I get mail: Brown's Gas and Perpetual Motion

Oct 17 2011 Published by under Bad Physics

In the past, I've written about free-energy cranks like Tom Bearden, and I've made several allusions to the Brown's gas" crankpots. But I've never actually written in any detail about the latter.

Brown's gas is a term used primarily by cranks for oxyhydrogen gas. Oxyhydrogen is a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen in a two-to-one molar ratio; in other words, it's exactly the product of electrolysis to break water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. It's used as the fuel for several kinds of torches and welders. It's become a lot less common, because for most applications, it's just not as practical as things like acetylene torches, TIG welders, etc.

But for free-energy cranks, it's a panacea.

You see, the beautiful thing about Brown's gas is that it burns very nicely, it can be compressed well enough to produce a very respectable energy density, and when you use it, its only exhaust gas is water. If you look at it naively, that makes it absolutely wonderful as a fuel.

The problem, of course, is that it costs energy to produce it. You need to pump energy into water to divide it into hydrogen and oxygen; and then you need to use more energy to compress it in order to make it useful. Still, there are serious people who are working hard on things like hydrogen fuel cell power sources for cars - because it is an attractive fuel. It's just not a panacea.

But the cranks... Ah, the cranks. The cranks believe that if you just find the right way to burn it, then you can create a perfect source of free energy. You see, if you can just burn it so that it produces a teeny, tiny bit more energy being burned that it cost to produce, then you've got free energy. You just run an engine - it keeps dividing the water into hydrogen and oxygen, and then you burn it, producing more energy than you spent to divide it; and the only by-product is water vapor!

Of course, this doesn't work. Thermodynamics fights back: you can't get more energy out of recombining atoms of hydrogen and oxygen than you spent splitting molecules of water to get that hydrogen and oxygen. It's very simple: there's a certain amount of latent energy in that chemical bond. You need to pump in a certain amount of energy to break it - if I remember correctly, it's around 142 Joules per gram of water. When you burn hydrogen and oxygen to produce water, you get exactly that amount of energy back. It's a state transition - it's the same distance up as it is back down. It's like lifting a weight up a step on a staircase: it takes a certain amount of energy to move the weight up one step. When you drop it back down, it won't produce more energy falling that you put in to lift it.

But the Brown's gas people won't let that stop them!

Here's an email I recieved yesterday from a Brown's gas fan, who noticed one of my old criticisms of it:

Hi Mark,

My name is Stefan, and I recently came across your analysis regarding split water technology to power vehicle. You are trying to proof that it makes no sense because it is against the physic low of energy conservation?

There is something I would like to ask you, if you could explain to me. What do you think about the sail boat zigzagging against the wind? Is it the classical example of perpetual motion?

If so, I believe that the energy conversion law is not always applicable, and even maybe wrong? Using for example resonance you can destroy each constructions with little force, the same I believe is with membrane HHO technology at molecular level?

Is it possible that we invented the law of impossibility known as the Energy Conservation Law and this way created such limitation? If you have some time please answer me what do you think about it? This World as you know is mostly unexplainable, and maybe we should learn more to better understand how exactly the Universe work?

The ignorance in this is absolutely astonishing. And it's pretty typical of my experience with the Brown's gas fans. They're so woefully ignorant of simple math and physics.

Let's start with his first question, about sailboat tacking. That's got some interesting connections to my biggest botch on this blog, my fouled up debunking of the downwind-faster-than-the-wind vehicle.

The tacking sailboat is a really interesting problem. When you think about it naively, it seems like it shouldn't be possible. If you let a leaf blow in the wind, it can't possibly move faster than the wind. So how can a sailboat do it?

The anwser to that is that the sailboat isn't a free body floating in the wind. It's got a body and keel in the water, and a sail in the air. What it's doing is exploiting that difference in motion between the water and the air, and extracting energy. Mathematically, the water behaves as a source of tension, resisting the pressure of the wind against the sail, and converting it into motion in a different direction. Lift the body of the sailboat out of the water, and it can't do that anymore. Similarly, a boat can't accelerate by "tacking" against the water current unless it has a sail. It needs the two parts in different domains; then it can, effectively, extract energy from the difference between the two. But the most important point about a tacking sailboat - more important than the details of the mechanism that it uses - is that there's no energy being created. The sailboat is extracting kinetic energy from the wind, and converting it into kinetic energy in the boat. There's no energy being created or destroyed - just moved around. Every bit of energy that the boat acquires (plus some extra) was removed from the wind.

So no, a sailboat isn't an example of perpetual motion. It's just a very typical example of moving energy around from one place to another. The sun heats the air/water/land; that creates wind; wind pushes the boat.

Similarly, he botches the resonance example.

Resonance is, similarly, a fascinating phenomenon, but it's one that my correspondant totally fails to comprehend.

Resonance isn't about a small amount of energy producing a large effect. It's about how a small amount of energy applied over time can add up to a large amount of energy.

There is, again, no energy being created. The resonant system is not producing energy. A small amount of energy is not doing anything more than a small amount of energy can always do.

The difference is that in the right conditions, energy can add in interesting ways. Think of a spring with a weight hanging on the end. If you apply a small steady upward force on the weight, the spring will move upward a small distance. When you release the force, the weight will fall to slightly below its apparent start point, and then start to come back up. It will bounce up and down until friction stops it.

But now... at the moment when it hits its highest position, you give it another tiny push, then it will move a bit higher. Now it's bounce distance will be longer. If every time, exactly as it hits its highest point, you give it another tiny push, then each cycle, it will move a little bit higher. And by repeatedly appyling tiny forces at the right time, the forces add up, and you get a lot of motion in the spring.

The key is, how much? And the answer is: take all of the pushes that you gave it, and add them up. The motion that you got from the resonant pattern is exactly the same as the motion you'd get if you applied the summed force all at once. (Or, actually, you'd get slightly more from the summed force; you lost some to friction in the resonant scenario.

Resonance can create absolutely amazing phenomena, where you can get results that are absolutely astonishing; where forces that really seem like they're far to small to produce any result do something amazing. The famous example of this is the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse, where the wind happened to blow just right to created a resonant vibration which tore the bridge apart:

But there's no free energy there; no energy being created or destroyed.

So, Stefan... It's always possible that we're wrong about how physics work. It's possible that conservation of energy isn't a real law. It's possible that the world might work in a way where conservation of energy just appears to be a law, and in fact, there are ways around it, and that we can use those ways to produce free energy. But people have been trying to do that for a very, very long time. We've been able to use our understanding of physics to do amazing things. We can accelerate particles up to nearly the speed of light and slam them together. We can shoot rockets into space. We can put machines and even people on other planets. We can produce energy by breaking atoms into pieces. We can build devices that flip switches billions of times per second, and use them to talk to each other! And we can predict, to within a tiny fraction of a fraction of the breadth of a hair how much energy it will take to do these things, and how much heat will be produced by doing them.

All of these things rely on a very precise description of how things work. If our understanding were off by the tiniest bit, none of these things could possibly work. So we have really good reasons to believe that our theories are, to a pretty great degree of certainty, accurate descriptions of how reality works. That doesn't mean that we're right - but it does mean that we've got a whole lot of evidence to support the idea that energy is always conserved.

On the side of the free energy folks: not one person has ever been able to demonstrate a mechanism that produces more energy than was put in to it. No one has ever been able to demonstrate any kind of free energy under controlled experimental conditions. No one has been able to produce a theory that describes how such a system could work that is consistent with observations of the real world.

People have been pushing Brown's gas for decades. But they've never, every, not one single time, been able to actually demonstrate a working generator. No one has ever done it. No one has been able to build a car that actually works using Brown's gas without an separate power source. No one has build a self-sustaining generator. No one has been able to produce any mathematical description of how Brown's gas produces energy that is consistent with real-world observations.

So you've got two sides to the argument about Brown's gas. On one side, you've got modern physics, which has reams and reams of evidence, precise theories that are confirmed by observation, and unbelievable numbers of inventions that rely on the precision of those theories. On the other side, you've got people who've never been able to to do a demonstration, who can't describe how things work, who can't explain why things appear to work the way that they appear, who have never been able to produce a single working invention...

Which side should we believe? Given the current evidence, the answer is obvious.

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