Steorn is an Irish company that claims to have found a way to create ‘free energy’.
Free energy has been a favorite target of crackpots for a long time. Also called, “Over Unity” or “Perpetual Motion” machines, they’ve been debunked time and again until scientists and engineers are sick of seeing them anymore.
But Steorn Chief Executive Sean McCarthy believes that now his company has succeeded where all others have failed. He believes that his company has found a way to get something for nothing, and he acknowledges that a lot of scientists are going to dismiss him.
“We fully accept there is going to be cynicism surrounding this but what we’re saying to the world of science is come and prove us wrong,” said Steorn Chief Executive Sean McCarthy.
“The answer to the question we’re posing is too big not to look,” he added.
Well, it couldn’t hurt to look, right?
Steorn has issued its challenge by advertising in the Economist magazine. Of course the first thing they did is set themselves up as a poor, oppressed and misunderstood minority by using George Bernard Shaw’s quote, “All great truths begin as blasphemies”.
But just because something is a blasphemy doesn’t mean that it is also a ‘great truth’. This is a logical fallacy. Michael Shermer, in his book “Why People Believe Weird Things” pointed out “Heresy does not equal correctness.” From his book (a link to this chapter in his book is here.)
History is replete with tales of the lone scientist working in spite of his peers and flying in the face of the doctrines of his or her own field of study. Most of them turned out to be wrong and we do not remember their names. For every Galileo shown the instruments of torture for advocating a scientific truth, there are a thousand (or ten thousand) unknowns whose “truths” never pass muster with other scientists. The scientific community cannot be expected to test every fantastic claim that comes along, especially when so many are logically inconsistent. If you want to do science, you have to learn to play the game of science. This involves getting to know the scientists in your field, exchanging data and ideas with colleagues informally, and formally presenting results in conference papers, peer-reviewed journals, books, and the like.
But is Steorn ‘playing the game of science?’ From Steorn’s website:
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 have all confirmed our claims; however none will publicly go on record.
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.
“We are under no illusions that there will be a lot of cynicism out there about our proposition, as it currently challenges one of the basic principles of physics. However, the implications of our technology go far beyond scientific curiosity: addressing many urgent global needs including security of energy supply and zero emission energy production. In order for these benefits to be achieved, we need the public validation and endorsement of the scientific community”.
“We’re playing our part in making that happen by throwing down the gauntlet with today’s announcement – now it’s over to the scientists to ensure that the real potential and benefits of our technology can be realised.”
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.”
The graphic and the explanation are very close to the way that an electrical generator works. The basic concept behind generating an electrical current is to pass a conductor perpendicularly through a magnetic field. The magnetic field causes an electric charge to move around that conductor’s circuit to generate an electromotive force, dubbed ‘voltage’. As an example, take a coil of copper wire, and wave a magnet back and forth across it. If you clip a voltmeter to the ends of the wire, you’ll see a voltage as you wave the magnet past the wire. Voltage is electromotive force.
From the graphic, you can see the Steorn trademark image moving in a circle between magnets. If you were to imagine their trademark as a coil of wire, you would have something that fairly approaches the example I gave above.
What McCarthy leaves out in this explanation is a simple question. What makes their image move in a circle? If something is passing through magnetic fields and generating electricity, what is making it move?
From my example, as I wave a magnet across a coil of wire, I am the one moving the magnet, and I expend energy (calories) as I do so. I could just as easily wave the wire back and forth across a magnet and get a similar result, but the fact remains that I’m expending energy to move one thing across another. McCarthy’s analogy is the same thing. He says, “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.” No it’s not, that’s not an explanation, that’s just pseudo-technical babble.
Moving up a hill requires an expenditure of energy. It is possible that you could reclaim that energy while moving back down the hill, but the fact is that you will only reclaim energy, you won’t gain energy. Think of standing on an airless planet and throwing a rock straight up. It takes energy for the rock to climb, but the gravity of the planet will counteract that energy until the rock stops going up and starts coming down. Eventually the rock will approach the same amount of energy as it comes down, and at the point where energy approaches unity, the rock will impact. A GAIN of energy would mean that the rock would return to the ground with more energy that it had when it first left the ground.
The energy efficiency of anything is a formula that states that efficiency is equal to power out divided by power in. This could also be defined by efficiency equals work divided by energy. The amount of energy I put into throwing the rock straight up is power in, and the amount of energy expended by the rock on impact back with the ground is power out. If I put 10 units of energy in, and get 10 units of energy out, I have an efficiency of 1, or 100%.
This could also be called a coefficient of performance. Steorn seems to use the words “coefficient of performance” as a synonym for the word “efficiency“
Steorn’s technology appears to violate the ‘Principle of the Conservation of Energy’, considered by many to be the most fundamental principle in our current understanding of the universe. This principle is stated simply as ‘energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only change form’.
Steorn is making three claims for its technology:
- The technology has a coefficient of performance greater than 100%.
- The operation of the technology (i.e. the creation of energy) is not derived from the degradation of its component parts.
- 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 our technology creates free energy.
That’s right, Steorn says that their device will create energy.
In an electrical generator electricity (electrons) are not created – they already exist in the wiring. These electrons are only being made to move. Think of marbles in a garden hose, each marble is an ‘electron’. If I have a paddle that pushes each marble down the hose, that marble will push the next in line, which will in turn push the next one, all the way around the hose, in a circle back to my marble pusher. Steorn is saying that their device adds electrons, or ‘marbles’ to this circuit. They are saying that they are not ‘stripping’ those electrons from anything else, which would degrade the material that is being stripped (item 2). Electrons are a fundamental building block of matter – so are they creating matter out of nothing? In my example, if I kept adding marbles to the hose, sooner or later that hose will burst. If this device creates electrons, what happens to them?
A heat engine is a device that uses a temperature gradient to generate work. Work could be applied to moving a magnet or a coil through a magnetic field to generate an electric current. When a heat engine is in use, it allows the unequal temperatures to equalize, the hot flows into the cold temperature area and work is done. If you are measuring the warm side of a heat engine, you’ll see it cool off as work is preformed. If heat is not added, the engine will slow down and less work will be done. This is a basic part of Thermodynamics. Steorn seems to be saying in item 3 that their free energy machine is not based on being a heat engine.
I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that Steorn actually has a machine that generates ‘free’ energy. I’ll give them a (very generous) benefit of a doubt and pretend that they are being honest, and that they don’t understand what is actually going on.
Perhaps Steorn is experiencing all too common simple measurement errors. If something is measured beyond the accuracy of the measuring equipment then it is possible to see something that isn’t there. For example, an ammeter that is accurate to +/- 0.02 amps, and measures a current of 0.01 amps is not really seeing a true current flow, perhaps current is flowing, but it is beyond the ammeter’s capability to see. Another example is a scale that tries to measure a device and shows that the device is ‘lighter’ when it vibrates than when it sits still. The scale isn’t measuring a net gain in energy from a ‘hovering’ device, it is only experiencing stiction. Pons and Fleischmann were guilty of measurement error in their cold fusion fiasco. The last I heard, they still believe they achieved cold fusion, despite much evidence otherwise.
But even Pons and Fleischmann had a workable theory of where their energy came from. Theoretically cold fusion could actually work and generate energy through nuclear fusion. But fusion doesn’t create energy or matter, it only transforms it. Steorn is saying that their process creates either energy or matter, or both.
Maybe Steorn is just a crackpot company. Dr. Robert Park is a professor of physics at the University of Maryland at College Park. Dr. Park has published a list of seven warning signs of bogus science. From that list we are warned that science may be bogus if:
- The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
- The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
- The discoverer has worked in isolation.
- The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.
Wow. Four out of seven, that’s pretty strong!
Steorn, as a company of about 20 people (according to their video) could be considered to be working in isolation, since they did not work with the scientific or academic community while developing this technology. They pitched their invention directly to the media after unnamed scientists and academic institutions refused to help them out, effectively suppressing their work. As for proposing new laws of nature, making matter or energy out of nothing definitely requires new laws of nature!
Another of the seven warning signs of bogus science is:
- The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.
Which is another way of saying, “measurement error” like I’ve already discussed. Steorn hasn’t said as yet, but I’ll bet that eventually we’ll be told that the results of their device are “currently” at the limits of detection, but that someday the results will be huge!
So why is Steorn issuing a challenge in the Economist magazine? I could see a potential argument from crackpots that Steorn is afraid of having their technology ripped off – but a simple patent would fix that. Other perpetual energy machines have been patented. Unfortunately, when such a machine is patented it becomes pretty easy to see how it works (or doesn’t work). James Randi has demonstrated this with the MEG perpetual energy machine.
And speaking of The Amazing Randi, the Steorn ‘free energy’ device would easily qualify for Randi’s One Million Dollar Challenge. Under item 2.3 of Randi’s FAQ, Steorn’s device would, “Violate Newton’s Laws of Motion.” Steorn could easily fill out an application and send it in. If they prove what they say they can do, then not only will Randi hand them a million dollars, but I’ll bet Randi would be one of their biggest promoters!
In my own humble opinion, Steorn isn’t issuing a challenge in the Economist magazine because of conspiracy, or because of fear of theft of their idea, they are doing it in order to attract investors with deep pockets. When Pons and Fleischmann announced cold fusion, they were inundated with offers of funding.
If Steorn wants to prove their device without giving away their secrets, all they would need to do is turn it into a black box, and have perform some work outside of the box. Maybe turn a wheel, or generate a current. They could set up the box on the MIT campus and have it put under guard, and just wait while measuring the output energy of the black box.
It would be easy to calculate the energy density of a box of a given size for all known forms of convertible energy. The energy density of gasoline is greater than that of a battery, and the energy density of an explosive surpasses the energy density of gasoline. As the black box outputs energy the scientists at MIT could have a chart that shows the black box surpassing energy densities for different materials. Long before it gets to the energy density of gasoline investors would start lining up to dump money on Steorn. If the black box is measured at the energy density of fission or fusion – well! That would be something!
And think about it, any device that produces more energy than it consumes could be plugged into itself and would continue to increase in energy density until some part of the device reached its theoretical limits and destroyed itself. Perhaps the device would blow up. If no part reached a limit the device would soon become a new (small) sun! The potential for weaponization of such an item is enormous!
But like I said, I don’t believe it. I don’t think Steorn has discovered anything more than just another way of separating investors from their money. I think this is little different from the Alchemy scams of the 1920’s.
Perhaps I’m wrong in laughing at Steorn’s claims, just as other great inventors in history were laughed at, but I think I’m pretty safe in doing so. As Michael Shermer says,
“They laughed at Copernicus. They laughed at the Wright brothers. Yes, well, they laughed at the Marx brothers. Being laughed at does not mean you are right.”
4 July 07 – Update:
A prototype of the Steorn “over unity” device is supposed to go on display today at the Kinetica Museum in London. See my blog entry.
6 July 07:
Added a clarification on Steorn’s use of “coefficient of performance”.