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Is This Tesla Tower A Scam Or Just Bad Science?

A reminder that just because you can help crowdfund a project doesn't mean it's scientifically viable.

A team of Russian physicists wants to resurrect one of Nikola Tesla's old ideas: A huge tower that would, in theory, transmit electricity all around the world. An enormous solar farm in the desert could supply the power. The only problem? There's no way it could work.

The Moscow-based team is raising money now on Indiegogo, and as of this writing, had collected over $40,000. So far, it's well short of their $800,000 goal, but they'll get to keep all of it—and it's enough to illustrate a fundamental problem with crowdfunding. Just because someone says something is possible doesn't mean it actually is, and no one's fact-checking the science for the people donating money.

"It's a 100-year-old idea," says Tom Lee, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University who calls Tesla a hero and has studied Tesla's patents and notebooks. "It's certainly a nice sounding dream. But as with everything else, the fantasy kind of falls apart the closer you look at the details."

One of the biggest problems is the fact that the device can't direct power only where needed. "There are so many ways this thing fails," says Lee. "If you're going to deliver a useful amount of power to an arbitrary point somewhere distant, that means you're going to have to be spraying an enormous amount of power to lots of other points that aren't necessarily using the power."

"Imagine a fire hose spraying all over a gigantic sphere," he explains. "All you wanted was to water the lawn over there, but you're spraying water everywhere else. In principle, yes, you could in fact supply energy this way, but it would be a horribly, horribly inefficient way to do it."

And then there's the noise. "They've chosen a frequency of 10 kHz, which is audible," says Lee. "So even though the electromagnetic waves are not audible, it will create audible waves in air. So everyone would hear a very loud whine that would drive us all insane in a short amount of time."

The scientists claim that it's necessary to build a full-scale prototype to test how the system works, but Lee disagrees with that as well. "This is stuff that you can simulate with equations," he says. "The simulations will tell you where the problems really are."

The original tower that Tesla began building in in 1901 was eventually called "Tesla's million dollar folly" and dismantled. Maybe it's just proof that even brilliant people can make mistakes.

"Tesla gave us AC power," Lee says. "He allowed us to electrify the Earth, that's given us our modern civilization. We owe Tesla a great debt. But that doesn't mean every idea he had was gold."

It also doesn't mean that people should exploit Tesla fandom to raise money for dubious projects. "To ask the public to engage in a large-scale project when you can certainly find out an awful lot about the economics without ever doing any of these large scale experiments—that to me either smells fishy or shows the naivete of the folks doing it," Lee says.