TheStar.com | Business | Turning physics on its earHas university dropout done the impossible and created a perpetual motion machine?
Feb 04, 2008 04:30 AMTyler Hamilton
Thane Heins is nervous and hopeful. It's Jan. 24, a Thursday afternoon, and in four days the Ottawa-area native will travel to Boston where he'll demonstrate an invention that appears – though he doesn't dare say it – to operate as a perpetual motion machine.
The audience, esteemed Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Markus Zahn, could either deflate Heins' heretical claims or add momentum to a 20-year obsession that has broken up his marriage and lost him custody of his two young daughters.
Zahn is a leading expert on electromagnetic and electronic systems. In a rare move for any reputable academic, he has agreed to give Heins' creation an open-minded look rather than greet it with outright dismissal.
It's a pivotal moment. The invention, at its very least, could moderately improve the efficiency of induction motors, used in everything from electric cars to ceiling fans. At best it means a way of tapping the mysterious powers of electromagnetic fields to produce more work out of less effort, seemingly creating electricity from nothing.
Such an unbelievable invention would challenge the laws of physics, a no-no in the rigid world of serious science. Imagine a battery system in an all-electric car that can be recharged almost exclusively by braking and accelerating, or what Heins calls "regenerative acceleration."
No charging from the grid. No assistance from gasoline. No cost of fuelling up. No way, say the skeptics.
"It sounds too good to be true," concedes Heins, who formed a company in 2005 called Potential Difference Inc. to develop and market his invention. "We get dismissed pretty quickly sometimes."
It's for this reason the 42-year-old inventor has learned to walk on thin ice when dealing with academics and engineers, who he must win over to be taken seriously. Credibility, after all, can't be invented. It must be earned. "I have to be humble. If you say the wrong thing at the wrong time, you can lose support."
The creation in question is a new kind of generator called the Perepiteia (see "Holy crap," page B3), which in Greek theatre means an action that has the opposite effect of what its doer intended. Heins torques up the definition to mean "a sudden reversal of fortune that's a windfall for humanity."
Deep down, Heins has high hopes. But he also realizes that merely using those controversial words – "perpetual motion" – usually brands a person as batty. In 2006, an Irish company called Steorn placed an advertisement in The Economist calling on all the world's scientists to validate its magnet-based "free energy" technology.
Steorn was met with intense skepticism and accused of being a scam or hoax. Seventeen months later the company has failed, despite worldwide attention, to prove anything under scrutiny. Well-educated people, from Leonardo da Vinci to Harvard-trained engineer Bruce De Palma (older brother of film director Brian De Palma), have made similar claims of perpetual motion only to be slammed down by the mainstream scientific community.
Heins has an even greater uphill battle. He isn't an engineer. He doesn't have a graduate degrees in physics. He never even finished his electronics program at California State University. "I have mild dyslexia and don't do well in math, so I didn't do very well in school," he says.
What he does have is a chef's diploma, and spent time as chef at the Canadian Museum of Civilization before launching his own restaurant in Renfrew called the Old Town Hall Tea Room. He has also had political ambitions. In 1999 he ran unsuccessfully as a candidate for the Green Party of Ontario, deciding a year later to run as an independent in the federal election.
Today, Heins is focused on showing his invention to anybody willing to see it, in hopes that somebody smarter than him will give it credibility. His long-time friend, Kim Cunningham, manager of communications and government relations at the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation (OCRI) is working part-time with Potential Difference to help get the message out.
Together, they have demonstrated the Perepiteia to a number of labs and universities across North America, including the University of Virginia, Michigan State University, the University of Toronto and Queens University.
"It's generally always the same reaction," says Heins. "There's a bit of a scramble on the part of the observer to put what they're seeing into some sort of context with what they know. They can't explain it. They don't know what it is."
He'd be happy if somebody did, even if the news was bad. His wife has kicked him out. He doesn't earn an income. He can't pay child support. The certainty would be welcome. "I've tried to quit many times, and thought if I could just be a normal guy I would have a normal life ... But I had this idea and I believe it works."
Others want to believe – or at least help out. Cunningham, whose brother is general manager at Angus Glen Golf Club, introduced Heins to the club's president, Kevin Thistle. For two years Thistle has acted as angel investor, providing start-up capital needed to incorporate Potential Difference, file patents and continue research.
Cunningham's boss, OCRI president Jeffrey Dale, helped open doors at the University of Ottawa and make introductions to its dean of engineering. As a result, Heins teamed up last fall with Riadh Habash, a professor at the university's school of information technology and engineering.
"Dr. Habash has essentially rolled out the red carpet," says Heins, explaining that he now has access to a university lab and all the equipment he needs to test and simulate his generator.
In an interview with the Toronto Star, Habash was cautious but matter-of-fact with what he's seen so far. "It accelerates, but when it comes to an explanation, there is no backing theory for it. That's why we're consulting MIT. But at this time we can't support any claim."
In the meantime, Heins has been on a letter-writing campaign to raise money for his mission. He's written former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, Virgin Group founder and billionaire Richard Branson and John Doerr at venture capital powerhouse Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. He's also tried to contact entrepreneur Elon Musk, chairman of electric car upstart Tesla Motors, and the "ReCharge IT" project run by Google's philanthropic arm.
So far no bites, though there have been nibbles. Heins has had discussions with a well-known investor in Oregon, known to many as the "godfather of start-ups," who is apparently flirting with the idea of investing in Potential Difference. "We got the impression ... he's not necessarily interested in making a tonne of money, he just wants to see us succeed."
Just before the big day at MIT, the Star spoke with professor Markus Zahn about what he expected to observe.
"It's hard for me to give an opinion," said Zahn, who admitted he was excited to see the demonstration. "I don't believe it will violate the laws of physics. You're not going to get more energy out than you put in."
He said it's easy for people to set up their tests wrong and misinterpret what they see. "You've got to look closely."
It's now Jan. 28 – D Day. Heins has modified his test so the effects observed are difficult to deny. He holds a permanent magnet a few centimetres away from the driveshaft of an electric motor, and the magnetic field it creates causes the motor to accelerate. It went well.
Contacted by phone a few hours after the test, Zahn is genuinely stumped – and surprised. He said the magnet shouldn't cause acceleration. "It's an unusual phenomena I wouldn't have predicted in advance. But I saw it. It's real. Now I'm just trying to figure it out."
There's no talk of perpetual motion. No whisper of broken scientific laws or free energy. Zahn would never go there – at least not yet. But he does see the potential for making electric motors more efficient, and this itself is no small feat.
"To my mind this is unexpected and new, and it's worth exploring all the possible advantages once you're convinced it's a real effect," he added. "There are an infinite number of induction machines in people's homes and everywhere around the world. If you could make them more efficient, cumulatively, it could make a big difference."
Driving home – he can't afford to fly – Heins is exhausted but encouraged. He says Zahn will, and must, evaluate what he saw on his own terms and time. What's preventing the engineer from grasping it right away, he says, is his education, his scientific training.
Step by step, Heins is making progress, but where it will all lead remains uncertain.
Thane C. Heins, President and CSO, Potential Difference IncPotential Difference