I have been curious for a while about the notion of creating an engine that could breathe air and power a car, very similar in theory to our own respiratory system.  Researching the topic introduced me to cyclotrons thermoelectric generators.  Wouldn’t it be neat to create an engine that would breathe atmospheric air to power itself, and through its emissions cleanse the environment?  However, I am not a physicist, so I went out and found one. Michael Chernicoff ’05 is a theoretical physicist and helped bring my idea to life.

“Your idea is not a bad one from a purely nuclear physics standpoint. An engineer may tell you otherwise, but that is more a question of practicality than possibility.  The problem, the one that takes your idea from possibly impractical to definitely impossible, comes from thermodynamics.

To put it simply, you cannot get energy from nothing.  For instance, I could power my car with lots of hamster wheels turning the drive shaft via some really complicated differential gear set up. But doing so would mean I would have to feed the hamsters so that they have enough energy to run in their little wheels. Hamsters, being animals, also only end up turning around 10 percent of the energy that is in their food into useful energy for themselves to use, so turning food into hamster energy will make me lose approximately 90 percent of the energy I had available as it goes into some form I cannot use. On the other hand, if I want a little rodent to run around a wheel for some specific reason, than it is far easier for me to just feed a hamster than it would be to devise some other, more complicated means of doing the same thing (e.g. building a robot hamster).

A final point I want to bring up is what we (or maybe just I) call the “Perpetual Motion Machine Sanity Check.” This means that if you take a look at the device you designed, and if you hooked it up to itself it would run forever without any input from the outside, either your device is impossible to build or you missed something that is coming from the outside. This is really just another way of restating the second Law of Thermodynamics, but it does it in a way that is easy to check.”

Click here to learn more about Michael Chernicoff from an article published on PennLive.com / the Patriot-News.