Jun 29 2009

The Jury Is In For Steorn – No Free Energy

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Comments: 23

This is one of those stories that science writers, educators, and journalists will have to write about forever – free energy claims. The story is always the same, only the names and details change. The allure of free energy, it seems, is just too great. There will always be someone to get snared in its beguiling charms, or to exploit it to ensnare others.

This time around the name of the company is Steorn, an Irish company that announced in 2006 that it had created “a technology that produces free, clean and constant energy.” The typical news cycle ensued. The company touted its innovative technology, with a promised demonstration. The press covered the story with a mixture of wonder and skepticism, depending upon the savvy of their journalists and editors. The free energy community starting buzzing – sure that this time the Great Pumpkin would finally makes its appearance.  The scientific and skeptical community scoffed and used the episode as an opportunity to remind the public of the conservation laws, thermodynamics and all that – you cannot get energy from nothing. Period.

It’s one of those few actual laws in science that cannot be violated. It’s just the way nature works. In order to overturn this law something new and fundamental would have to be discovered about the universe, and the burden of proof would be enormous. History is now littered with the stories of those who believed they had found a loop hole in physics (or pretended to) only to crash and burn, or simply fade into obscurity.

In July of 2007, true to the script of such stories, Steorn promised to demonstrate their “Orbo” free energy technology. However, the demonstration never happened. On their website the next day they explained:

“Further to Steorn’s announcement yesterday (5th July) regarding the technical difficulties experienced during the installation of its “Orbo” technology at the Kinentica Museum in London, Steorn has decided to postpone the demonstration until further notice.”

Sean McCarthy CEO stated that “technical problems arose during the installation of the demonstration unit in the display case on Wednesday evening. These problems were primarily due to excessive heat from the lighting in the main display area. Attempts to replace those parts affected by the heat led to further failures and as a result we have to postpone the public demonstration until a future date.”

That is the way these stories go – promises followed by excuses, but never the product itself, never the free energy. Free energy claimants can produce experts to verify their claims, schematics of their machines, elaborate explanations for how they work, and copious excuses when they don’t – but never free energy.

In August of 2006 Steorn appointed a jury of 22 scientists and experts to evaluate their technology and their claims. This was an independent group of experts, not invested in the company, and with the expertise to evaluate the Orbo technology to see if it actually works. They recently announced their results:

Twenty-two independent scientists and engineers were selected by Steorn to form this jury. It has for the past two years examined evidence presented by the company. The unanimous verdict of the Jury is that Steorn’s attempts to demonstrate the claim have not shown the production of energy. The jury is therefore ceasing work.

That certainly seems like a thorough evaluation – 22 experts over two years, and they unanimously concluded that the company indeed has not produced free energy.  So far, that is how every single free energy claim has ended – without free energy. The story is more predictable than Murder She Wrote. What is also predictable is that the company and the free energy community will not simply abandon the claims. Now it’s excuse time.

The comments to the jury verdict is filled with skeptics and believers (there does not appear to be any middle ground). One commenter, who runs a free energy news site and is commenting under the nym of 007, wrote:

This does not sound to me like the jury seen the review process through to it’s conclusion – far from it. If they had followed this process to a full conclusion then the statement would have read “The jury have completed their work”.

Why did they cease work? That’s an interesting choice of words, don’t you think?

There is always something to nitpick – something to focus on other than the huge giant fact that the jury found no evidence of free energy. The company CEO, Sean McCarthy, has this to say:

Due to these difficulties we had focused on providing the Jury with test data relating to the underlying magnetic effect behind Orbo. This work concluded at the end of 2008.”

McCarthy concluded by stating that “during 2009 the company had resolved the key technical problems related to the implementation of Orbo and is now focused on commercial launch towards the end of this year, at which time academic and engineering validation would be released concurrent with public demonstrations”.

Ah – so the jury had information only up to the end of 2008, and since then the company fixed their technical problems. Got it.  That is what the script says – make an excuse for the lack of evidence, then push back the date for the promised results. Repeat this cycle as long as possible.

There are then several possible endings to choose from. Some free energy claimants just fade away. The final promised date comes and goes, but nary a peep is heard. Others will continue to endure on the fringe, in the free energy subculture, perhaps limping along on whatever investments they can find. Still others, those who I think fit into the conscious fraud category, simply migrate over to new claims to sucker in a new crop of “investors.”

I don’t think Steorn fits into this latter group, so we’ll see how long they can limp along without actually producing anything. As for the true believers, they will bluster and bloviate until this claim is forgotten and the next one comes along. As one believer commenter wrote:

The science is not so bad – just delayed a bit. If you publish a sarcastic piece on this you may be in for rude awakening end 2009.

“Delayed a bit” as in forever.  And, the thing they don’t get, is that the skeptics would love to have the “rude awakening” that someone has solved the world’s energy problems and launched our civilization into the next, and presumably better, phase. They also don’t get that scientists (at least collectively) are not afraid of being wrong – being wrong is an almost constant state of affairs as new information is discovered and ideas change. If someone could demonstrate free energy, any embarrassment over being wrong would be overwhelmed by the excitement of new science – the universe is even more interesting than we thought.

And – no one could reasonably blame any scientist for being skeptical about an idea that has failed hundreds of times in the past and is at odds with pretty solid science. Skepticism is the appropriate stance to such claims. The key is – if it can be adequately proven, we will accept it, just not before. That’s where the line is between skeptics and believer, the placement of adequate proof before acceptance.




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23 responses so far

23 Responses to “The Jury Is In For Steorn – No Free Energy”

  1. mindmeon 29 Jun 2009 at 10:21 am

    ||The science is not so bad – just delayed a bit. If you publish a sarcastic piece on this you may be in for rude awakening end 2009.||

    I liked the response by a Mr. Lockwood:

    ||Presumably you mean that by the end of 2009 there will be Free Energy, some of the fundamental laws of physics will have been shown to be nonsense, and Dr Goldacre will be wiping metaphorical egg off his face in print?

    This ought to be good.||

    Yes, I think we would all be happy, happy, happy to have such a “rude” awaking or egg, mud, mustard, or any combination on our faces if we have free energy by the end of 2009. That’s the part the true believers don’t get. The same can’t be said for them.

    My world view won’t come crashing down if we have free energy, UFOs, bigfoot, or psychics. My world will be more exciting. Their world, however, is a much sadder place without their invisible blue dragons.

  2. skidooon 29 Jun 2009 at 10:47 am

    As a long-time Steorn-watcher, I’ve been disappointed on so many levels.

    Not only have their amazing claims gone unsupported and their demonstrations patently flopped (pardon the pun), but they’ve failed to demonstrate even the gumption to turn this waterlogged ship around onto a course even mildly interesting, such as a Popost or Noospheric “art” project.

    Come on Steorn, give us [em]something[/em]. Even a facile “Gotcha, suckas!” would be welcome at this point.

  3. Shaeon 29 Jun 2009 at 11:37 am

    “conservation laws, thermodynamics and all that – you cannot get energy from nothing.”

    Of course, but isn’t possible that we could create energy that’s “free” for all practical purposes, because it sucks some energy out of the sun or space or somewhere that feels like surplus as far as we’re concerned? If someone offered something like this, I’d give them a pass on calling it “free”.

    Sure, we’d have to build and maintain the energy sucker, but still might reap such a large savings in personal energy expenditure that it feels “free” enough.

    I realize that people with big claims are full of crap more often than not, but it seems like an invention that gets its energy from somewhere where we don’t miss it is *possible*, if difficult and not popping up every half decade.

    My skepticism would be that powerful groups would find a way to own and control it and charge a lot for it and that it wouldn’t end up all that inexpensive to us average joes and janes.

  4. Steven Novellaon 29 Jun 2009 at 12:05 pm

    Shae- the term “free energy” means that energy is being created, or the implication is that it is being pulled from some exotic and unknown source (like zero-point energy).

    It does not refer to tapping into known energy sources, like solar or geothermal. It also does not refer to the market price of the energy.

    For new potential energy sources, like fusion, the term “free energy” is not used. Rather, “unlimited, cheap, and environmentally friendly” are the descriptors. Again, the energy source is known, the technology simply is not here yet.

    “Free energy” is a scam because the claims require that either the conservation of energy is being violated, or there is some vast source of energy that has been so-far missed by science. The former is probably impossible, while the latter is not necessarily impossible, just extremely unlikely.

  5. Karl Withakayon 29 Jun 2009 at 12:31 pm

    “Of course, but isn’t possible that we could create energy that’s “free” for all practical purposes, because it sucks some energy out of the sun or space or somewhere that feels like surplus as far as we’re concerned?”

    By your definition all energy is free.

    The energy in Fossil fuels is free, having been provided by sunlight (accumulated when the biomatter was alive), and geological heat and pressure, you just have to get it out of the ground and use it.

    Nuclear (Fission) energy is free. The energy bound in the U-235 or Pu-239 nuclei was provided by a supernova explosion billions of years ago.

    Solar power, hydroelectric power, geothermal, tidal power- it’s all free by your definition.

  6. Enzoon 29 Jun 2009 at 12:50 pm

    I wish investors would consult with independent scientists before choosing to dump significant financial resources into fraudulent companies such as this. Genuine, exciting physics would be much better served by that money.

    Next year, new fusion generation studies will be conducted. AMAZING stuff! Much more interesting and scientifically accessible than this nonsense. Sadly it seems it is much easier to rope a sucker with get-rich-quick schemes like free energy. I wonder if Steorn is actually convinced they are legit.

    Also…

    “The story is always the same, only the names and details change.”

    I think Bon Jovi said this.

  7. mindmeon 29 Jun 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Enzo,

    Good advice for some of the “names” putting money into BlackLight Power.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blacklight_Power

    ||As of May 2008, its board members included former Assistant Secretary of Energy Shelby Brewer and Michael H. Jordan, who has served as CEO of various major corporations including PepsiCo Int’l. Foods and Beverages, Westinghouse Electric Corporation, CBS Corporation, and EDS.[39]||

  8. DevilsAdvocateon 29 Jun 2009 at 2:41 pm

    Dr. N: “The free energy community starting buzzing – sure that this time the Great Pumpkin would finally makes its appearance.”

    Hee hee, funny stuff. Now we have Linus as an icon for blind believerism.

  9. Karl Withakayon 29 Jun 2009 at 3:25 pm

    I’d like to buy a Credit Default Swap on every single free energy investment opportunity on the planet.

  10. Khym Chanuron 29 Jun 2009 at 9:51 pm

    From their website:

    Orbo is based upon time variant magnetic interactions, i.e. magnetic interactions whose efficiency varies as a function of transaction timeframes.

    What? If the efficiency varies over time but always remains below 100%, that’s not going to get you any free energy.

    It is this variation of energy exchanged as a function of transaction time frame that lies at the heart of Orbo technology, and its ability to contravene the principle of the conservation of energy. Why? Conservation of energy requires that the total energy exchanged using interactions are invariant in time. This principle of time invariance is enshrined in Noether’s Theorem.

    I’m not a physicist, but I thought that it was that if the behavior of a certain physical law varies over shifts in time then energy isn’t conserved.

    The time variant nature of Orbo interactions can be engineered using two basic techniques. The first technique utilizes a method of controlling the response time of magnetic materials to make them time variant. This is achieved by controlling the MH position of materials during permanent magnetic interactions.

    So they’re either changing the physical property of some materials over time or changing their position over time (or both). This isn’t at all the same as electromagnetism itself changing over time.

    The second technique decouples the Counter Electromotive Force (CEMF) from torque for electromagnet interactions. This decoupling of CEMF allows time variant magnetic interactions in electromagnetic systems.

    As far as I can tell, this renders down to “we’ve figured out how to violate the laws of physics as currently understood, but wer’re not going to explain how”. It also sounds like they’re claiming to have found a way to violate the conservation of angular momentum.

  11. sonicon 30 Jun 2009 at 5:57 am

    Shae-
    Zero point energy might qualify as ‘free’ energy. The existence of this energy is a logical consequence of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Many believe it has been demonstrated experimentally numerous times- the first by a guy named Hendrik Casimir in 1947. A good reference from Cal tech-
    http://www.calphysics.org/zpe.html

    Probably the area of research that lends itself to the most speculation about how our understanding of the universe will be changing is called ‘quantum tunneling’. Here the rules of energy and time seem to be breakable. A good read about a possible violation of Einstein’s special relativity-
    http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2007/08/has-warp-speed-.html

    Fortunately there are these brilliant scientists who think that what we know is just the beginning of what we will find-out and are willing to investigate what shouldn’t be. We can thank these brave souls (many who have to put up with much ridicule) for the great discoveries of science.

  12. Steven Novellaon 30 Jun 2009 at 11:31 am

    Every couple of years or so someone claims to have violated special relativity, but so far none have held up to peer review. They all have turned out to be a misinterpretation of the data, and the example Sonic links to above is probably no exception: http://arxiv.org/abs/0709.2736

    I don’t think it is a good idea to cite preliminary results that have not been validated to argue for a major shift in our understanding of physics.

    Zero point energy does exist, that is not in question. However, the amount of energy available is probably negligible – i.e not a useful source of free energy.

    And really, Sonic, you have to get beyond this cardboard fiction of the brilliant scientists fighting against the ridicule of the old guard who are hampering discovery. That image is about a century out of date (to whatever extent it was true).

    Mainstream physicists are trying to break our current understanding of the laws of physics. That’s what they do. Not all critical commentary is ridicule – it’s part of the process of science.

    The only ones getting ridiculed, as far as I can tell, are those doing sloppy science or making claims that cannot be backed by evidence – not those simply looking for new phenomena.

  13. sonicon 30 Jun 2009 at 4:16 pm

    From:

    http://amasci.com/weird/vindac.html

    “Below is a list of scientists who were reviled for their crackpottery, only to be later proven correct. Today’s science texts are dishonest to the extent that they hide these huge mistakes made by the scientific community.”

    These stories include many in the last few years.

    I think it is important to acknowledge that scientists are people who act on deep-seated prejudices like all other humans. What makes science interesting is that all discoveries are ‘preliminary’ and that the discoveries continue. This is true of science as a subject, but not always true of scientists as individuals.

    There is a large spectrum of attitudes between acceptance and rejection. As I understand it- if skepticism is similar to doubt (as the dictionary would have it), then a skeptical attitude would be one that exists on the spectrum, but never at the ends.

    None of the above is meant to be derogatory toward science, the philosophy of skepticism, or any particular scientist.

  14. artfulDon 30 Jun 2009 at 5:06 pm

    Sonic’s view of science is that all hypothesizers are innocent until proven guilty. The hypothesis therefor is to be considered right until the hypothesizer is proven to be an idiot.

    Never mind that the list of fully discredited hypotheses along with their hypothesizers is immeasurably longer than the one where initial skepticism was overcome.

  15. mindmeon 02 Jul 2009 at 3:04 pm

    ||sonic

    From:

    http://amasci.com/weird/vindac.html

    “Below is a list of scientists who were reviled for their crackpottery, only to be later proven correct. Today’s science texts are dishonest to the extent that they hide these huge mistakes made by the scientific community.”

    These stories include many in the last few years. ||

    Yes. Stories. It’s one web pages opinion about the attitudes of other unnamed scientists. Geez. Examining one of the entries:

    ||Fritz Zwicky (Dark Matter)

    Known in the astro research community as “Crazy Fritz,” Zwicky investigated orbit statistics of galactic clusters in 1933 and concluded that the majority of mass had an invisible unknown source. He was ignored, dismissed as an eccentric. ||

    Wow. Ignored and dismissed. Terrible! But wait.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fritz_Zwicky#Honors

    ||In 1949, Truman awarded Zwicky the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for work on rocket propulsion during World War II.[25] In 1968, Zwicky was made professor emeritus at California Institute of Technology.

    In 1972, Zwicky was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, their most prestigious award, for “distinguished contributions to astronomy and cosmology”.[29] This award noted in particular his work on neutron stars, dark matter, and cataloging of galaxies.

    The asteroid 1803 Zwicky and the lunar crater Zwicky are both named in his honour.||

    and

    ||Zwicky produced hundreds of publications over a long career, covering a great breadth of topics. This brief selection, with comments, gives a taste of his work.||

    Sorry, this does not sound like a man ignored and dismissed.

    Your list is cute ‘n’ all but doesn’t much rise above People magazine in terms of scholarship.

  16. Steven Novellaon 02 Jul 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Yeah – that list is bogus. Watson and Crick? Please. Remove the names of scientists from pre-1900, when authority did hold sway over merit, and you are left with mostly bogus stories. The usual initial skepticism and vigorous debate that marks any sufficiently innovative idea is being spun as ridicule. But read the stories, most were fairly quickly given Nobel prizes and recognized for their work.

    It seems more appropriate to present those stories as a vindication for the system of science – even really weird ideas can win the day IF they have the evidence to support them.

  17. Pat McCombon 02 Jul 2009 at 6:20 pm

    I remember the live web feed of the 2006 demonstration. I felt bad they expended so much bandwidth when a still image would have worked fine.

    The feed showed an empty transparent plastic box bearing the words, “nothing is impossible.”

    On the contrary, *nothing* is clearly possible.

    An image of the display at the Kinetica museum:
    http://dispatchesfromthefuture.com/2007/07/kinetica_demo_cancelled.html

  18. tmac57on 02 Jul 2009 at 10:33 pm

    It seems like every sort of apologist for pseudoscience and dubious scientific claims love to trot out the “they all laughed at..” straw man argument. But scientists would not be doing their jobs if they blindly accepted every odd claim that came down the pike. As ArtfulD pointed out there are vastly more discredited hypotheses littering the landscape than there are the ones that were once discredited but are now mainstream. There is no grand conspiracy to keep science in the dark ages. If anything, healthy scientific skepticism helps to keep things on track, and avoid going too far down the rabbit hole of unproductive ideas, thus re-enforcing the self corrective nature of science.

  19. Michael Kingsford Grayon 03 Jul 2009 at 12:17 am

    Hey, mindme: I have a WORKING perpetual motion machine that only requires more funds to demonstrate.
    I’ll give you a 50% share in the profits if you are able to lend me AU$15,000 for the marketing trials.

    What’do you say, eh?

  20. mindmeon 03 Jul 2009 at 9:54 am

    ||As ArtfulD pointed out there are vastly more discredited hypotheses littering the landscape than there are the ones that were once discredited but are now mainstream.||

    I think Carl Sagan put it “they laughed at Galileo but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown”.

    Science has taken few wrong turns precisely because new ideas as found on sonic’s list were not simply uncritically accepted. Scientists were forced to defend and, I dare say, CORRECT and REVISE their initial hypotheses. Sonic might want to consider that latter point. New ideas don’t all out whole and perfect from the minds of scientists. They really don’t get it right the first time.

    And for every idea that was delayed because pesky peers wanted good evidence to abandon or modify the current paradigm, how does sonic know there aren’t 100 ideas that were prevented from entering the text books and steering science wrong? Gosh, let’s abandon that chemo therapy for homeopathy or energy field manipulation. After all, according to sonic they laughed at Watson and Crick.

  21. wjbeatyon 13 Jul 2009 at 9:29 pm

    > ||Zwicky produced hundreds of publications over a long career, covering a great breadth of topics. This brief selection, with comments, gives a taste of his work.||

    > Sorry, this does not sound like a man ignored and dismissed.

    Um. Read again. Especially the title. It’s a list of *vindicated* crackpots; people who were targets of ridicule, but where the ridicule turned out to be bogus, and the targets of scoffing eventually won the fight.

    || Science has taken few wrong turns precisely because new ideas as found on sonic’s list were not simply uncritically accepted. ||

    So, the opposite of uncritical acceptance is hostile laughter and refusals to inspect evidence? Hardly. Skepticism is based on investigation and refusal to accept claims until forced to do so by the evidence. On the other hand, if one is laughing, sneering, and saying “Oh please,” it’s a big red flag for emotional involvement. If you’re indulging in scorn, then you’ve parted ways with rationality, and you’re not at all a skeptic, and certainly are behaving the very opposite of a scientist. Scornful laughter involves the psychology of playground bullies, not of rational thought.

    ||As ArtfulD pointed out there are vastly more discredited hypotheses littering the landscape than there are the ones that were once discredited but are now mainstream.||

    Now THAT’s a good argument. When some topic attracts scorn and derision, *usually* there’s a rational cause triggering the emotion-driven attacks. But in a few rare cases, the claims later prove valid, which demonstrates that the derision was purely irrational.

    Therefore when you see ridicule occurring, be careful to never thoughtlessly join the jeering crowd and participate in their Groupthink. Always stop and investigate first. Make sure that the target of the ridicule isn’t just the victim of a crowd of mindless bullies. (And then, perhaps avoid indulging in emotion-based attacks yourself, even if the victim deserves it.)

    I note that Phrenology and Flat-Earth beliefs aren’t controversial topics. They don’t attract these large emotional responses, only the sad shaking of heads. Phrenology etc. is well-debunked and no threat. But apparently “Free Energy” yet remains in a very different category.

  22. wjbeatyon 13 Jul 2009 at 9:46 pm

    How to detect a con? Well, in some cases it’s simple. If someone is selling a map to a hidden gold mine, then we should initially assume it’s a con game, and search for any evidence to the contrary. *Don’t* be open minded or give them the benefit of the doubt, since that makes us vulnerable; con men use such gullible assumptions to manipulate their marks. We should use the same tactic with someone offering to sell us cheap land in Florida, or untested Emeralds, or any other classic scams: assume it’s a con, then investigate further (because sometimes, rarely, it’s legit.)

    “Free Energy” is certainly a classic scam. We should initially assume that STEORN are a bunch of con men. And then investigate. Scammers are quite good at hiding evidence of dishonesty, so the warning sign of a scam becomes their lack of honesty. If we look for honesty in the usual places, but find no solid evidence, (if we detect missing honesty,) then our initial assumption stands.

    Is the above a scientific procedure? I’d say yes, since in a situation where dishonesty is probable, or even near-certain, then it’s extremely unwise to proceed as if there was no danger of being fooled.

  23. mindmeon 14 Jul 2009 at 1:20 pm

    wjbeatyon 13 Jul 2009 at 9:29 pm

    > ||Zwicky produced hundreds of publications over a long career, covering a great breadth of topics. This brief selection, with comments, gives a taste of his work.||

    > Sorry, this does not sound like a man ignored and dismissed.

    >>Um. Read again. Especially the title. It’s a list of *vindicated* crackpots; people who were targets of ridicule, but where the ridicule turned out to be bogus, and the targets of scoffing eventually won the fight.

    No. You’ll need to read that page yourself again. The claim:

    ||They rarely discuss the acts of intellectual suppression which were directed at the following researchers by their colleagues.||

    When a man is publishing hundreds of papers and winning major awards, that is not evidence of intellectual suppression.

    >|| Science has taken few wrong turns precisely because new ideas as found on sonic’s list were not simply uncritically accepted. ||

    >So, the opposite of uncritical acceptance is hostile laughter and refusals to inspect evidence?

    Who is refusing to inspect evidence? I myself inspected Sonic’s evidence. The evidence did not support the claim. I reported on such.

    Thanks for playing. Better luck next time.

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