26 Jan

Perpetual Motion

There is a scientific consensus that perpetual motion in an isolated system violates either the first law of thermodynamics, the second law of thermodynamics, or both. The first law of thermodynamics is essentially a statement of conservation of energy. The second law can be phrased in several different ways, the most intuitive of which is that heat flows spontaneously from hotter to colder places; the most well known statement is that entropy tends to increase (see entropy production), or at the least stay the same; another statement is that no heat engine (an engine which produces work while moving heat from a high temperature to a low temperature) can be more efficient than a Carnot heat engine.

In other words:

  1. In any isolated system, one cannot create new energy (first law of thermodynamics)
  2. The output power of heat engines is always smaller than the input heating power. The rest of the energy is removed as heat at ambient temperature. The efficiency (this is the produced power divided by the input heating power) has a maximum, given by the Carnot efficiency. It is always lower than one.
  3. The efficiency of real heat engines is even lower than the Carnot efficiency due to irreversible processes.

Statements 2 and 3 apply to heat engines. Other types of engines which convert e.g. mechanical into electromagnetic energy, could in principle operate with 100% efficiency, but only if they were to be free of friction. No such engine is possible in practice.

Machines which comply with both laws of thermodynamics by accessing energy from unconventional sources are sometimes referred to as perpetual motion machines, although they do not meet the standard criteria for the name. By way of example, clocks and other low-power machines, such as Cox’s timepiece, have been designed to run on the differences in barometric pressure or temperature between night and day. These machines have a source of energy, albeit one which is not readily apparent so that they only seem to violate the laws of thermodynamics.

Machines which extract energy from seemingly perpetual sources – such as ocean currents – are indeed capable of moving “perpetually” until that energy source runs down. They are not considered to be perpetual motion machines because they are consuming energy from an external source and are not isolated systems.

“Oh ye seekers after perpetual motion, how many vain chimeras have you pursued? Go and take your place with the alchemists.”

— Leonardo da Vinci, 1494[

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