Perpetual Motion is Perpetually Perplexing
My son and I have been enjoying the recent revival of the X-Files. If you’ve ever seen the show you’ll already know that it stimulates viewer suspicions that the U.S. government is deliberately hiding alien technologies from us. To celebrate the revival, we recently wore foil hats to help us communicate with our celestial friends (also to annoy his mom and sister).
That led to some pondering about how we might learn that aliens exist. (Maybe my foil hat was too tight.)
Perhaps an alien will catch a ride on Uber or Lyft and the driver will turn around and share their secrets with the public? Perhaps they would try to monetize their knowledge?
As it turns out the U.S. Patent Office has been looking out for us Earthlings by flagging “interesting” (substitute “suspicious” if you prefer) patent applications for some time. These applications are flagged because they appear to be dubious but it is possible that some are beyond humankind’s scientific knowledge.
Perpetual motion machines commonly fall in this category. Applications claim to obtain energy without a prime mover (such as from a combustion engine) and use magnets or gravity or other sources. On the other hand, disrupting our current methods for producing energy is not a new idea and it would be incredibly lucrative.
In scientific terms, you can’t convert some form of energy to another without some losses (see the first and second laws of Thermodynamics if you care to read the scientific reasoning). So what ideas are achievable?
Until last year the USPTO maintained a “Sensitive Application Warning System” used to flag outlandish applications, including those describing perpetual motion. This program isn’t around any longer but the examiners are still adept at ferreting out these applications as one of the criteria used in deciding whether an idea may become a patent is that it must be useful.
Realizing that this may be a tough task for a really progressive technology, USPTO examiners are quite accommodating by stating that even “partial success [is] sufficient to demonstrate patentable utility.”
What if one of these technologies was really earth-shattering? It is possible that the USPTO might try to avoid or delay publishing the information lest it fall into the hands of a foreign power.
A well-written example of how controversial these applications can be is Newman v. Quigg (1989) in which the inventor claimed to increase “the availability of usable electrical energy.”  And who said the government was evil? Please don’t answer that!
Overall, the USPTO is pretty down on patenting these grandiose ideas and has even gone so far as to create a digest of known Perpetual Motion Gimmicks (their words, not mine).
Curiously, I have found that many of the applications initially flagged as impossible result in patents being granted. In fact, some research revealed that the patenting success rate in the U.S. in these areas was near 59 percent, slightly better than the USPTO’s stated average of 55.8 percent!
Far and away, the technologies which most frequently fall into these categories are those for non-rotating magnetic or other electric devices. This technology is the most likely to be patented at almost 64 percent success rate!
A semiconductor example is Neokismet L.L.C. US8378207 for “A method and system for using a method of pre-equilibrium ballistic charge carrier refraction comprises fabricating one or more solid-state electric generators.”
Another closer to home example is The University of Texas’ US9154058 for “Nanofiber actuators and strain amplifiers having a material that generates a force or generates a displacement when directly or indirectly electrically driven.”
US9255869 “relates to the method of feeding the air, or fluid of lower density, into the duct (2) by means of tubes separated one from another in such a way that there should be water, or liquid fluid, between them, so that this bathes at least part of its walls. In other words, similar to the stalks of a bouquet submerged in water…”
Finally, the U.S. Navy’s US8866319 covers a design for “A pair of reverse-scissoring arms are configured to be rotatable and reverse-scissorable about a common central axis point.”
It’s interesting to me that the examiner’s perpetual motion “gimmick” classification remains on some ideas after being patented. Shouldn’t these have been removed if the usefulness was sufficiently justified? If you’re a patent examiner or know the answer, I would appreciate your insight.
The X-Files is entertaining but it’s also an opportunity for us to reflect on truly earth-shattering ideas.
Perhaps I should coin the phrase “disturbing innovation” since the level of innovation and markets altered could far surpass “disruptive innovation”?
May the disruptive technology be with you.
Graphic credit: Helgismidh (Wikimedia)