From: Richard Feder <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Sy Moire <email@example.com>
What’s this about “free energy”? Is that energy that’s free to move around anywhere? Or maybe the vacuum energy that this guy said is in the vacuum of space that will transform the earth into a wonderful world of everything for free for everybody forever once we figure out how to handle the force fields and pull energy out of them?
From: Sy Moire <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Richard Feder <email@example.com>
Subj: Re: Questions
Well, Mr Feder, as usual you have a lot of questions all rolled up together. I’ll try to take one at a time.
It’s clear you already know that to make something happen you need energy. Not a very substantial definition, but then energy is an abstract thing it took humanity a couple of hundred years to get our minds around and we’re still learning.
Physics has several more formal definitions for “energy,” all clustered around the ability to exert force to move something and/or heat something up. The “and/or” is the kicker, because it turns out you can’t do just the moving. As one statement of the Second Law of Thermodynamics puts it, “There are no perfectly efficient processes.”
For example, when your car’s engine burns a few drops of gasoline in the cylinder, the liquid becomes a 22000‑times larger volume of hot gas that pushes the piston down in its power stroke to move the car forward. In the process, though, the engine heats up (wasted energy), gases exiting the cylinder are much hotter than air temperature (more wasted energy) and there’s friction‑generated heat all through the drive train (even more waste). Improving the drive train’s lubrication can reduce friction, but there’s no way to stop energy loss into heated-up combustion product molecules.
Two hundred years of effort haven’t uncovered a usable loophole in the Second Law. However, we have been able to quantify it. Especially for practically important chemical reactions, like burning gasoline, scientists can calculate how much energy the reaction product molecules will retain as heat. The energy available to do work is what’s left.
For historical reasons, the “available to do work” part is called “free energy.” Not free like running about like ball lightning, but free in the sense of not being bound up in jiggling heated‑up molecules.
Vacuum energy is just the opposite of free — it’s bound up in the structure of space itself. We’ve known for a century that atoms waggle back and forth within their molecules. Those vibrations give rise to the infrared spectra we use for remote temperature sensing and for studying planetary atmospheres. One of the basic results of quantum mechanics is that there’s a minimum amount of motion, called zero‑point vibration, that would persist even if the molecule were frozen to absolute zero temperature.
There are other kinds of zero‑point motion. We know of two phenomena, the Casimir effect and the Lamb shift, that can be explained by assuming that the electric field and other force fields “vibrate” at the ultramicroscopic scale even in the absence of matter. Not vibrations like going up and down, but like getting more and less intense. It’s possible that the same “vibrations” spark radioactive decay and some kinds of light emission.
Visualize space being marked off with a mesh of cubes. In each cube one or more fields more‑or‑less periodically intensify and then relax. The variation strength and timing are unpredictable. Neighboring squares may or may not sync up and that’s unpredictable, too.
The activity is all governed by yet another Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle trade‑off. The stronger the intensification, the less certain we can be about when or where the next one will happen.
What we can say is that whether you look at a large volume of space (even an atom is ultramicroscopicly huge) or a long period of time (a second might as well be a millennium), on the average the intensity is zero. All our energy‑using techniques involve channeling energy from a high‑potential source to a low‑potential sink. Vacuum energy sources are everywhere but so are the sinks and they all flit around. Catching lightning in a jar was easy by comparison.
~~ Rich Olcott