneously reported on the claims and educated the public about why they are a load of hogwash. Too bad that's not what happened.

Maybe you'd like to take a crack at evaluating their claims? You think you can examine their device a little more critically than Reuters? Give them a call.

And I have a second task as well. Slashdot is occasionally criticized for getting a story wrong, even though we diligently correct ourselves when necessary. My theory is that the difference between Slashdot and other media is that they never correct themselves, no matter how inaccurate, so readers are left with a false picture of accuracy. To test this claim, I'll send a Thinkgeek t-shirt to the first person who finds a retraction of this 'free energy' story published by Reuters or any of the newspapers/media outlets that ran the original story. *Any* of them. I don't expect to pay out.

Update: 01/24 16:38 GMT by M : CNN has updated their story with a new headline and several new paragraphs at the end, which qualifies. A couple of people also noted that ZDNet appears to have taken their copy of the wire story down. Lucas Garsha was the first to email, so he gets a t-shirt. I wasn't clear whether the claim should be email or in the comments, so I'll also send a t-shirt to the first commenter noting this, which appears to be skia.

[1] This is a fine world that we live in, where I can find a website devoted to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

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News Media Scammed by 'Free Energy' Hoax

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  • If you're going to draw the line, please finish it.

    If you require "extraordinary proof" to refute science, why not define what you need? I agree that running a light bulb for three hours isn't that impressive, and this is probably a scam of some sort.

    But on the same time, science demands that we ask "what if this is true?". If he really has a free energy device, what amazing thing could he do to prove that it works?

    My own suggestion: go to an ivy-league school (heck, any college) and set the darn thing up powering something that causes a healthy drain. (*not* a lightbulb... well, maybe a strobe light or something that really sucks up the juice) and let it go until it stops.

    Once the bulb stops, plug it into the wall and see if it starts. If it does, the invention's probably not free energy. If it doesn't, plug in another bulb and see how long THAT one lasts.

    A year or so of healthy drain would be enough to prove free energy, don't you think? Or at least, enough to get the damn patent and immortalize the freakish invention.
  • by enkidu (13673) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @08:09PM (#2891278) Homepage Journal
    A long while back the U.S Patent office got so many of these "perpetual energy" machines that the office head put down the policy that the inventor had to submit a working prototype. The office would then set it going and if it was still running a year later, they would consider the patent application. This cut down on the number of applications considerably.

    A two hour test run is bullshit. Let's see it run for 2 years in an empty room, then we'll talk.
  • by blamanj (253811) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @08:21PM (#2891358)
    I wouldn't say that Reuters was completely scammed. They did, after all, put this page not in the Science,or Tech categories, but in the "Lifestyle" category, note that the link directly after the title is to "Ann Landers."

    Their view of the thing seems to be along the lines of "Hey, some guy claims he saw the Loch Ness Monster and he's building a submarine to search the lake."
  • by kenneth_martens (320269) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @08:24PM (#2891376)
    So this guy claims to have made a perpetual motion machine? Here are some examples of other "revolutionary" perpetual motion machines--which of course don't work. (from the website [york.ac.uk] of Professor R.P. Feynman.)

    The underwater spinning donut [york.ac.uk]
    A pulley-based system [york.ac.uk]
    and a piston-based machine [york.ac.uk]
  • This is an old scam (Score:3, Informative)

    by seizer (16950) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @08:37PM (#2891485) Homepage
    Try Googling for two wonderful gentlemen - Dennis Lee, and Joseph Newman.

    Both run highly profitable businesses, marketing a, um, nearly-complete free energy machine.

    Dennis Lee has been to prison a couple of times, Joseph Newman has married his secretary and her 8 year old. (Google for it, you'll find it). Yet, to this day, they both run multi million dollar businesses on this free energy idea. Why? Because people WANT to believe. And you can be 100% confident that Mr Anonymous Irish Inventor will be sitting on a nice cash pile any minute now...
  • by RayBender (525745) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @08:40PM (#2891497) Homepage
    Yes, I know zero-point energy is real. No, I don't think this crank from Ireland could even explain the concept.)

    How do "know* something is real that's never been demonstrated?

    Zero-point energy has a very testable hypothesis: the Casimir effect. Which has been demonstrated. Check this article [lanl.gov] or this one [iastate.edu].

  • by Iron Sun (227218) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @08:40PM (#2891500)

    There have been experimental demonstrations of the veracity of the Casimir Effect [lanl.gov], in which two closely spaced parallel plates are driven toward each other by the pressurre created by the ZPF.

    It still doesn't get around the laws of thermodynamics, however. Just becasue it's an exotic energy source doesn't mean the rules don't apply to it. It's just beloved by fringe free energy types becasue it involves the magic word 'quantum', and seems to spring from nowhere.

  • by joib (70841) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @09:04PM (#2891626)
    Puh-leeze... That page is, well, utter drivel. Basically a bunch of unsubstantiated claims and of course the usual rambling about conspiracy theories. Until these theories get published in primary journals I prefer not to waste my time on them as they most certainly are just the workings of some daydreaming crackpot. So why are primary journals (i.e. journals like "Physical Review" etc.) so important? Well, for one thing, they usually have very high standards regarding what gets published. And scientists actually read them, in contrast to the crackpot theories which abound on the net. As an example look at cold fusion.
    1. Pons & Fleichmann publish their article. I don't remember in which journal it was, but probably the main reason it got so much publicity was that it actually got published in a primary journal as it means that the manuscript passed the peer-review. Most wacko theories don't get this far, as no self-respecting journal will print the kind of drivel they consist of. The fact that P&F got published was probably the result of a rather huge mistake in the review process.
    2. Because the article would have been very important had it been true -> lots of publicity
    3. Noone was able to reproduce the experiments
    4. Closer investigation revealed that the experimental procedure used by P&F was seriously flawed.
    5. Claims refuted. End of story. The end result was certainly a rather big status drop for the journal which published the article.
  • by YourGarbageMan (537956) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @09:15PM (#2891666)
    Actually the web page he referred to is well known amongst free energy debunkers. The author, Eric Krieg is offering $10,000 to anyone who can pass his test and demonstrate a working free energy machine. From memory the author is a EE and his test requirements looked quite practical and reasonable. His $10k prize has been offered for several years and of course no one has yet been able to claim it.

    But its plainly obvious that you don't have so much a point to make as an axe to grind.
  • by mshomphe (106567) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @09:25PM (#2891700) Homepage Journal
    However, journalists have a responsability to try to print the truth. There are many hucksters out there selling some form of snake oil. Check out James Randi [randi.org] and the work that he has done to counteract these flim-flam artists.

    This might be a case of a non-harmful hoax. However, this is the same type of person who claims to have a cure for AIDS, or can talk to your dead relative for $900/hr. People get suckered in by this stuff, and Reuters has a DUTY to check out the story with some experts.

    A single witness does not a credible or reportable new story make.
  • by Calcbert (40347) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @09:25PM (#2891702)
    Measuring a voltage on the batteries AFTER the light bulbs were powered vs. during the powering of the light bulbs makes it sounds like the car batteries have internal resistance like any battery out there. This is commonly known as putting a load on a non ideal voltage source.
  • Wonderful math... (Score:3, Informative)

    by pridkett (2666) <slashdotNO@SPAMwagstrom.net> on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @09:29PM (#2891724) Homepage Journal
    ``The draw on the batteries was estimated at more than 4.5 kilowatts. With any existing technology the batteries would have been drained flat in one and a half minutes,'' the inventor said
    And yet the machine only "powered" three 100 watt light bulbs. Now, IAAEE (I am an electrical engineer) and that doesn't add up to more than 300 watts. Maybe they got watts and watt-hours mixed up I thought...but then they would have to run for 15 hours, a lot more than the 2 or so stated. Well, it's a nice humorous read for a wednesday evening.
  • by coyote-san (38515) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @09:40PM (#2891750)
    Editing glitch. My earlier draft had referred to the fact that you need to measure both voltage and amperage to determine the power coming out of the batteries... and even that meant nothing since warmer batteries can produce more power than cold batteries with no change in the energy in them, but I ended up removing that context.
  • by Phil Karn (14620) <`karn' `at' `ka9q.net'> on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @09:44PM (#2891763) Homepage
    There's another possibility. Lead-acid batteries exhibit a phenomenon called the "coup de Fouet" (French for "crack of the whip"). When you start to discharge a fully charged Pb-A battery, the terminal voltage initially drops and then recovers after a few percent of the battery's capacity has been discharged. The voltage then resumes a slow decline as the battery discharges further.

    This is not necessarily what's going on, but I thought I'd mention it. It's even more likely that the external batteries were mostly discharged, and connecting them to the device simply allowed them to be topped off by some fully charged batteries hidden inside the device. The open-terminal voltage of a healthy, charged "48V" Pb-A pack at room temperature is typically 52-53V, and an external pack voltage of 48.9V would indicate a pack that was mostly discharged (or had some weak cells). Parallel it with a fully charged pack inside the device at 52-53V, and it would be entirely reasonable to expect enough charge to transfer from the internal pack to the external one to bring the latter's terminal voltage up to the 51V range.

    Judging from the size and shape of the device and its reported performance, I think it quite reasonable to file this "invention" in the "hidden battery" subcategory of perpetual motion frauds.
  • by Remik (412425) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @09:44PM (#2891765)
    ...but, it's old news...

    It's called the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). It can run for years on a single supply of fisile material, augmented by uranium filtered from sea water. Not only is it, "an energy source that is unlimited," to quote its head of the project, Dr. Charles Till, but it is possibly the safest nuclear reactor ever designed. Unfortunately, anti-nuclear power activists bringing false claims before Congress in 1994 lead to the decommissioning of the project by then President Clinton.

    The unofficial IFR site [berkeley.edu]

    A wonderful interview with Dr. Charles Till [pbs.org]
  • by Themis (243513) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @09:46PM (#2891776) Homepage
    Google also sez Peter Chambers is, among other things:

    1. a fictional detective created by Henry Kane, back when they used to have stories on the radio
    2. a racecar driver
    3. a "publications editor"
    4. chairman of a committee on a small town council
    5. oh, and a building.

    It's sort of a common name, you see. :)
  • by Introspective (71476) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @09:46PM (#2891777) Homepage
    More info :

    Peter Chambers is the manager of the Clean Energy Education Trust ( www.hydrogen.co.uk ), which as another link connecting him to this "invention".

    see http://www.hydrogen.co.uk/about/about_us.htm
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @09:50PM (#2891803)
    If you have your view settings low enough to read this (or it somehow gets rated up by the people who do...)

    look at
    Eric's History of Perpetual Motion and Free Energy Machines [phact.org]

    lots of failures. Thats a given.

    also there is how to become a Free Energy con man [phact.org]
  • by Phanatic1a (413374) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @10:13PM (#2891908)
    But on the same time, science demands that we ask "what if this is true?"

    No, science demands nothing of the sort. Science operates not by proving, by confirming beyond the shadow of a doubt, but by disproving, by testing to failure. When presented with an extraordinary claim, science demands we ask, "How do we prove that this is false?"

    In this case, I'd say that proof might have something to do with the fact that he needs 4 12-volt car batteries of at least 60 amp-hours each to provide the 50 amp-hours required to drive a 300 watt load for two hours. Hell, I can do the same thing just by plugging the light bulbs into my wall, but nobody claims that's an over-unity device.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @10:23PM (#2891957)
    Michael boasts that Slashdot corrects errors, while other media do not. I challenge him to correct or defend his mistakes that I point out in this post.

    Sims claims that the second law [of thermodynamics] makes such a wonderful machine impossible. If as he says this "should have been taught in junior high," then I guess he did not go to a good enough junior high school. The experts quoted in the Reuters article are much more correct, "citing the first law of thermodynamics" instead.

    An explanation, for those of you who also went to the wrong junior high: The second law states that the total entropy of any closed system cannot decrease. This limits the efficiency with which engines can convert heat transfer to work, and requires that heat transfer can only flow from higher temperatures to lower temperatures. These facts are sufficient to rule out a mechanical perpetual motion machine -- that is, a machine which recycles its energy continuously, never ceasing its motion. But this inventor does not claim to have built such a device.

    What this inventor does claim is to have found an unknown source of energy. Such a device need not violate the second law. What it does violate is the first law of thermodynamics, which states that the total amount of energy in a closed system remains constant. I am not being pedantic here. A 19th century scientist looking at the plans for a nuclear power plant would say that it violates the first law, not the second law. In science, these details are important, and it is vital that you get it right!
    Reuters: 1 -- Slashdot: 0

    When Sims says that the device is indeed desibred as a perpetual motion machine, he is more-or-less correct. Possibly what the inventor tries to say is that his machine is not a perpetual motion machine of the second kind,which operates without energy input, thus violating the second law. But it is clearly a perpetual motion machine of the first kind, which has some magical energy input, and thus violates the first law. I'll give Sims the benefit of the doubt here.
    Reuters: 1 -- Slashdot: 1

    Next Sims states that three 100 watt light bulbs cannot possibly use 4500 watts of power. In fact, he calls this "total nonsense." But the truth is, we know practically nothing about these bulbs and the way they are run. Are they incandescent? Fluorescent? Neon tube? We simply don't know. They don't appear in the picture Sims linked us to. But in any case, 100 watts is the power consumed by the bulb run at some particular voltage, such as 110 VAC, or whatever they use in Ireland. The bulbs could well be run at a higher voltage, and would consume more power that way. Obviously a filament bulb would burn out. Even a neon lamp might run into breakdown voltage! But there is a simpler explanation -- the inventor just has some other load in parallel necessary to the functioning of the machine (a wormhole generator, subspace stabilizer, or whatever wacky thing he uses to get his energy from). Sims is not totally in the wrong here, but he really cannot to call the inventor's claim "total nonsense" when we have no idea what the experimental setup was.
    Reuters: 2 -- Slashdot: 1

    Finally, Sims claims that Slashdot is different from "other media" because Slashdot "diligently correct[s] [itself]." Well, here is his big chance to prove this. If he doesn't want to change the bit about the wattage, that's okay with me. But his clear misapplication of the second law of thermodynamics is a glaring error which demands satisfaction.
  • by BSDGeek (528577) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @10:30PM (#2891989)
    It appears CNN [cnn.com] has fallen for it too!!! [cnn.com]
  • Voltage (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @10:57PM (#2892121)
    (Its so obviously fake I won't comment on that but the Reuters article makes the statement...)
    A multimeter reading of the batteries' voltage before the device started up showed a total of 48.9 volts. When it was switched off, a second reading showed 51.2 volts, indicating that, somehow, they had been reimbursed.

    This is such a bad assumption. Now matter what your elementary electronics teacher told you voltage is meaningless without current. And especially in power sources, where the output changes depending on the load. Also just a single voltage and current reading wouldn't mean anything either you'd need a complete profile of the voltage and current over a very long time period before you could ever make a statement about a power supply.
  • by bomek (63323) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @11:18PM (#2892205) Homepage
    Chambers, Peter sales@diyhousesales.com

    look at www.diyhousesales.com

    in contact us, you can see that the company is located at Bangor, in Ireland...

    We got him!!
  • by MathJMendl (144298) on Thursday January 24, 2002 @12:43AM (#2892601) Homepage
    What, isn't the word of the Bible good enough for you?


    Actually, no it isn't, I'm Jewish. Don't be such a bigot.
  • by morcheeba (260908) on Thursday January 24, 2002 @12:51AM (#2892631) Journal
    But peter chambers is also in the contact info for causewayonline.com -- the people who claim to have designed the jasker site. And he's listed as a contact for one of their other clients: bikeworksni.com. Also, peter's address is the same as that for Diy Internet Ltd:
    54 High Street
    Bangor, Bt20 5BZ

    The registrant and webmaster of diyhousesales is:
    Peterprint
    54 High Street
    Bangor, Down bt20
    UK

    So, he's got his name all over a bunch of seemingly unrelated sites. Chances are that the connection is what he claims it is: website designer with causewayonline.

    Google address search for the curious [google.com]. It seems he shares the building with the chamber of commerce (unless causewayonline [causewayonline.com] is a total fake). From this link [bangor-local.com]:
    Organisation:-Chamber Of Commerce
    Where:-54 High Street BT20 5AZ
    Contact:-Alan Freedman
    Phone:-028 91

    Anyone want to call the chamber of commerce?
  • by Fantastic Lad (198284) on Thursday January 24, 2002 @02:23AM (#2892965)
    Just run a story on Free Energy on Slashdot to see 600+ posters come out with their denial horns blaring. You can tell just how important a secret is by how loudly people are programmed to auto-react.

    While I don't know about the story in question, ZPE is not only proven, but Bell Labs and Lucient Technologies announced a couple of weeks ago that they're actually employing it in the manufacture of experimental nano-tech. You can read the press releases. You can see those three letters, "ZPE". So anybody who doesn't "believe" in free energy is now officially ignorant. Which means 60% (or more) of the posters on this thread can just shut their programmed gobs now, please & thank you.

    Second. It's FREE energy. NOT perpetual motion. ZPE is based on ambient energy which has been previously un-advertised, (it's been part of human knowledge since around Tesla's time), and has remained untapped by the general public. (Of course, today it's only been given a status of working on the quantum level, and only because its the only fucking way nano-tech is going to work; industry needed the knowledge to become declassified. But there ARE working large scale versions of free power sources. Trust me on this.

    --For fuck's sake! Why do you think Tesla, the inventor of AC power generation has been black-balled from history and science for the last half century? Use your massively over-rated nerd brains for half a second.)

    Next point: Cold Fusion, (which does indeed work, btw), is again, NOT perpetual motion. It's simply a low temperature system of creating a fusion reaction. It's not magic. The logic behind the process is not wishful in any way. It makes solid sense. The only reason Cold Fusion has been so heavily resisted is that those in power don't want you to have it. --M.I.T. purposely fudged their results of a working Pons & Flieshman model during the big hoopala after the cold fusion paper was published. Several big institutions got the set-up working. M.I.T. fudged their results and used their clout to kill Cold Fusion and to maintain support for their hot fustion research programs; this was researched, documented and aired by one of the big news outlets. (CBS, I believe, made the hour documentary back in the early 90's.)

    But the programming still sticks. It runs deep, and tech-geeks are prime targets, because even though they are only pawns, they remain in many ways, the engineers and keepers of today's reality.

    As such, you can always count on the brain-mush factor in people. Slashdot is living proof. Tell them it's not 'cool' to believe in Cold Fusion and the low-ego morons around here will drop the idea like a hot rock in order to jump back into the safety of the modified truths sold to them since birth. --Why do you think you were fed so much 'science' learning channel crap when you were kids? It's because kids are easy to program. Most of the idiots here will argue till they're blue in the face to defend their childhood programming, which makes you no better than kids brought up in hard-core Christian communities. You insist that you choose through free will, but the truth is you've been brainwashed since birth.


    -Fantastic Lad

  • All righty then... (Score:3, Informative)

    by CdotZinger (86269) on Thursday January 24, 2002 @03:52AM (#2893196)


    Since the number of currently moderating users in the category "credulous morons" is evidently greater than that in the category "Jews with even a sub-rudimentary knowledge of Judaism," I guess I--of the second category--have to point this out:

    "Divrei Yamim B" is " 2nd Chronicles," and you, parent poster, are either an insufferable asshole, or a subtler troll than your grammar would suggest. If it's the latter, good job. If not, become a Christian; you'll fit in better.

  • by spiro_killglance (121572) on Thursday January 24, 2002 @06:58AM (#2893540) Homepage

    Not in 3 dimensions. In 2 and 4 dimension, you
    can have particles called anyons, with non
    half integral spin, which are something between
    bosons and fermions. Also the fractionally
    quantum hall effect has fractional quantum
    numbers. However the parent article is right
    when it comes to atoms, you cannot have fractionally quantum states on a hydrogen atom,
    without quantum mechanics being wrong.

  • by shilly (142940) on Thursday January 24, 2002 @08:48AM (#2893695)
    WTF are you on about?
    The journalist consulted opposing views from:
    1) Robert Park, professor of physics at the University of Maryland
    2) William Beattie, senior lecturer in electrical engineering at Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland
    Did you notice the article appearing in the "Lifestyle" section, rather than science? Did you notice that the article made extensive use of words like "skeptics" and "undaunted" and referred to the cold fusion debacle? Did you notice that it always referred to the claim in the conditional, as in its last line: "If the Jasker men really are onto something, it could be the most important Irish invention since Guinness"?
    Did you even read the article?
    The criticism of Reuters by michael is entirely unjustified here. He asks us to keep an eye out for retractions. What is Reuters going to retract? They accurately reported what had happened: some people have made an improbable claim that, *if true and that is unlikely*, could be revolutionary. Reuters consulted some experts who confirmed that it was unlikely; the journo reported seeing a demonstration that apparently supported the claims, but did not claim that the case was proven; the article discussed the context of claims about energy generation, noting that some contributors were serious and others were not. There is nothing to retract.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 24, 2002 @08:53AM (#2893710)
    That JASKER POWER is an anagram for JAPE WORKERS.

    dictionary.com [dictionary.com] meaning of Jape :

    n.
    A joke or quip.

Never test for an error condition you don't know how to handle. -- Steinbach

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