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Imagine you have two choices. You can either...

Do nothing, or... 

Do something simple that has a 1% chance of helping billions of low income people live substantially better lives, but it comes with a 99% chance that the only outcome is your own permanent embarrassment. 

Here I'm talking about the kind of embarrassment that follows you around forever. If you have a Wikipedia page, your embarrassment will end up on it. Every time you go to a party, someone will bring it up. When your obituary is written, it will be mentioned. Your credibility will forever be defined by this embarrassment.

Do you take that 1% chance?

This isn't a thought experiment. I'm dealing with that decision right now. Luckily for the world (maybe), I don't feel embarrassment like normal people. So I'm all in for the 1% chance of helping the world. I live for this sort of thing.

Here's my story.

About a decade ago I got an email from an engineer/inventor who claimed he could make electricity out of air. It had something to do with harvesting ions or some such blah, blah, blah. I was interested because I have a nerdy curiosity about green energy projects, but I assumed that this would be like most ideas in that realm and it wouldn't pan out.

The inventor formed a tiny company and the company stayed in touch with me by email as they filed their patents and worked on their prototypes. Patents were granted. Bigger and better prototypes were built. I've seen their videos of the prototypes powering household appliances.

If the videos are to be believed, the prototypes are harvesting useful amounts of electricity directly from the atmosphere, day or night, rain or shine. What the company doesn't yet know is how well it scales up, and whether or not normal engineering improvements in the process can make this economically feasible. The company thinks the odds are good.

If it scales up, and proves to be economical, the world will be transformed.

I like to think my bullshit filter is better than average. After ten years of following this project, I have concluded that the people are real, the patents are real, and the prototype does create electricity from the atmosphere. I could be wrong, so you should be skeptical. And I'm encouraged by the fact that the company doesn't claim to know it can scale up; they are looking for funds to find out.

And just to be super-clear, things that are in the "too good to be true" category turn out to be bullshit 99% of the time. That's our context.

But I'm going to take the 99% chance of embarrassing myself along with the 1% chance of helping the world by giving some attention to this technology.

I give you the company's crowd funding link.

I don't have a financial interest in the company.

The company has offered to fly me out to their tiny field laboratory in some godforsaken Florida cow field to see the prototype myself. I said they should spend their money showing it to atmospheric physicists (to further validate the potential) or investors in the green energy field.

If you are one of those types, I can put you in touch with the company. Depending on your credentials, I might even pay for your trip to see it. Contact me at dilbertcartoonist@gmail.com if you're interested.

Here are the patent links:

Patent 1

Patent 2

Patent 3

[Update: Read all of the comments before forming an opinion. And keep in mind that this is in the class of things that are bullshit 99% of the time.]

[Update 2: I'll forward to the company for response any simply-stated question you have about the technology or the economics of scaling up.]

[Update 3: And please stop categorizing me as gung-ho for an idea I have described as being in the class of things that are 99% likely to be bullshit. It's going to be hard enough to keep "Cartoonist involved in scam" off my Wikipedia page.]

[Update 3: For some reason there are comments I can see on my CMS that aren't getting posted. If you put a phone number in your comment, that might be why. Try an email address. The comments getting omitted include an alleged eyewitness to the prototype. And there are a few comments I can't comment on because my CMS doesn't work. -- Scott]


--------------

Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com

This book explains why I do things like this

 



 

 

 

 
Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +42
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+9 Rank Up Rank Down
May 23, 2014
We already have two technologies for making electricity "from thin air": Wind and solar. These are highly developed and already deployed. Even if this scheme works, it's got a long ways to catch up with those two.

Really, the problem is not *generating* electricity, it's *storing* it. The whole reason fossil fuels are popular is they have good energy density relative to their cost. If you're going to throw Dilbert Dollars at technology, investing in schemes to effectively store electricity is a better investment.
 
 
+52 Rank Up Rank Down
May 23, 2014
[So you think this is a 10-year-long scam with real patents? Has that scam ever been done? -- Scott]

Performing cons is a system, not a goal.
 
 
May 23, 2014
Is this Clint McCowen?

I gave Clint some free consulting on DC down-conversion when he was just starting out. Photos look like his FL power-pole setup. If it's him, nice to see that he's continuing the project.

Does it scale up? Well, the e-field on mountain peaks is orders of magnitude higher than in Florida sea-level flats. Also, the actual energy source is the Earth-Ionosphere dynamo supplying high DC voltage, not ions. Ions produce atmospheric conductivity, so they play an essential role, but they aren't the origin of the energy.
 
 
+12 Rank Up Rank Down
May 23, 2014
Scott, Bless you for being a critical thinker with an open mind. That's a rare combination, these days. As someone who tried to get an idea funded in the Midwest a very long time ago, when dinosaurs roamed the parking lot, this looks oh so familiar. The first thing the lawyer says is that you have to have a slick presentation or nobody will consider investing. He recommended a (100% honest) "marketing consultant" who said we needed to "stretch the language" to have more dramatic impact, never actually lying, but spinning the best words supported by the truth. What he came up with, while it was a brochure, not a video, was a whole lot like this video in SO many ways. Neither the lawyer nor the marketing guy had science backgrounds, so the result was emotionally exciting to non-science people, but the feedback from technical people was uniformly "what are you trying to pull here?". Also, then as well as now, there was somebody with an, uh... , less than sterling financial reputation who tried to convince us to let him raise funds for us, for a half share ownership of the invention itself. He always had two big guys in Hawaiian shirts with him. We said no thanks.

My point is that unless EVERYBODY and their dog that you deal with to get funded has a science background, you will get a result that should be in a circus tent, because that's what they know.

This looks to me like it could very well be a legit inventor trying to make an old idea work with new materials. However, judging from the videos, there is at least a 90% probability that he or she is surrounded by charlatans and most of the money will wind up in their pockets as either "professional fees" or "share payments". Scott, if you choose to support this one, you need to first try to buy "all rights and interest" in the invention itself. That will bring the associated night-crawlers out in the open where you stand a chance of legally excluding them.

It might be better all the way around, if the inventor still owns the invention without strings (doubtful), to offer a donation to a privately funded university that already dabbles in speculative energy research, with the condition that they support the inventor for some period of time. That gets it done if it can be done, and limits your exposure to the night-crawlers.

Good luck trying to do the right thing by humanity.
 
 
May 23, 2014
When you said 'make electricity out of air' I immediately thought 'hoax'. but after reading the patent and realising what they are proposing, I had to wonder why they have a patent, since I seem to remember Nikola Tesla inventing something like this a long time ago (though he probably didn't bother with a patent). I suppose the addition of diodes is what did it (Tesla didn't have diodes).

And yes, scalability is the main problem here. A windmill farm would be a more cost-effective way of extracting energy from the atmosphere than a farm of these things. For that matter I can think of at least a dozen renewable power sources that would be more cost effective than these things.

 
 
May 23, 2014
I'm just curious why they don't have any mention of lightning. This is essentially a "harness the power of lightning" type pitch, as lightning's just ions in the air being discharged suddenly. The fact that their page doesn't once mention lightning in either the simple or scientific explanation leads me to believe they don't have any engineers or people with science backgrounds in high enough ranking positions to point this out. I wouldn't want to invest anything in a technology company that does not have engineers or listen to its engineers
 
 
May 23, 2014
I hadn't looked at their web page until just now -- yikes!

I'm making a giant bowl of popcorn in anticipation of Phantom II's scathing comments.

 
 
+14 Rank Up Rank Down
May 23, 2014
[Remember, the difference between a scam, and a legitimate idea that won't work, is difficult to detect. He can always just argue that he THOUGHT his idea would work if he is ever forced to go to court. Maybe he believes that the idea is possible. Who knows? ]

This could be why looking at the crowdfunding like, no one associated with this company appears to have the qualifications to have built the equipment, or written the patents. None of the very best quotes they could gather, in their ten years of operation, is relevant to the determination of whether or not this technology has potential. They tell you that assuming the technology has potential, then it's really, really important. All that may give them plausible deniability.

Other commenters have picked the company apart enough to convince anyone this is most probably a sad scam, or at best a project run by sincere idiots who were fooled by that McCowen guy someone referred to in another post.

But you've surely figured all of that out in the last 10 years; and yet, you still have an itch...

So if you ask me, I say by all means you should pay a scientist to go check them out. You are obviously deriving a benefit from entertaining the idea that maybe, just maybe it is a real thing, and you can afford to lose the money. I would suggest that instead of getting someone off the internet that happened to read your post, you could dig deeper into your pocket and find a credible atmospheric scientist with the right background, from a legitimate institution, and pay him a fair consulting rate. Why half -a ss it? Structure the engagement so that his/her impartiality does not come into question. That would put your mind at ease, and be the single best contribution you can make.

But seriously, it's all animal waste from a cow's hole under the tail.

 
 
May 23, 2014
If they already have a working system, the thing to do to get people like me to believe in it is set it up in a small scale with all working parts in frame (so we know electricity is not being patched in from somewhere else), maybe have James Randi or some other verifiable 3rd party auditor there in the video, and post that bad boy on the internet for all to see.

Their apparent lack of realization that most of the world is not going to buy their concept is telling: they're acting like we should just take their word for it, and that's how scams work: talk a lot and assure people that it's all going to work right someday. There's plenty of video of people talking, buildings, installations, etc- but there's no proof of concept. And what do you get for funding them? A stake in their technology? Nope, you get a fancy paperweight. I wouldn't touch this project with a 10-foot pole.
 
 
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
May 23, 2014
Also, I think every one of your readers has a vested interest in not letting you fall for a scam. We're all hoping that we have a knockout idea one day, and will be able to convince you to be an investor.

If this guy gets your money, you may become too cautious. We're all at risk here! ;-)
 
 
+13 Rank Up Rank Down
May 23, 2014
"[So you think this is a 10-year-long scam with real patents? Has that scam ever been done? -- Scott]"

More like ... I imagine that con-artists spend their lives performing cons. It's how they make money, just like how a venture capitalist makes money. They put out a lot of fishing lines hoping to catch a fish. They make connections, and they use those connections. If they had the knowledge and ability to start a legitimate company, they probably would. But if their ability to sell ideas exceeds the merit of those ideas, and if they don't mind committing a crime, then they con people in the mean time to make ends meet. Maybe one day he'll have an idea worth selling, but until then, he has to pay the bills.

My guess is that someone showed him this idea a decade ago, and he ran with it. He figured Green Initiatives made for easy targets. It's probably one of a few different cons that he has going. If you blow the lid off of it, he'll law low for a while, change some of the names, get some new images up, and attempt the scam again in a few years. He probably has the sales pitch down. He'll probably read this thread, and in 5 years, he'll talk more about Wattage instead of Voltage. Or maybe he won't ... maybe he's careful about not saying anything incriminating.

His patents are probably real (read AtlantaDude's post about patents which are more focused on uniqueness than on actual merit), and that adds to his credibility. He's probably given this sales pitch 100 times, and is careful to avoid incriminating himself by going too far.

Remember, the difference between a scam, and a legitimate idea that won't work, is difficult to detect. He can always just argue that he THOUGHT his idea would work if he is ever forced to go to court. Maybe he believes that the idea is possible. Who knows?

Whether it's an outright scam, or someone who thinks that you can actually fake-it-till-you-make-it in the science world, who knows? But in my mind, there is no difference between a scam and an investment that obviously will fail, so I'm just being lazy and calling it a "scam".

Also, back to my example of Aquagold ... I couldn't believe how far that scam went. Seriously, a guy I knew literally VISITED their fake warehouse. They pulled down millions from this scam, no doubt. It went on for at least 2 years before it became clear that they took the money and ran, and their stock dwindled to nothing. But this was a scam that had actual stock that could be bought.
 
 
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
May 23, 2014
[So you think this is a 10-year-long scam with real patents? Has that scam ever been done? -- Scott]

Well, actually yes. It's done all the time; that's patent trolling in a nutshell.
 
 
May 23, 2014
Clinton Raymond McCowen claims to be the inventor of this technology.

http://www.clintonraymondmccowen.com: "Clint McCowen.... Inventor of the EMPIRE Energy System.... E.M.P.I.R.E. stands for Electro Magnetic Pulse Ion Renewable Energy.... EMPIRE has been operational at a confidential test site in Florida for several years....For more information go to IONPowerGroup.com." His other bio page (http://www.clintmccowen.com/) with the same picture has links to ION. See also http://www.patentbuddy.com/Inventor/McCowen-Clint/11426628.

Yet Clinton Raymond McCowen is not mentioned at all by Ms McCowen or her Florida ION Power Group.

Probably because he is the same Clinton Raymond McCowen of Florida who did business as webmaster "Ray Ghun" and who "pleaded guilty to an 'unlawful financial transactions' charge"? From http://www.xbiz.com/news/95744 "Ray Guhn Pleads Guilty to Money Laundering".

ION Power Group's current legal counsel is Derek B. Brett who was one of the attorneys who worked on Clint McCowen's defense. (http://www.avvo.com/attorneys/fl-derek-brett-673373/legal_cases/18862 -- "State of Florida v. Clinton McCowen.... Description:Tough-fought Racketeering & Money Laundering case with serious constitutional implications. Client was looking at life; vigorous defense trimmed the charges and time to four years in prison."

McCowen was also originally charged with obscenity related crimes to which lawyer raised a fairly unique First Amendment defense. Salon had reported (http://www.salon.com/2008/06/24/orgy_apple_pie/) that "McGowan and his associates now face charges of racketeering and prostitution, but his defense attorney, Lawrence Walters, believes the prosecution’s case can be undone with a simple observation: Orgies, Walters says, are as American as apple pie. Indeed, they’re more American than apple pie, if Google is to be believed." (see also: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/24/technology/24obscene.html?pagewanted=print)

I'm fine with the !$%*!$%*!$% part of things, I'm a big First Amendment supporter and believe that whatever makes consenting adults happy should be legal, but I'd be worried that the case involved illegal financial transactions.

I also encourage somebody else to research this: http://clintmccowen2.blogspot.com/ -- I have no idea if it is legitimate, but it fits into the pattern of facts generally. "My name is Sean. Clint aka Ray Guhn, is my younger brother. This blog is a mixture of Facts and my opinions from 20 plus years of watching him con and manipulate people."
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
May 23, 2014
AtlantaDude -

Totally subjective. You can't measure that. BS detection has a lot to do with whether you're familiar with the medium used for the BS. It's case-by-case. Also, like I said in my last post, I think that Scott's BS detector is strong. But this guy has been after Scott for 10 years. He formed some of his opinions on this guy 10 years ago, when his BS detector had 10 years less experience.

But at the same time, there was a part of him that said "I'm not sure that I'm thinking clearly. Let me put this out there to some of my smart friends (blog readers) and see what they think." In a way, his BS-detector IS working, because he used his Smart-Friend approach when he suspected that his BS-detector was faulty. That's BS-detector through delegation.

But yeah, measuring it? I mean, there are people out there who think they have good BS detectors because they "haven't fallen for Global Warming" or "Evolution". I'm not sure you or I would say that their BS Detectors are working, would you?

So yeah, too subjective. It's a constant struggle.
 
 
+19 Rank Up Rank Down
May 23, 2014
Disclosure: I'm actually an EE, licensed and everything, but I've been out of power (aside from hobbyist solar) for a long time. So... not a professional recommendation, unless you are paying me to look into it properly and provide a professional recommendation.

Looking at the indiegogo page, I can see your confusion. In this case and reading the comments, I might be thinking "it hasn't been done because no one has ever tried, because everyone said it couldn't be done." However, the truth is, people have collected and measured ions in fluid, and this group isn't proposing any new technology that would help their system harvest over a larger area, for example, or with lower loss, or with more discrete collectors, or in a more interesting fluid than prior experiments. Jumping from a garage to $3 million is a pretty serious leap, especially when you are talking about recreating experiments done by Benjamin Franklin, using literally the same technology.

I have to agree with most of the prior posters; at best these guys are foolish to try to get a different result from the same experiment that hundreds of others have done before. If you have something novel (and yes, I read the patent claims, but the majority of the claims are things that I've personally seen in text books... though I did like "electrical enemy from the air" in the first one) then you could have an improvement, but simply using "a carbon or graphite fiber" instead of copper is not going to improve things by multiple orders of magnitude, which is what they would actually need for this to be more than an amusement.
 
 
May 23, 2014
I am curious - What percent of people in the world think that they are not good BS detectors? How would you measure a person's BS detecting capabilities? Is objective self assessment even possible?
 
 
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
May 23, 2014
I think this has gotten to the point where we've all agreed this is a scam. I think it's time to pull back a bit. Even Scott can get embarrassed at a certain point. I'm just hoping he's not the $10,000 contributor.

This is a great example of how effective scams can be. I regard Scott as too clever to have fallen for it, and yet he did. I think his willpower reserve was exceeded, because this scam artist has been in contact with him for a very long time, and has been persistent. It was a long-con. In a way, this supports arguments Scott has made in his books about limited willpower.

[So you think this is a 10-year-long scam with real patents? Has that scam ever been done? -- Scott]
 
 
+16 Rank Up Rank Down
May 23, 2014
If anything, their crowd sourcing page looks terribly scammy. Their "depiction" of electrically charged ions in the air (per their description should be oxygen and nitrogen) are complicated organic carbon rings with no ionization. It's a completely BS graphic. Similarly their cosmic rays generating ions graphic is clearly a BS graphic, too.

The patent appears to be bogus. Not only is it "troll patent vague," but your patent links keep going to the same patent. So when I search based on the patent number in the indiegogo page, I find that their "patents" are actually patent applications, and none of the three of them have actually been issued, yet, and only the first one has even been given a number (appears to be in a patent pending state -- where it's been for like 8 freaking years)

Their 10 "monster capacitors" that are storing "41,000 volts each" and weight nearly a ton should be able to vaporize a household appliance -- not just power it. Overall, though, the concept just sounds wrong, and important details are ridiculously vague, and the level of misinformation is very high.
 
 
May 23, 2014
How about those trophies, with the engravings? Hahaha I can't decide whether I want to be an Honored Team Member, a Distinguished Team Member, A Valued Team Member, an Outstanding Team Member, an Extraordinary Team Member or an Inner-Circle Team Member. I like that they offer name engravings on them. Very nice perk.
 
 
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
May 23, 2014
Sorry ... my last post was getting angry.

The more people point out the flaws with this site, and the more I start noticing patterns, the angrier I get every time I realize how manipulative this site is. It doesn't look official, but it's written in a way that makes you feel like it's so official, and so well put-together. It doesn't look professional, but if *feels* professional. I know it's BS, but I *feel* guilty for dismissing it.

I also looked up the Facebook page. It's equally ridiculous. I tried to do reverse image lookups, but they were smart enough not to reuse existing images from the internet.

Once you realize how obviously fake this page is, it's infuriating.

Sorry Scott. I didn't mean to come off as mocking. I'm really, honestly glad that you posted this, and allowed us to provide you the feedback you needed. I'm honestly respectful of the fact that there was that voice in your head that said "I think this is !$%*!$%*! I have intelligent readers, which is as good as having a smart friend. Let's see what they think. It's better than getting scammed."

A lot of people would just go through with it on the down-low, hoping to make a fortune, and then when they get scammed, never tell anyone. I honestly totally respect that you chose embarrassment in this situation, because you've saved yourself a ton of money.
 
 
 
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