Tesla’s design varied from that of Faraday in two major ways. First, he used a magnet that was bigger in diameter than the disk so that the magnet completely covered the disk. Second, he divided the disk into sections with spiral curves radiating out from the center to the outside edge.
In the Faraday unipolar generator “the current,” as Tesla noted, “set up will therefore not wholly pass through the external circuit … and … by far the greater portion of the current generated will not appear externally…”(7) By having the magnet completely cover the disk, Tesla made use of the whole disk surface in current generation instead of only a small section directly adjacent to the bar magnet, as happened in the Faraday device. This not only increases the amount of current generated, but, by making the current travel from the center to the outside edge, makes all of that current accessible to the external circuit.
More importantly, these modifications on the Faraday design eliminated one of the biggest problems in any physical system – the reaction to every action. It is this reaction that works to cancel out whatever effort goes into causing the original action. In an electrical system if there are two turns of wire wound next to each other and a current is sent through the wire, the current passing through the first loop will set up a magnetic field that will work against the current passing through the second loop.
The spiral divisions in the disk cause the current to travel the full radius of the disk or, as in his alternative version of the generator, to make a full trip around the outside edge of the disk. Because the current is flowing in a large circle at the rim of the disk, the magnetic field created by the current not only does not work against the field magnet above the circular plate, as in conventional generators, but it actually reinforces the magnet. So as the disk cuts the magnetic lines to produce a current, the current coming off of the disk strengthens the magnet, allowing it to produce even more current.
Like conventional direct current generators, the unipolar dynamo also functions as a motor if current is put into the disk while under the magnet, and this seems to be the last element that could make the device self-sustaining, that is, capable of generating a current after being disconnected from an outside source of movement like falling water or steam.
Rotation is started by, say, a motor powered by line current. Both a generator and a motor disk are mounted in the magnetic enclosure. As the disks gain speed, current is produced which, in turn, reinforces the magnets, which cause more current to be generated. That current is, likely, first directed to the motor disk which increases the speed of the system. At a certain point the speed of the two disks is great enough that the magnetic field created by the current has the strength to keep the dynamo/motor going by itself.
What process might have kept the unipolar dynamo operating after the powered start-up is speculation at this point, however two features of the generator are significant. First, when a resistive load, like a light bulb is added to the circuit, it lowers the voltage at the center of the disk. This lower voltage at the center means that there is a greater difference in voltage between the center and the outside edge of the disk than there was before the light bulb was added. As the difference between the center and the outside increases, the dynamo works harder and makes more current. Second, yet more important, the dynamo takes either very little, or no energy to keep going because the current coming off the generator is doing double duty. The current makes the bulb glow, but on its way from the generator to the filament in the bulb, it travels a path that adds to the momentum of the dynamo and, therefore, consumes energy at a very low rate. The process continues , it would seem, until heat losses in the filament equal the rotational energy of the generator’s flywheel.
In terms of Elsasser’s criteria for a self-sustaining generator, the Tesla unipolar dynamo comes closest to satisfying the condition of a better electrical conductor. It is not that a new material is used, but a new geometry is applied so that the current does not create its own opposing forces. This is similar, but not equivalent, to having a better conductor.
Whether or not the dynamo is in fact a “fuelless” generator it appears to be an ingenious feat of engineering that takes one of the basic principles of nature, an equal and opposite action for every action, and turns it, by the use of a novel circuit geometry, into a reaction that is additive to the original action. Instead of the opposite reaction slowing down the system that created it, the reaction adds energy to the system.
Tesla, however, was not satisfied with his mechanical self-sustaining generator. The dynamo would provide the energy to run a single machine, but his vision was to light cities and in the 1900 Century magazine article he elaborated on the theory of such a machine.
Imagine, he suggested, an enclosed cylinder with a small hole in it near the bottom. Let us say that this cylinder, he added, contains very little energy but that it is placed in an environment that has a lot of energy. In this case, energy would flow from the outside environment, the high energy source, through the small opening at the bottom of the cylinder, and into the cylinder where there is less energy. Also suppose that as the energy passing into the cylinder is converted into another form of energy as, for example, heat is converted into mechanical energy in a steam engine. If it were possible to artificially produce such a “sink” for the energy of the ambient medium then “we should be enabled to get at any point of the globe a continuous supply of energy, day and night(8).”
He continued, in the article, to elaborate on his energy pump but changed the image slightly. On the surface of the earth we are at a high energy level and can imagine ourselves at the bottom of a lake with the water surrounding us equal to the energy in the surrounding medium. If a “sink” for the energy is to be created in the cylinder, it is necessary to replace the water that would flow into the tank with something much lighter than water. This could be done by pumping the water out of the cylinder, but when the water flowed back in, we would only be able to perform the same amount of work with the inflowing water as we did when it was first pumped out. “Consequently nothing would be gained in this double operation of first raising the water and then letting it fall down.”
Energy, though, can be converted into different forms as it passes from a higher to a lower state. He said, “assume that the water, in its passage into the tank, is converted into something else, which may be taken out of it without using any, or by using very little power(9).” For example, if the energy of the ambient medium is taken to be the water, oxygen and hydrogen making up the water are the other forms of energy into which it could change as it entered the cylinder.
Corresponding to this ideal case, all the water flowing into the tank would be decomposed into oxygen and hydrogen …and the result would be that the water would continually flow in, and yet the tank would remain entirely empty, the gases formed escaping. We would thus produce, by expending initially a certain amount of work to create a sink for…the water to flow in, a condition enabling us to get any amount of energy without further effort(10).
Tesla recognized that no energy conversion system would be perfect, some water would always get into the tank, but “there will be less to pump out than flows in, or, in other words, less energy will be needed to maintain the initial condition than is developed [by the incoming water], and this is to say that some energy will be gained from the medium(11).”
He found that this pumping could be done with a piston “not connected to anything else, but was perfectly free to vibrate at an enormous rate(12).” This he was able to do with his “mechanical oscillator,” a steam-driven engine used for producing high frequency currents. The faster the pump would work, the more efficient it would be at extracting energy from the cosmos. Research along this line culminated in the oscillator demonstrated at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. It was not until much later, in the 1900 article, he revealed: “On that occasion I exposed the principles of the mechanical oscillator, but the original purpose of this machine is explained here for the first time (13).”
It was also in 1893 that Tesla applied for a patent on an electrical coil that is the most likely candidate for a non-mechanical successor of his energy extractor. This is his “Coil for Electro-magnets,” patent #512,340. It is another curious design because, unlike an ordinary coil made by turning wire on a tube form, this one uses two wires laid next to each other on a form but with the end of the first one connected to the beginning of the second one.
In the patent Tesla explains that this double coil will store many times the energy of a conventional coil(14). Preliminary measurements of two helices of the same size and with the same number of turns, one with a single, the other with a bifilar winding, show differences in voltage gain(15). In figure 6, the upper curve is from the Tesla design, the lower was produced by the single wound coil. The patent, however, gives no hint of what might have been its more unusual capability.
In the Century article Tesla compares extracting energy from the environment to the work of other scientists who were, at that time, learning to condense atmospheric gases into liquids. In particular he cited the work of a Dr. Karl Linde who had discovered what Tesla described as a “self-cooling” method for liquefying air. As Tesla said, “This was the only experimental proof which I was still wanting that energy was obtainable from the medium in the manner contemplated by me(16).”
What ties the Linde work with Tesla’s electromagnet coil is that both of them used a double path for the material they were working with. Linde had a compressor to pump the air to a high pressure, let the pressure fall as it traveled through a tube, and then used that cooled air to reduce the temperature of the incoming air by having it travel back up the first tube through a second tube enclosing the first(17). The already cooled air added to the cooling process of the machine and quickly condensed the gases to a liquid.
Tesla’s intent was to condense the energy trapped between the earth and its upper atmosphere and to turn it into an electric current. He pictured the sun as an immense ball of electricity, positively charged with a potential of some 200 billion volts. The earth, on the other hand, is charged with negative electricity. The tremendous electrical force between these two bodies constituted, at least in part, what he called cosmic energy. It varied from night to day and from season to season but it is always present.
The positive particles are stopped at the ionosphere and between it and the negative charges in the ground, a distance of 60 miles, there is a large difference of voltage – something on the order of 360,000 volts. With the gases of the atmosphere acting as an insulator between these two opposite stores of electrical charges, the region between the ground and the edge of space traps a great deal of energy. Despite the large size of the planet, it is electrically like a capacitor which keeps positive and negative charges apart by using a non-conducting material as an insulator.
The earth has a charge of 90,000 coulombs. With a potential of 360,000 volts, the earth constitutes a capacitor of .25 farads (farads = coulombs/volts)(18). If the formula for calculating the energy stored in a capacitor (E = 1/2CV2) is applied to the earth, it turns out that the ambient medium contains 1.6 x 1011 joules or 4.5 megawatt-hours of electrical energy.
In order to tap this energy storehouse Tesla had to accomplish two things – make a “cold sink” in the ambient energy and devise a way of making the “sink” self-pumping. Explaining how this process might have worked requires, again, speculation.
Such a “sink” would have to be at a lower energy state than the surrounding medium and, for the energy to continually flow into it, the “sink” would have to maintain the lower energy state while meeting the power requirements of the load attached to it. Electrical energy, watt-seconds, is a product of volts x amps x seconds. Because the period of oscillation does not change, either voltage or current has to be the variable in the coil’s energy equation.
In that the double wound coil maximizes the voltage difference between its turns, it is probable that it is the current that is minimized to produce a low energy state in the coil. For the coil to be initially “empty” and at low energy would mean it operated at high voltage with a small amount of charge(19).
The coil, then, would be set into oscillation at its resonant frequency by an external power source. During a portion of its cycle the coil will appear to the earth’s electric field as one plate of a capacitor. As the voltage across the coil increases, the amount of charge it can “sink” from the earth’s higher energy field will increase.
The energy taken into the coil – through the “small opening” which appears to be the atomic structure of the conductor according to the physics of Tesla’s time – is “condensed” into positive and negative components of current, a lower energy state relative to the originating field.
The current is equivalent to the water converted to gases in Tesla’s description of the self-acting engine. The current would “escape” from the “sink” into whatever load was connected across the coil. The movement of current into the load would produce a strong magnetic field (the stated intention of the patent) which, when it collapsed, would, again, produce a high potential, low charge “sink” to couple with the earth’s electric field.
Because the inflowing energy performs a double function similar to the unipolar generator, supplying current to the load and aiding the pumping function, the system’s energy expenditure in moving charge is low, allowing the system to gain more energy from the medium than it expends in its operation. The coil needs no extra energy from an outside source to pump the energy it has extracted.
Energy would come directly from the sun.
A more modern view of such a device, should it prove to operate in this theoretical manner, would be to describe it as a self-oscillating capacitive system. Once the device is set into oscillation, very little power is expended in driving the load. Because it is an electrostatic oscillating system, only a small amount of charge moves through the load per cycle, that is, the coulomb per seconds = amps are low. If the charge is used at a low rate, the energy stored in the capacitive system will be turned into heat at a slow rate enabling the oscillations to continue for a long period of time.
With his prominent position in the world of science at the time, it is curious why Tesla’s invention was not commercialized or at least publicized more. Economics, not science, appear to have been the main factor. The adoption of alternating current was opposed by powerful financiers of the period. Michael Pupin, another leading electrical researcher at the turn of the century, noted in his autobiography:
…captains of industry…were afraid that they would have to scrap some of their direct current apparatus and the plants for manufacturing it, if the alternating current system received any support … ignorance and false notions prevailed in the early nineties, because the captains of industry paid small attention to highly trained scientists (20) (21).
Tesla’s patents for electrical generators and motors were granted in the late 1880’s. During the 1890’s the large electric power industry, in the form of Westinghouse and General Electric, came into being. With tens of millions of dollars invested in plants and equipment, the industry was not about to abandon a very profitable ten year old technology for yet another new one.
Tesla saw that profits could be made from the self-acting generator, but somewhere along the line he had pointed out to him the negative impact the device would have. At the end of the section in Century where he described his new generator he wrote:
I worked for a long time fully convinced that the practical realization of the method of obtaining energy from the sun would be of incalculable industrial value, but the continued study of the subject revealed the fact that while it will be commercially profitable if my expectations are well founded, it will not be so to an extraordinary degree(22) .
Years later, in 1933, he was more pointed in his remarks about the introduction of his fuelless generator. In the Philadelphia Public Ledger of November 2nd, is an interview with Tesla under the headline “Tesla ‘Harnesses’ Cosmic Energy.” In it he was “Asked whether the sudden introduction of his principle would upset the present economic system, Dr. Tesla replied, ‘It is badly upset already.’ He added that now as never before was the time ripe for the development of new resources.”
It has been nearly a century since Nikola Tesla claimed a radically new method for producing electricity. The need for the development of new resources is greater now than at the end of the last century. Perhaps these overlooked inventions will make his vision of “increasing human energy through the use of the sun’s energy” become a reality.