Suppose I have a "free energy" device of the following characteristics:

Cheap, Materials Easily Accessible Basic wire (coils) and electronics components in an unintuitive configuration

Solid State There are no moving parts and minimal electronics in the device.

Energy Conversion Is Perpetual As long as the device can keep generating a rotating magnetic field.

Energy Level Adjustable According to the magnetic field strength around the device. Output levels exceed the energy required to cause the effect by ~300 times

Horizon Independent Operation of the device is not dependent on it's orientation or distance from the Earth

Positive Feedback Feeding the output back into the input causes the device to destroy itself (and everything in the immediate area...think 100 Megawatts dissipated in a microsecond in a device the size of your hand)

Given these characteristics, would a government or other organization try to inhibit the use of such a device assuming an otherwise realistic setting? Would the danger of misuse and economic turbulence outweigh the potential benefits? Keep in mind that everyone could easily build one if the device's construction become common knowledge.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Rethink the positive feedback. If the explosion is so strong, you created cheap atomic bomb. Dream of each terrorist $\endgroup$ – Pavel Janicek Dec 21 '14 at 7:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Duplicate? worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/388/… $\endgroup$ – Sheraff Dec 21 '14 at 10:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ a free energy device would be way more dangerous than burning all the coal and oil we have on earth: if energy is created out of nothing (physically impossible but only explanation of "free energy" devices), it will eventually disperse as heat and burn the earth. $\endgroup$ – Sheraff Dec 21 '14 at 10:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Forgive my terse explanation. It "converts" energy, rather than "creating" it. The source would likely be subatomic in nature. Energy is conserved, it wouldn't be "free" (it would be tapping, not creating, energy) if you took into account the source. $\endgroup$ – Brian Dec 21 '14 at 11:50
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ 100 Megawatts in a microsecond? That's 100 Joules, or a fortieth of a Calorie. $\endgroup$ – frodoskywalker Dec 21 '14 at 19:25

I'm going to attempt to draw together a few ideas.

1. The Internet
You state that the construction of this device is 'unintuitive'. However, think of how quickly we can communicate today, and how quickly things get leaked. Without serious government restriction, the plans for this thing will be easily Googleable within weeks, if not less. Even if your government does restrict this device, the plans will most likely still be available on the dark web.

2. Global Warming
Free energy could have an effect on global warming. As mentioned in the comments, all the energy created will eventually dissipate as heat, which could eventually burn Earth to a crisp. Now, say it takes 30MJ (megajoules) to start up:

$$ 30\text{ MJ} \times 300 = 9000 \text{ MJ} $$ $$ = 9\text{ GJ} $$

We get left with a 9 gigajoule output. If we take that and the heat capacity of air (which is 1.005 kJ/kg K at room temperature), we can work out the heating effect. The heat capacity tells us how much energy it takes to heat up 1 kilogram of air by 1o Kelvin.

$$ 9\text{ GJ} = 9,000,000\text{ kJ} $$ $$ 9,000,000 \div 1.005 = 8955223.8805 $$

So, we can heat up approximately 8.95 million kilograms of air by 1oK. The approximate mass of the atmosphere is $5.1480 \times 10^{18}\text{ kg}$, so if the 9GJ output is output per second, then we need $(5.1480 \times 10^{18}) \div 8,950,000 = 5.75 \times 10^{11}$ seconds or around 18,239 years to heat up the entire atmosphere by 1oK (call it 18,000 to make up for my rounding). So, if you've only got a few of these devices then the effect won't be too bad (and certainly less than global warming is now), but you can see that it could become a problem.

3. Terrorism
Sort of linked to the first point. If the plans for this are available on the internet, then it's a terrorist's dream come true. They can build it reasonably easily, it can be concealed fairly well (although admittedly it would get picked up at airports), and it does a fair amount of damage. If you want to put this device into a story I'd suggest rethinking the positive feedback idea. Perhaps you make it compulsory for these devices to have an earth or ground cable to siphon off the massive overload, or maybe you give each of them internal batteries to hold some charge. Yes, it could still be weaponised, but a weaponised version might stand out a bit.

It's a good idea, in theory. I think it needs a bit of refining, then it's ready to go in your world.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Feeding real output power back directly causes a positive feedback loop, because the unit runs with gain inherently. Looped, the output current would create a stronger magnetic field, which leads to a larger output, which leads to a larger magnetic field, etc... (I.e. 100 watts -> 1KW -> 10KW -> and up until something gives) I'd need to do some rethinking about the mechanism behind it to get rid of the positive feedback loop disadvantage. Open to suggestions, I could gloss over the specifics if need be... $\endgroup$ – Brian Dec 21 '14 at 13:08
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I know feeding output back causes feedback, there are a couple of suggestions in my answer as to how you could solve this $\endgroup$ – ArtOfCode Dec 21 '14 at 13:13
  • $\begingroup$ As earth gets warmer it glows more in infrared, shedding heat into space. $\endgroup$ – Donald Hobson Aug 6 '17 at 15:36
  • $\begingroup$ As the Earth grows warmer the atmosphere would also expand, subtracting temperature through adiabatic cooling. But it wouldn't get to that, because the local heating created by positive feedback would eventually destroy the device or the connections used to create the feedback. Unless it's made of unobtanium. $\endgroup$ – Dan Hanson Apr 25 '20 at 19:26

Heinlein had a product called a Shipstone in the book Friday. I believe that they were solar-charged batteries. The questions you're asking here remind me of the issues with which he was dealing. In his book, Shipstones had kicked off a small nuclear war. Heinlein also believed that corporations would engage in assassination of their enemies though. If Sony has the North Korea guy whacked, then you'll know Heinlein was on the right track.

Anyway, if there was a truly revolutionary, non-polluting energy source, most countries would end up embracing it. Certain countries might try to restrict them, but the problem is that it's the producers who want to restrict it. The consumers would prefer it.

Consider how much pressure there is to switch from fossil fuels, which are the cheapest form of energy now, to renewables. If we had a sudden new source of cheap, non-polluting energy, there's no way that countries like Japan and Germany wouldn't embrace it. The US is more difficult, as it is both a producer and a consumer of fossil fuels. In the long run though, I'd expect cheaper to win.

If the device is easy to build in a garage, then I don't see how countries could really stop it even if they wanted. What are they going to do, arrest people for canceling their electric bill? The easiest way to keep these devices out of the hands of everyday people is to supply cheap energy so as to make it unnecessary for people to build their own devices.

So my prediction is that these devices would be embraced in safer ways. People would be discouraged from owning their own, but utilities would use them to replace existing power plants. Over time, more and more places would have them.

If they could find a safe way to make devices slag themselves without exploding, they could make devices more generally available. For example, electric cars could be powered by their own device. If someone tried to use the positive feedback trick, the device would short out and then make itself nonoperational. If someone tried to unseal the device, the same thing.

  • $\begingroup$ Nice thoughts. Thanks for the detailed input. The "100 Megawatts" figure was a worst case scenario, smaller wires would vaporize most likely, terminating energy production. A bigger unit with bigger wires, however... $\endgroup$ – Brian Dec 21 '14 at 11:47

It's like considering the possibilies of quantum compute by mostly thinking about its use in encryption, as if nothing much else will change when exponential time problems can be solved at polynomial time.

Technologies like power generation, compute, time dilation and self replication are inter-related, each bumps up possibilities in the others.

Being orginised by orginisations like governments making sence at all is itself a factor of our evolutionary and technological position.

For example, imagine if as a result, food and products are suddenly free, but that bairly even registers enough to make whatever is the equivalent of the news, if there is one, because other changes are even more startling.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Technologies like power generation, compute, time dilation and self replication are inter-related, each bumps up possibilities in the others. My thoughts, exactly. $\endgroup$ – Brian Dec 21 '14 at 11:51

Global warming, take II:

ArtOfCode did a fine job of showing the device could cause environmental problems. I'm going to address why it would cause problems.

Think of any cold-climate city in the world. The occupants of course use heat to remain comfortable. With this device power is incredibly cheap. Nobody's going to bother with insulation anymore, that costs a lot more than simply providing more heating.

Now, lets look at the business district. Want to make your street more attractive to customers? Blow warm air onto the street. When your neighbors join in your street becomes a more attractive shopping location. Pretty soon the whole business district is warmed up.

Soon the city will get in on it--heating elements in the roads will be cheaper than snow plows & salt.


Now, for some positive effects of this device:

1) All new powered land and water transport are electric. Not counting the battery, electric cars are simpler, cheaper and more reliable than gasoline engines. Now you only need to provide a starting jolt, your car then runs as long as you want. The advantages are even greater for trains (which actually are electric anyway even if that electricity is coming from a diesel engine) and ships.

2) The electric propeller airplane has no fuel costs. They still won't be cheap but they'll be a lot cheaper than current planes. I'm not sure if you could make an electric jet.

3) NASA uses it for deep space. The NERVA design gave an ISP of 850. Since this has a much lower weight the ISP will be higher. It can also run closer to the safety limit, thus giving a still higher ISP. I would guess something near 1000 would be possible. As this is roughly 3x the best space-storable propellants we have now (yes, this is cryogenic, but you have enough power that refrigerating it is no big deal) that is a truly huge breakthrough for them. (The rocket equation is exponential. 3x the ISP is far beyond just 3x as good.)


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.