For the most part Steorn has been fairly tight lipped about the principle at work in their perpetual motion machine, Orbo. One would not expect Steorn CEO Sean McCarthy, for example, to waltz into a classroom, start up a powerpoint presentation, explain exactly how Orbo supposedly violates the law of conservation of energy, and then take questions.
Yet this is exactly what he did, on May 5th, at the University College Dublin.
Sean did not describe how Orbo works, mechanically. What he did do is explain the principle that Orbo exploits, and he put it into words that even a non-engineer can make sense of. As a non-engineer myself (well, software engineer doesn’t count), here’s what I got out of it.
The principle of conservation of energy (CoE) implies that it requires the same amount of work (that is, a transfer of the same amount of energy) to do something as it takes to undo it. Take for example a bouncing ball. The energy you put into lifting a ball up off the ground is stored in the ball as potential energy. When the ball is dropped, gravity pulls it downward, converting that potential energy into velocity. The energy in the balls’s velocity when it hits the ground is exactly as much energy as you put into it by lifting it up (minus a bit lost to friction) — so when it bounces back up, it will reach the same height fr which it was dropped (well, just a bit lower, due to the energy lost to friction). The point is, exactly as much energy is released as was first received by the ball.
CoE also implies “temporal invariance” — that is to say, it doesn’t matter how long a time the work takes, it’ll still be the same amount of work. It takes as much energy to lift a ball from the ground to a particular height regardless of whether it’s lifted over the course of a second or a minute. Either way it’s received the same amount of potential energy, and will bounce back to the same height when dropped.
But what if that last implication wasn’t always true? What if the amount of time it took you to lift a ball three feet from the ground determined how much potential energy that ball received? If you take 5 seconds to lift the ball 3 feet, then you drop it, the ball will bounce back up a bit less than 3 feet. But if you lift it in just one second instead, then drop it, it bounces back 4 feet! In this case the ball received more potential energy from being lifted quickly than you put into lifting it. It isn’t difficult to imagine how a machine could be set up to store that extra bit of energy in a spring or a battery, and use it to lift the ball quickly again. Yet more extra energy would come out of this second lifting, which can be used to lift it again, and so on. The result is a perpetually bouncing ball, with energy to spare.
Of course, gravity and balls don’t work that way. But — says Sean — magnets do. There is a little studied effect, discovered in the eighteen hundreds, called magnetic viscosity. Normally the term viscosity is used in reference to liquids. It is a measure of a liquid’s resistance to deforming when under stress — a liquid’s “thickness”. If you’ve ever dived into water from a great enough height, you’ve discovered that viscosity is temporally variant – it takes more energy to move through a viscous liquid quickly than slowly. Dive off a boat into the ocean and you’ll feel it when you hit the water. Fall from a plane and hit the ocean much faster, and you might as well be hitting concrete. That’s the temporal variance of viscosity.
According to Sean, when two magnets are brought together, magnetic viscosity results in a similar temporal variance. As the two magnets come together (poles aligned so they repel one another), there is a small lag as the force between the magnets increases. The lag is on the scale of milliseconds, but it’s there. And that means that it takes less energy to bring two magnets together quickly, not giving the lag enough time to catch up, than it does to bring them together slowly. So, bring together two magnets quickly, then let them repel more slowly, and they’ve put out more energy than you had to put in to get them together. As was the case with the magic bouncing ball, this effect can be exploited — a mechanism could be set up to store the extra energy after each cycle and put it into the next cycle, and the magnets will continue “bouncing” in and out indefinitely, with extra energy to spare. That extra energy, then, can be output to an electric generator or to any other use… it’s “free”.
Sean made another interesting claim. In the last few years physicists have discovered two anomalies in the way the universe works. Galaxies are spinning much faster than they should be according to the Newtonian laws of motion, and the universe is expanding at an ever increasing rate. These problems have so stumped scientists that they’ve posited two new concepts — “dark matter” and “dark energy” — as the explanation. For the math to work out, 96% of the universe would need to be made up of dark matter and dark energy; everything we understand in the universe takes up only the other 4%. This is established science. What Sean brings to this is the idea that, if temporal variance is taken into account, the anomalous effects can be precisely explained — there’s no more need for dark matter or dark energy. This is a bold claim about the nature of the universe, saying that it’s not just Orbo that violates the law of conservation of energy – the very expansion of the universe does the same thing.
That is my layman’s understanding, from the talk Sean gave. I’m sure I’ve misrepresented some of the science here; please feel free to leave comments correcting me if you have a better grasp of this.
I invite you to watch the talk yourself; it’s been posted to YouTube in 5 parts:
Following Sean’s presentation, two professors (Jerry O’Dwyer and Dr. David Timoney) gave a rebuttal. These two had nothing positive, or even informed, to say about Steorn’s claim. They did not address the magnetic viscosity issue at all. One of them, referring to Sean’s statements as “fallacy”, said that the principle of conservation of energy takes a “leap of faith”, and that “you either believe this or you don’t”. Another compared Steorn to the Nigerian e-mail scams, saying “This is in the same category”.
One can understand a certain amount of closed mindedness about a claim that violates the most fundamental law in science. This is especially understandable from one of the professors, who a year ago had been invited to invest in Steorn, and who visited Steorn’s office only to find that their device wasn’t working that day. However, this kind of vehemently negative response from scientists, at a public forum that Sean was invited to, lends credence to the notion that Steorn’s claim would not have been entertained by the conventional scientific channels.
Steorn is set to display Orbo in public, and online, in early July. Will it be a moment that changes the world forever, or will we also find that, it just so happens, their device isn’t working that day?