2014-07-18

Co.Exist

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.

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12 Comments

  • Nikola Tesla is and for me will always be, the greatest scientist and inventor of all time. No one compares. He was equal to or greater than Da Vinci and he was way ahead of his time. If he were allowed to do as he wanted, we would've already lost our need for natural gas, oil and coal. Tesla was willing to give his inventions to the world. Edison had an agenda to make money. Edison was more a CEO than inventor and it is mainly because of him that other inventors, such as Nicola Tesla, didn't get the chance to shine. Edison and his Gestapo bought/stole any and every invention they could find. Once they confiscated these inventions they patented them. It was He along with The Government of the United States and Corporate America that kept Tesla's tower from becoming a reality. They did so because they couldn't make money off of free energy. That is why we are still dependent on natural fuel resources. It's all about the money and power. Power corrupts absolutely.

  • dpowell7299

    I don't think these guys will do it but I absolutely believe Tesla could have. It is called a standing wave and sure there will be areas with access to the electricity that do not need it but big deal. It is a standing wave. It would not lose anything unless there was something there to pick it up.

    10 hz is going to make that wave entirely too long and I also believe Tesla envisioned more in the Mhz range.

    Still I like that they are trying. Science is very good at saying something can't be done... Until someone comes along and does it. Then Science suppresses, then ridicules and then finally accepts but never learns that just because current theories say something is impossible does not mean that theory is correct.

  • dpowell7299

    I don't think these guys will do it but I absolutely believe Tesla could have. It is called a standing wave and sure there will be areas with access to the electricity that do not need it but big deal. It is a standing wave. It would not lose anything unless there was something there to pick it up.

    10 hz is going to make that wave entirely too long and I also believe Tesla envisioned more in the Mhz range.

    Still I like that they are trying. Science is very good at saying something can't be done... Until someone comes along and does it. Then Science suppresses, then ridicules and then finally accepts but never learns that just because current theories say something is impossible does not mean that theory is correct.

  • dorianroffehammond

    Firstly, I would argue that Nikola Tesla is a greater scientist than Einstein and has contributed more to the modern world than any other person. As such, the desire to rebuild the Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island is a magnificent tribute to Tesla. If nothing else, the new Tesla tower would constitute a superb museum and learning facility. So, Professor Tom Lee: Please stop pronouncing your biased verbiage and recognize that curiosity and science is not predicated solely upon absolute certainty and NSF government funding. Genuine science has typically always been fueled on individual concern and eager inquisitiveness.

  • dorianroffehammond

    Firstly, I would argue that Nikola Tesla is a greater scientist than Einstein and contributed more to the modern world than any other person. As such, the desire to rebuild the Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island is a magnificent tribute to Tesla. If nothing else, the new Tesla tower would constitute a superb museum and learning facility. In addiion, the Tesla Society in Philadelphia has been endeavoring for years to reconstruct the tower for historical purposes. So, Professor Tom Lee: Please stop pronouncing your biased verbiage and recognize that curiosity should never be suppressed and science is not predicated solely upon absolute certainty and NSF government funding. Genuine science has typically always been fueled on individual concern and eager inquisitiveness.

  • Yeah I asked the guys in the indiegogo campaign where was the missing link in science that was lost when Nicola Tesla died, as I learned when I visited his former house-museum in Belgrade, Servia. I also told them they needed someone with communication skills if the campaign was ever going to take off. Their reply: We went through all the patents, all the stuff, it's working etc etc etc with a lot of spelling mistakes. Even deflecting the main question that prevents their entire project from working, they still had the nerve to ask me to "volunteer" to do their communication campaign. The worst is that IndieGogo only shows messages your messages if you contribute to campaigns, and other people who alerted about the scam going on had to donate $1 to the campaign to voice their concerns in the campaign public comments section. Apparently they don't weed out scammers at all. And these conmen keep on posting propaganda video clips on the project page, with questionable soundtracks.