Perpetual motion is motion of bodies that continues indefinitely. This is impossible because of friction and other energy-dissipating processes. A perpetual motion machine is a hypothetical machine that can do work indefinitely without an energy source. This kind of machine is impossible, as it would violate the first or second law of thermodynamics.
These laws of thermodynamics apply even at very grand scales. For example, the motions and rotations of celestial bodies such as planets may appear perpetual, but are actually subject to many processes that slowly dissipate their kinetic energy, such as solar wind, interstellar medium resistance, gravitational radiation and thermal radiation, so they will not keep moving forever.
Thus, machines which extract energy from finite sources will not operate indefinitely, because they are driven by the energy stored in the source, which will eventually be exhausted. A common example is devices powered by ocean currents, whose energy is ultimately derived from the Sun, which itself will eventually burn out. Machines powered by more obscure sources have been proposed, but are subject to the same inescapable laws, and will eventually wind down.
As “perpetual motion” can only exist in isolated systems, and true isolated systems do not exist, there are not any real “perpetual motion” devices. However, there are concepts and technical drafts that propose “perpetual motion”, but on closer analysis it is revealed that they actually “consume” some sort of natural resource or latent energy, such as the phase changes of water or other fluids or small natural temperature gradients, or simply cannot sustain indefinite operation. In general, extracting work from these devices is impossible.
A capillary action-based water pump functions using small ambient temperature gradients and vapour pressure differences. With the “Capillary Bowl”, it was thought that the capillary action would keep the water flowing in the tube, but since the cohesion force that draws the liquid up the tube in the first place holds the droplet from releasing into the bowl, the flow is not perpetual.
Any device picking up minimal amounts of energy from the natural electromagnetic radiation around it, such as a solar powered motor.
The Atmos clock uses changes in the vapor pressure of ethyl chloride with temperature to wind the clock spring.
A device powered by radioactive decay from an isotope with a relatively long half-life; such a device could plausibly operate for hundreds or thousands of years.
The Oxford Electric Bell and Karpen Pile driven by dry pile batteries.
In flywheel energy storage, “modern flywheels can have a zero-load rundown time measurable in years”.
Once spun up, objects in the vacuum of space—stars, black holes, planets, moons, spin-stabilized satellites, etc.—dissipate energy very slowly, allowing them to spin for long periods. Tides on Earth are dissipating the gravitational energy of the Moon/Earth system at an average rate of about 3.75 terawatts.
In certain quantum-mechanical systems (such as superfluidity and superconductivity), very low friction movement is possible. However, the motion stops when the system reaches an equilibrium state (e.g. all the liquid helium arrives at the same level.) Similarly, seemingly entropy-reversing effects like superfluids climbing the walls of containers operate by ordinary capillary action.
Bhāskara’s wheel was invented in 1150 by Bhāskara II, an Indian mathematician, in an attempt to create a perpetual motion machine. The wheel consisted of curved or tilted spokes partially filled with mercury. Once in motion, the mercury would flow from one side of the spoke to another, thus forcing the wheel to continue motion.
In some cases a thought (or gedanken) experiment appears to suggest that perpetual motion may be possible through accepted and understood physical processes. However, in all cases, a flaw has been found when all of the relevant physics is considered. Examples include:
Maxwell’s Demon: This was originally proposed to show that the Second Law of Thermodynamics applied in the statistical sense only, by postulating a “demon” that could select energetic molecules and extract their energy. Subsequent analysis (and experiment) have shown there is no way to physically implement such a system that does not result in an overall increase in entropy.
Brownian Ratchet: In this thought experiment, one imagines a paddle wheel connected to a ratchet. Brownian motion would cause surrounding gas molecules to strike the paddles, but the ratchet would only allow it to turn in one direction. A more thorough analysis showed that when a physical ratchet was considered at this molecular scale, Brownian motion would also affect the ratchet and cause it to randomly fail resulting in no net gain. Thus, the device would not violate the Laws of thermodynamics.
Vacuum energy and Zero-point energy: In order to explain effects such as virtual particles and the Casimir effect, many formulations of quantum physics include a background energy which pervades empty space, known as vacuum or zero-point energy. The ability to harness zero-point energy for useful work is considered pseudoscience by the scientific community at large. Inventors have proposed various methods for extracting useful work from zero-point energy, but none have been found to be viable, no claims for extraction of zero-point energy have ever been validated by the scientific community, and there is no evidence that zero-point energy can be used in violation of conservation of energy.