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Zero Point Energy Gets a Patent

I will be flying back to Europe on Monday, so I will be out of touch for a day or so. Meanwhile, I would like to thank a reader for pointing this out:

Quantum Vacuum Energy Extraction

I am very, very skeptical of their claims, so I was surprised to see that they got them past a patent examiner. US Patent 7,379,286 was granted on May 27, 2008. The patent reads in part:

A system is disclosed for converting energy from the electromagnetic quantum vacuum available at any point in the universe to usable energy in the form of heat, electricity, mechanical energy or other forms of power. By suppressing electromagnetic quantum vacuum energy at appropriate frequencies a change may be effected in the electron energy levels which will result in the emission or release of energy. Mode suppression of electromagnetic quantum vacuum radiation is known to take place in Casimir cavities. A Casimir cavity refers to any region in which electromagnetic modes are suppressed or restricted. When atoms enter into suitable micro Casimir cavities a decrease in the orbital energies of electrons in atoms will thus occur. Such energy will be captured in the claimed devices. Upon emergence form such micro Casimir cavities the atoms will be re-energized by the ambient electromagnetic quantum vacuum. In this way energy is extracted locally and replenished globally from and by the electromagnetic quantum vacuum.

The whole thing reads like pseudoscience, and the idea of harnessing zero point energy has a history of attracting crackpots. But personally, I don’t know enough about the physics to point to a particular invalid claim in the patent. To my knowledge, such a device would constitute a perpetual motion machine, and would violate the laws of thermodynamics. Perhaps someone who knows the physics would care to comment?

Bernard Haisch is the principal inventor. You can see from his Wikipedia biography that he has a history of involvement with fringe science. It doesn’t mean he’s wrong, but it certainly makes the whole thing smell even fishier.

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July 6, 2008 - Posted by | zero point energy

26 Comments

  1. I dislike commenting OT, especially on first post, but this comment from Peak Oiler Simmons in 1998 is informative:

    Matthew R. Simmons
    January 27, 1998

    Is Another “MG” At Work?
    (Or, What is Driving Down the Price of Oil?)

    Four years ago, crude oil prices plunged over a period of six months. Simmons & Company was
    among the first to identify the unwinding of the German company, Metallgesellschaft’s (MG)
    extensive oil contracts as the likely reason. We also suggested at the time that oil might surprise
    all the bears, who were predicting prices would either stay in a $12 to $14/bbl band forever or
    perhaps even fall to lower levels. We felt that, if we were right about the MG situation, it was a
    short-term phenomenon and oil prices would recover because the underlying fundamentals for
    oil were still “strong as horse radish.” (See “Is MG the Culprit?”, February 1994).

    It is now widely accepted that MG’s forced liquidation of their crude positions caused oil prices
    to fall from its $18/bbl base to under $14/bbl in the course of a few months. Moreover, once
    MG’s position was unwound, crude bounced back to $18 once more. “

    If Simmon is correct, it semms to suggest that unwinding oil contracts can force physical prices down.

    If true, we may see the Mother of all Oil Price Collpases Coming.

    Also, I think RR was just joking with this last post.

    Comment by benny "peak demand" cole | July 6, 2008

  2. RR,

    It should be vetted.

    I don’t know if that will occur but it will be harder to ignore if there is a working model per the usual policy of the patent office.

    RBM

    Comment by Anonymous | July 6, 2008

  3. It should be vetted.

    I agree, which is the main reason I threw it out there. Some of the guys with more training in pure physics could do a better job of vetting this one. It would take me a long time to get up to speed. I was thinking of someone like Robert McLeod at Entropy Production, who posts here from time to time. The fact that they got a patent boggles the mind.

    Cheers, RR

    Comment by Robert Rapier | July 7, 2008

  4. Well, you are my second attempt !

    I posted at TOD’s july 2 DB in a related topic:
    http://www.theoildrum.com/
    node/4245#comment-373977

    But considering the circumstances I’m not surprised you saw the post first.

    BTW, this is actually the second patent from what most would call the fringe.

    RBM

    Comment by Anonymous | July 7, 2008

  5. I’m not a physicist, but I do have a couple of items to share.

    First, I read about an experiment, perhaps about a year ago, in which scientists managed to extract a small amount of ZP energy and make it do work — moving a tiny piece of gold foil. But extracting usable amounts of energy and powering machines is something else. I too am skeptical.

    On patents: Some years ago I went to the Japanese patent office and asked if any patents had been granted on cold fusion devices. On a computer terminal I was shown a surprisingly long list. “But,” I said, “No one has gotten cold fusion to work.” The staff person explained that it wasn’t necessary to make cold fusion work to get a patent on cold fusion devices.

    I’ll leave it to the reader to figure out the logic in the Japanese patent office’s thinking, but maybe we have s similar situation with this invention.

    Comment by Rice Farmer | July 7, 2008

  6. “it will be harder to ignore if there is a working model per the usual policy of the patent office.”

    US PTO does not require a working model and has not done so for a very long time.

    The real problem is that their quality control stinks. They have allowed patents on limeade, peanut butter sandwiches, and swinging. The system is clearly broken and needs to be repaired.

    Comment by Fat Man | July 7, 2008

  7. patents are revenue stream. Patent offices make money on granting patents, not denying them. People have been able to patent sticks, crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (or least the process for making them) and, most ludicrously of all software.

    Under fringe science, let me remind you that electromagnetism, chemistry, astronomy, meteorites, heliocentric solar systems, etc. were all considered fringe science. It’s also important to notice that these are small bits of real science floating in a cesspool of quackery. this is not to say that real science won’t emerge from the cesspool again. Look at the work being done with various forms of depression and migraines with large (really f*n large) magnets. Sounds like the quackery of magnets on the soles of your feet to cure various ailments. But no, it’s real, provable science that just looks a lot like the crackpot side.

    My basic approach is “that’s nice” and wait until others have vetted and purchased etc. etc.

    Comment by Anonymous | July 7, 2008

  8. US PTO does not require a working model and has not done so for a very long time.

    I was about to write the same. I have several patents, and none of them required me to show that I had a working model.

    However, the patent can be challenged. I am not sure exactly how it works in the U.S., but I do know in the U.K. system that anyone can file a challenge, and you have to be able to prove that it works according to the language of the patent.

    Cheers, RR

    Comment by Robert Rapier | July 7, 2008

  9. Yes, anyone can challenge this patent in the US. But it costs money, so why bother? If it doesn’t work, you can’t infringe it, so the patentee can’t sue you. It is a worthless patent–just a piece of paper with a fancy ribbon on it. Don’t get all worked up because some crackpot spent $10k of his own money pushing a stupid piece of paper through a bureaucracy.

    It isn’t the USPTO’s job to figure out if the patented invention actually works. Their big job is trying to find prior art — i.e., someone else invented it first. And if it clearly doesn’t work, it can be rejected on at least enablement (a person of skill in the art has to be able to read the patent and be able to practice the invention–if it won’t work, that can’t happen). But the USPTO shouldn’t be trying to disallow patents because some patent examiner w/ a B.S. in physics thinks it might not work. It isn’t up to the government to tell inventors what is a good idea and what isn’t. Besides, that’s a waste of the PTO’s precious time. They’ve got 500,000 applications to examine each year, so they need to stick with what really matters–is it a new invention, and is it described adequately.

    And do you really want the government doling out patents on the basis of whether or not they think it works? It is real easy to say “you didn’t prove to me it works.” I can give you a schematic and engineering drawings and you can still say that. We’d soon see a direct relationship between issued patents and political contributions. If you aren’t a contributor, nothing you invent will work in the eyes of the government.

    Whether or not the patent system is broken* is not, as asserted by a couple posters, shown by whether a couple goofy, pointless, and worthless patents like the “method for swinging” are granted. Those patents are rare (a couple dozen out of millions of issued patents), a waste of the patentee’s own filing fees, and don’t harm the system. They can’t reasonably be asserted against anyone (who are you going to sue? What were your damages?) As long as they were novel and nonobvious (under the legal meanings of those words proven by actual documentation), that’s all that matters. They were properly granted, they make great conversation pieces for the anti-patent crowd, and that’s it.

    And all I’m going to say about software patents is that software and hardware are equivalent. If you can describe it in C++, it can be implemented with NAND gates. The C++ code is just a couple levels of abstraction above the machine. If you allow a patent a bare microprocessor, you just allowed a patent for software.

    *maybe the patent system is broken, maybe it isn’t. I wouldn’t trust the Coalition for Patent Fairness on this matter. They are funded by Microsoft and friends–who don’t need patents in their business model. They have market dominance, and patents just allow upstart innovators to disturb that. Who is Microsoft really afraid of? A troll with a crappy invalid patent who might extort $1M in front of a sympathetic jury or a Real Inventor with a Real Invention, holding a good and valid patent describing a technology Microsoft clearly infringes? Did you see the Alcatel judgment? About a half-billion dollars….

    Comment by Anonymous | July 7, 2008

  10. Trying to get free energy via the Casimir effect came up in the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Program of NASA.

    See:
    http://www.lerc.nasa.gov/WWW/bpp/

    Unfortunately such fields are dominated by quacks. However, that doesn’t mean the whole idea needs to be abandoned. Still, my response to these things is simple – show me the proof.

    Comment by InJapan | July 7, 2008

  11. I’ll believe it when I see a car powered by a zero-point device. At most, I’d be willing to believe these quantum-boundary effects might someday power some sort of ultra-low-power micro-electronic device.

    Even then, I’m skeptical. Whatever energy state the vacuum has exists everywhere, so it seems impossible on first principles to extract any useful work from it, when the entirety of any device is taken into account, simply because there’s no energy gradient to exploit. In simpler terms, you can extract energy from a rock by dropping it. Problem is, to repeat that, you have to pick it back up again, hence the real source of the energy is external. But then, I’m not a physicist.

    Comment by Anonymous | July 7, 2008

  12. Well, let’s see. Assuming it works, either the machine:
    1) Violates thermodynamics
    OR
    2) Respects thermodynamics, in which case it draws energy from somewhere. If the inventor is to be believed, the energy is derived from the fabric of space-time itself. This isn’t totally harebrained, since empty vacuum is, I think, believed to have an elevated energy state associated with it (though how well that has been established, I do not know). However, if that’s the case, and if this machine can tap it, it is doing work by drawing down the energy reservoir of reality itself.

    This is not a comforting thought. Most likely, though, it’s not an issue, since the invention probably does not work. If it does, that’s when I start to worry.

    Comment by GreenEngineer | July 7, 2008

  13. The patent system, and the US system in particular, have been broken for quite some time. They really do allow patents for just about everyone who pays the fee.

    On ZPE, I follow the “no such thing as a free lunch” principle, unless someone builds a working device.

    Comment by bc | July 7, 2008

  14. Like most patents, this is difficult to follow. There’s a lot of hand-waving. For example: Although it has not yet been proven theoretically, a similar balance of Larmor emission and absorption of energy from the zero-point fluctuations must underlie the electron states of all atoms, not just hydrogen, permitting any atom to be used as a catalyst for extraction of zero-point energy (the energy associated with the zero-point fluctuations). So they can’t even make the theory work; it’s a lot of wishful thinking.

    Basically, this entire patent appears to be based purely on classical (non-quantum) theory stretched to try and deal with quantum results. This typically leads to all sorts of ‘interesting’ results. The simple fact of the matter is that the Bohr model for an atom is wrong in a number of ways. The Bohr model predates quantum theory by a couple decades, and it was historically just a bridge from macroscopic classical mechanics to Schrodinger’s quantum world. It simply doesn’t correctly predict the energy levels of anything but Hydrogen (including all the Nobel gases the patent claims).

    You can read up on the Wiki here for ‘stochastic electrodynamics’:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stochastic_electrodynamics

    Evidently there’s some sort of Wiki war on-going. One of the original authors of the concept admits that the concept fails in general:

    http://homepages.tesco.net/~trevor.marshall/sed.html

    Quantum mechanics irritates a lot of people because it is so non-intuitive. So using theory (i.e. mathematics) people often try to bypass it. However, for theory to be regarded as accurate, it has to match experimentation. That’s what separates physics from mathematics. Otherwise it’s just angels dancing on the head of pin.

    Comment by Robert McLeod | July 7, 2008

  15. It’s possible the guy is a patent troll. He spends 10K for a vague patent on a far out idea that hits the popular press. 10 years from now say someone is using the casimir effect in micromachine devices. He then files a patent infringment suit without having done any work. He might have the law of large numbers in his favor. He could file hundreds of these patents and only has to win a multi million dollar lawsuit once.

    Comment by robert | July 7, 2008

  16. @ robert macleod

    Within the link you provide:”According to Bill Unruh, Haisch and Rueda’s computation is incorrect.”

    Well, the scientific method will sort things out, I would expect. Or not and it will remain in the Fringe.

    RBM

    Comment by Anonymous | July 8, 2008

  17. “A Casimir cavity refers to any region in which electromagnetic modes are suppressed or restricted. When atoms enter into suitable micro Casimir cavities a decrease in the orbital energies of electrons in atoms will thus occur.”

    They key is the mechanics of exactly how one might “suppress or restrict” the electromagnetic modes.

    I don’t understand how it might work, but if Einstein had explained to me in 1905 how relativity worked and that the mass-energy equivalence formula E = mc^2 would eventually lead to nuclear power, I wouldn’t have understood that either.

    Comment by Hawkshaw | July 8, 2008

  18. Hankshaw said:
    They key is the mechanics of exactly how one might “suppress or restrict” the electromagnetic modes.

    In terms of quantum mechanics this would be considered under the realm of ‘quantum confinement’. Essentially, when you restrict a wave-function in 1-3 dimensions, allowed density of states changes. So instead of having a nearly continuous distributions of allowed states within a valence or conduction band, you only have discrete allowed positions.

    The real key claim is the idea that the zero-point field is constantly pumping ‘classical’ electrons with energy since otherwise their orbits should near-instantly decay to nothing (in this classical model). There is zero evidence of this. Belief is a poor substitute for fact.

    RBM wrote:
    Well, the scientific method will sort things out, I would expect. Or not and it will remain in the Fringe.

    It will just be ignored. Proving a negative is often difficult and without any experimental evidence it’s useless.

    Comment by Robert McLeod | July 8, 2008

  19. ~ “Essentially, when you restrict a wave-function in 1-3 dimensions, allowed density of states changes.”

    Any idea how they think they can “restrict” a wave-function?

    I can’t imagine how that could be done, but I bet it would take a lot of energy to do it.

    Comment by Hawkshaw | July 8, 2008

  20. Say you had two magnets. You can extract energy from the attractive force exactly once. Then you have to invest at least that much energy to pull the two magnets apart. The Casimir force works the same way.

    Quantum mechanics forbids some states from occurring between the plates. No hocus pocus necessary. Just like quantum mechanics causes a bandgap of forbidden energy states in a semiconductor.

    Comment by robert | July 8, 2008

  21. Well, that patent application is total crap. The important point of zero point energy is that it is the lowest energy possible for a given system. If you somehow “restrict” that energy state, the electron will not fall into some lower energy state as there are no such states. Instead, it would absorb the energy from the cavity to exite to the next higher energy state.

    There are few reasons why an electron can’t obtain lower energy states. One is that by lowering its energy state it cannot be bound in an atom anymore – it would violate the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

    Second, and probably easier to understand, is that all of the theories that predict zero point energy also predict that it is unextractable. So, if you manage to extract zero point energy, you also disprove its existance.

    The specific point where that application goes wrong is here:

    “Within the context of SED theory it is predicted that the electron energy levels in atoms are determined by a balance of Larmor radiation vs. absorption of radiative energy from the electromagnetic quantum vacuum. By suppressing electromagnetic quantum vacuum energy at appropriate frequencies a change may be effected in the electron energy levels which will result in the emission or release of energy.”

    SED and Larmor radiation are concepts of classical physics and thus unapplicable to quantum mechanic workings of an atom. In fact one of the observations that drove the development of quantum mechanics was the observation that the Larmor radiation did not apply to atoms. Since there is no Larmor radiation in the atom, the energy levels are not affected by it. So those Casimir cavities won’t suppress anything.

    Comment by Physicist | July 9, 2008

  22. ~ “Say you had two magnets. You can extract energy from the attractive force exactly once. Then you have to invest at least that much energy to pull the two magnets apart.”

    Doesn’t the Second Law say that you would actually have to invest more energy to pull the two magnets apart again?

    Comment by Hawkshaw | July 9, 2008

  23. No, the second law says you have to invest at least that much energy to pull the magnets apart.

    100% efficiency doesn’t exist in the real world but the second law doesn’t forbid it. Provided we operate with no change in entropy.

    Comment by robert | July 9, 2008

  24. Nothingness of Space Could Illuminate the Theory of Everything

    A non-technical piece that lays out some scientific history and consequences in regard to what we think we know.

    RBM

    Comment by Anonymous | July 19, 2008

  25. The line in the patent:"In this way energy is extracted locally and replenished globally from and by the electromagnetic quantum vacuum."allowed the patent to be filed.I have followed this patent and feel there might be merit. This patent is like a quantum version of a Heat pump. A heat pump gets more energy than it puts in, it pulls energy from the the earth that is continually replenished from the sun. This patent is claiming the same sort of thing is happening but at a quantum level.We know that Casimir plates (surfaces that are closer than 1 micron apart) are forced together. This scientist postulates that these forces also affect the size of atoms and cause a release of energy.Who knows but it is an interesting and very tantalizing proposition.

    Comment by Marcus Jackson | September 3, 2009

  26. I saw a comment talking about tapping zpe would draw down the energy resevoir of reality itself. Actually that statement is false by all the math demonstrating zpe shows the energy to be infinite or near infinite in relation to the universe (aka. reality). Truthfully I don't want to get into the subject in detail as I only have a basic grasp of the concept which has been shown to exist.Just a note on fringe science, all science was considered fringe science at some point. There is no such thing as impossible so long as it can scientifically and mathematically fit inside the laws of the universe. Of course, so little of what we understand to be true is actually verifiable law and therefore impossible to say what is impossible or just improbable in terms of what will and won't work until someone tries it.

    Comment by Anonymous | November 10, 2009


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