Pseudoscience Skepticism/critical thinking

Repeat after me: Conservation of energy precludes perpetual motion machines

Here we go again.

After falling for such claims enough times, you’d think that journalists would go back to the physics textbooks and read up on the basics, you know, like the Three Laws of Thermodynamics. You’d especially think that a techy website like Engadget would know better than to hype this stuff without a bit more of the appropriate level of skepticism.

You’d be wrong.

Here we go, after months of doubt over claims of a magnetic machine promising “infinite clean energy,” Steorn will be putting their wares on display for public scrutiny in London. A physics defying perpetual machine, if you will. Starting tomorrow, rumor has it that the Kinetica museum will host the Orbo device for a ten day long public demonstration of the technology. We’re expecting a formal announcement at 6pm 11pm London (1pm 6pm New York). iPhone shmiPhone, this is going to be good.

This all began last August with a bold “challenge” by Steorn to scientists to “disprove” their technology:

An Irish technology company today challenged the global scientific community to test its “free-energy” technology.

Dublin-based Steorn said its technology based on the interaction of magnetic fields allows the production of clean, free and constant energy, challenging a fundamental scientific principle that you cannot destroy or create energy.

Sean McCarthy, chief executive of Steorn, has placed an advertisement in the Economist seeking the world’s leading scientists working in the field of experimental physics to examine the technology.

“We are under no illusions that there will be a lot of cynicism out there about our proposition, as it challenges one of the basic principles of physics,” he said.

“However, the implications of our technology go far beyond scientific curiosity; it addresses many urgent global needs including security of energy supply and zero emission energy production.”

At the time Engadget was a lot more skeptical of Steorn’s claims:

If it’s the real deal then after all the congratulations are all over and we’ve reevaluated the fundamental underpinnings of physics as we know it, perhaps all humanity’s energy ailments are finally going to come to a close. But the chances it could be a large PR hoax toying with our desperate need to revamp our global energy situation? Well, let’s just hope Steorn proves us all wrong and changes science forever.

What are the odds that this is the “real deal”? Slim and none? Yes, that’d be my guess. Let’s take a look at the checklist of some hallmarks of pseudoscience. Let’s see… A claim that violates the laws of known science (i.e., a device that produces more energy than it consumes)? Check. Take a look:

Steorn is making three claims for its technology:

  1. The technology has a coefficient of performance greater than 100%.
  2. The operation of the technology (i.e. the creation of energy) is not derived from the degradation of its component parts.
  3. There is no identifiable environmental source of the energy (as might be witnessed by a cooling of ambient air temperature).

The sum of these claims is that the technology creates free energy.

This represents a significant challenge to current understanding of the universe and clearly such claims require independent validation from credible third parties.

Yikes! If this were really the case, why not just publish the results in Nature or Science? After all, if it’s true, this sort of “technology” would indeed overturn the laws of physics as we presently understand them!

Let’s see. What’s next? Circumventing the process of scientific peer review and publication and pitching the device directly to the credulous media and to the public, starting with an ad campaign? Check:

During 2005 Steorn embarked on a process of independent validation and approached a wide selection of academic institutions. The vast majority of these institutions refused to even look at the technology, however several did. Those who were prepared to complete testing are claimed (by Steorn) to have all confirmed the company’s claims; however none will publicly go on record.

In early 2006 Steorn decided to seek validation from the scientific community in a more public forum, and as a result have published the challenge in The Economist. The company is seeking a jury of twelve qualified experimental physicists to define the tests required, the test centres to be used, monitor the analysis and then publish the results.

Steorn decided to publish its challenge in The Economist because of the breadth of its readership. “We chose it over a purely scientific magazine simply because we want to make the general public aware that this process is about to commence and to generate public support, awareness, interest etc for what we are doing.”

Sean McCarthy, CEO of Steorn, commented: “During the years of its development, our technology has been validated by various independent scientists and engineers. We are now seeking twelve of the most qualified and most cynical from the world’s scientific community to form an independent jury, test the technology in independent laboratories and publish their findings.

My skeptical antennae always start twitching when an inventor starts invoking a seemingly legal, rather than scientific, model for “proving” that his invention works. After all, why twelve scientists? Why not ten? Or fifteen? The number twelve was clearly chosen because it’s the number in a jury. I also love it when claims are made that “independent” scientists or university research groups have “confirmed” the inventor’s claims but none of those scientists or university research groups are willing to go on record saying that the device works. I wonder why. It must be that nasty conspiracy by the oil, coal, and natural gas companies whose livelihoods would be threatened by the Orbo. Yes, that’s definitely it. One last thought: How can such a “jury” be independent if they are chosen by Steorn? They can’t:

We now know that of the 5,000 applicants for the jury, just under a 1000 were qualified to participate. Of these, only 22 experts had the scientific know-how (and, free time) to assess the technology — testing which seems both under way and about to begin depending upon how you interpret the release. Nevertheless, in July Steorn will host a public demonstration of the technology in London. The event will allow anyone to “pretty much get hands-on with who we are and what the technology does.” Fortunately, it will also be broadcast live across the Intertubes.

Unbelievable. At least they expanded their “jury” to 22 scientists. Actually, if you really want to prove your technology, let someone else pick the panel of scientists to evaluate the claims. Heck, let the oil companies pick them! Convincing scientists predisposed to be hostile to your claims is far more powerful than using a hand-picked bunch of scientists. Or, they could take the advice of Mark over at Calladus and just hook up the device at MIT surrounded by a bunch of engineers and have it do some work or generate a current in such a way that it can be verified that there is no input of energy. Or, better still, this seems like just the sort of thing for the Randi challenge, with the added advantage that Steorn could rake in a million bucks to keep funding its research effort if it could convince James Randi. Steorn already has a major media presence, at least in the U.K.; so I would think that it could apply right to the James Randi Educational Foundation without validating its device to any middlemen first. In fact, Randi has stated that he’d be happy to award his million dollar prize to Steorn if it could prove its device produces more energy than it uses.

Let’s see, now. What’s next in the pseudoscience parade? Ah, yes, a science-y sounding “mechanism” by which it supposedly works. Check:

Orbo is based upon the principle of time variant magneto-mechanical interactions. The core output from our Orbo technology is mechanical. This mechanical energy can be converted into electrical energy using standard generator technology either by integrating such technology directly with Orbo or by connecting the mechanical output from Orbo to the generation technology. The efficiency of such mechanical/electrical conversions is highly dependent on the components used and is also a function of size.


McCarthy explained to Silicon Republic that Orbo technology works on the basis that occurrences in magnetic fields do not happen instantaneously, and are therefore not subject to time in the way that, say, gravity is.

This time variance allows the Orbo platform to generate and consistently produce power, going against the law of conservation of energy which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed.

“This is as big a claim as you can possibly make in the world of technology and science,” said McCarthy.

And, from a video that appears to be no longer on the Steorn website but is described by Mark at Calladus:

So far, Steorn has indicated no peer-reviewed works, and has shown no photos or video of their device. They have given very little in the way of theory. The only hint of how this device works is from a film that can be downloaded from their website, or from Google Video. From that film, we see the following graphic while McCarthy says,

“The technology is the ability to construct certain magnetic fields that when you travel around the magnetic fields, starting and stopping at the same position you’ve suffered a net gain of energy. Quite simply the analogy would be, you know, you walked to the top of the hill and you walked back down to the bottom of the hill and in doing that you gained energy; and it really is that simplistic.”

Nice. Too bad he forgot that you have to use energy to get to the top of that hill. Geez, I’m just a dumb surgeon and even I know that! I am, however, duly impressed by the time-variant magneto-mechanical interactions. Not bad woo, although, quite frankly, I can write more convincing-sounding woo than this.

Let’s see. There’s one more thing: a public demonstration. Oddly enough, instead of choosing to do it at a museum or a science laboratory, Steorn chose to do it at a museum that doesn’t seem to be primarily dedicated to science and technology, namely the Kinetica Museum in London. This, as you may have heard, was scheduled for 6 PM EDST yesterday (11 PM London time). Why they chose 6 PM on a U.S. National Holiday (and 11 PM in London on a weeknight), where the demonstration is not likely to be seen by a lot of people, I don’t know.

Actually, I suspect that I do know.

So what happened yesterday at 6 PM EDST at this big public demonstration? Was our world shattered? Was the most bedrock law of physics placed in doubt? Do we now have a potentially endless energy supply? Can we tell Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and the rest of OPEC to go screw themselves? In other words, did the device (a “prototype” of which is pictured in the YouTube video below, which was posted in February) deliver?

Well, not exactly. Steorn canceled postponed the demonstration, citing “slight technical difficulties.”

I’ll bet. Anyone want to make any bets over whether the Orbo demonstration goes off today as they now claim that it will?

Basically, although it’d be a wonderful thing if the Orbo worked the way that Steorn claims it does and generates more energy than it consumes, there’s just no way it’s going to. I don’t know if Steorn is a bunch of deluded inventors or scammers. They do seem to believe in what they’re doing, but in that case they would simply be cranks rather than dishonest. Still, if any of their scientific knowledge and abilities have survived, they must know, in their heart of hearts, that you can’t get something for nothing, that a free energy machine can’t work. The energy has to come from somewhere. In fact, I’m so confident of this that I autoscheduled this post to appear around the same time I’ll be starting in the operating room, which in London will be early afternoon.

I highly doubt that Steorn will have pulled off a successful demonstration by then. In fact, I’m betting on it, as I’ll have a lot of egg on my face if it does.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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