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Hard Science

Why zero-point energy is a scam

The term “zero-point energy” has at least two meanings, one that is innocuous and one that is a great deal sexier (and scammier).
A diagram illustrating the various phases and motion of a star, with a particular focus on zero-point energy.
Wikimedia Commons / Big Think / Ana Kova
Key Takeaways
  • Zero-point energy is a valid scientific concept. It refers to the lowest energy configuration of a system.
  • Scam artists, however, are using a different definition of zero-point energy, in which they claim to harness the energy of space itself.
  • But this is impossible. Energy can only be harnessed if it is moved or changes form. 

“A fool and his money are soon parted” is a proverb that dates back to at least the 16th century. Scammers and conmen are always looking for an angle to fleece the gullible, including the use of realistic sounding pseudoscientific babble.

Look at my email inbox. I am told that my life will be improved by the manipulation of my aura or that crystal channeling will align my chakras or something. Then there are the utterly ineffective homeopathic remedies. But these are small potato scams, merely asking me to buy something. Even if they were successful, they wouldn’t deplete my bank account too much.

Much bigger scams ask me to invest in schemes to utilize new sources of energy — ones that will supposedly make me rich if I get in on the ground floor. Some purport to have invented a perpetual motion machine, but the newest and jazziest offer to land in my email inbox promises to exploit what is called “zero-point energy.”

The very name sounds a bit mysterious and science-y. And it has the advantage of being a real thing. However, even though zero-point energy is a valid scientific concept, it most certainly isn’t something in which you should invest your hard-earned money.

What is zero-point energy?

The term zero-point energy has at least two meanings, one that is innocuous — and one that is a great deal sexier. In the simpler definition, zero-point energy is the lowest energy any system can have. Take a pendulum, like a ball on a string. If the ball is moving, the pendulum has energy. The pendulum also has energy if you raise the ball above the lowest point and hold it stationary in place. And, of course, if the ball is swinging from the highest point of oscillation, through the bottom and up to the other side, the pendulum has energy there too.

However, there is one situation in which the pendulum has the absolute minimum amount of energy, and that’s when the ball is stationary at the lowest possible location. In any other configuration, the ball will have more energy than this configuration. This is the zero-point energy configuration of the pendulum.

Now, if you think a bit outside the box, you realize that if you were to cut the string of the pendulum, the ball could fall and end in an even lower state of energy. Thus, while the example of the pendulum has illustrative value, it is only good within certain limitations. A true zero-point energy environment will have no possible lower energy configurations.

Enter the conmen

The sexier definition of zero-point energy is much grander and is the one that con artists claim to be able to exploit. This supposed panacea is the energy of space itself.

By “empty space,” we mean no matter, no external energy fields, nothing. Thus, a volume of empty space can be considered the zero-point energy of the Universe. However, and this is where the scam artists come in, empty space isn’t truly empty. Because of the laws of quantum mechanics, at the ultra-subatomic level, there is a constant energy field that permeates the Universe. And, if you had the right equipment, you could zoom into the microcosm and see that this energy field has consequences (what is called the “quantum foam”). Because of the laws of quantum mechanics, this energy is manifested in the ephemeral creation and annihilation of subatomic particles, called virtual particles.

Virtual particles are not visible to the human eye, but they most certainly exist. In 1948, Dutch physicist Hendrik Casimir predicted that virtual particles would have detectable consequences for researchers using sensitive equipment. A decade later, researchers qualitatively validated his predictions, and in 1997, a more refined approach made a precise measurement that confirmed his calculations. Zero-point energy is a real thing.

But subtle interactions with sensitive equipment isn’t what the scammers are promising. Instead, they are promising limitless and free energy. And when one calculates the amount of zero-point energy stored in a small volume, it is huge. Indeed, according to quantum theory, the amount of zero-point energy contained in a volume the size of a light bulb is enough, if it were liberated, to boil all the Earth’s oceans.

However, “if it were liberated” is the sticky point. Remember that we are talking about literally empty space — space that contains absolutely no matter and external energy. The only energy is the energy of space itself, which is to say, zero-point energy. But you cannot remove space from space, thus you cannot remove the zero-point energy. And zero-point energy, being a property of space, is the same everywhere. You cannot move some of the energy of this space over to that space, or vice versa. Nor is there any place with less zero-point energy.

How to harness energy

Such uniformity of energy is what disproves the claims of the zero-point energy fraudsters. Uniform energy cannot be exploited. Energy can only be exploited if it is moved or changes form. For example, fire heats your coffee by releasing energy from chemical reactions. Oxygen combines with carbon, and this chemical transformation releases energy. The situation is conceptually similar to a nuclear reactor, in which atomic nuclei are split into lighter ones, resulting in the release of energy.

Perhaps an example that more nearly mirrors zero-point energy is a hydroelectric dam holding back a huge lake. If you shut off the sluices in the dam so that no water flows, you cannot get any energy out. The water is the same everywhere, and there are no energy differences to exploit. However, when you open the sluices, the higher energy contained within the water pressure is released as it flows to areas of lower pressure. It’s that transfer of energy that turns turbines and creates electricity. However, without the motion of energy from a place of high energy density to one of lower density, no energy can be extracted from the lake.

With zero-point energy, there is no lower point. That’s the bottom line (no pun intended). Because the energy of empty space is everywhere constant, there is no impetus for the energy to move. And without the motion of energy, none can be extracted. Zero-point energy is a scam.


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