Well, no, physics has proven that a perpetual motion machine can’t exist. In other words, a machine cannot produce more energy than it consumes. However, NASA and the US Navy have engineered a new underwater vehicle that produces electrical energy by using an almost unlimited source of thermal energy: the ocean.
The Sounding Oceanographic Lagrangrian Observer Thermal RECharging (SOLO-TREC) vehicle uses the difference of temperatures at different levels of the ocean to power the vehicle . Because the vehicle uses the earth’s thermal energy to power its engine, the vehicle has an infinite energy source which will allow the vehicle to indefinitely map the ocean floor without the worry of running out of power. This achievement is important not only for the energy producing technology, but also for the vast amount of information that can be acquired by having machines that can theoretically run forever. It has been said that we know more about the surfaces of other planets than we do about the ocean on our own planet, and this advancement in technology is the first step to learning more about our own planet.
So how is the earth’s thermal energy converted into electrical energy? The secret behind the technology are 10 external tubes that contain a waxy substance known as phase-change material . When the material comes in contact with warm water, it melts and expands, and when it comes into contact with colder water, it solidifies and expands . This expansion and contraction of the material pressurizes oil in the vehicle, and the pressurized oil gradually drives a hydraulic motor which produces electrical energy . The hydraulic motor produces 1.7 watt-hours, or 6100 joules . The electrical energy charges the vehicle’s battery, which controls another hydraulic system that monitors the engines float systems and changes the depth the vehicle is at. Using thermal energy, the vehicle has completed over 300 dives ranging from surface level to depths of 500 meters . Aside from failures in the components, the only possibility for the vehicle to run out of energy is if the ocean runs out of thermal energy, which is very unlikely, to say the least. The SOLO-TREC constantly relays information to oceanographers such as the ocean’s salinity, pH levels, and other various other data which will help oceanographers understand and measure how the ocean influences climate .
The thermal engine used in the SOLO-TREC is a first generation, and many engineers and scientist are excited about the numerous applications of the new technology . The news articles about the SOLO-TREC have just recently come out, and I’m excited to see how the technology will improve and be implemented in other surveillance technologies. Google Earth has a plug in that allows users to follow the SOLO-TREC and monitor its progress, but the site seems to constantly be down, so don’t get your hopes up. The site can be found at: http://solo-trec.jpl.nasa.gov/SOLO-TREC/.
 Science Daily – http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100405142152.htm