page 2Perpetual Motion Claim Probed
12:00 PM Aug, 21, 2006
Sean McCarthy believes his small Irish high-tech company has overturned one of physics' most fundamental laws.
It happened by accident, he says. His company Steorn was looking for an efficient way to power closed-circuit TVs that spy on ATMs, and instead stumbled on a technique they think produces more energy than it consumes.
The company hasn't released specific details about the process, other than to say it involves magnetic fields configured in precisely the right way. Using the magnets results in a motor that's more than 100 percent efficient -- essentially creating energy, McCarthy says.
For scientists and engineers, this is the equivalent of a perpetual motion machine, and is almost unanimously viewed as flat-out impossible. McCarthy, an affable former energy company engineer, knows just how preposterous his claims sound. So, he advertised in this week's Economist for a panel of the "most cynical possible" physicists to help validate them.
"If we're right, that will come out in due course," McCarthy says. "If we're wrong, that will come out. It's such a big claim that it has to be validated by experts."
A big claim it may be, but hardly original. The clamor of voices saying they've invented revolutionary new "free energy" technologies has grown tumultuous in recent years, driven perhaps by the internet's capacity to connect and inspire would-be tinkerers, or simply a that lay people are more fascinated with science.
The American Physical Society was worried enough about the trend a few years ago that its executive board put out a statement in June 2002, warning against such claims.
"(We are) concerned that in this period of unprecedented scientific advance, misguided or fraudulent claims of perpetual motion machines and other sources of unlimited free energy are proliferating," the group said. "Such devices directly violate the most fundamental laws of nature, laws that have guided the scientific progress that is transforming our world."
McCarthy says he's not using his claims to raise money, at least not yet. Steorn is privately funded, but is not seeking new investment until after the tests have been done, he contends.
The company has, however, filed patent applications on some of its work, and hopes to commercialize it by creating batteries for mobile phones and laptops, both markets that can respond quickly to new technologies. In the unlikely event it is borne out, it could also radically transform the automotive business and other industries.
The drive to create an engine that powers itself, or a self-replenishing source of energy, has long been a holy grail for the tinkering class, with a history stretching back nearly a thousand years. Like alchemy, its medieval pseudo-scientific counterpart, it has attracted high names and low, scientists and faith-based researchers, believers and outright scam artists.
Among the most notable investigators was Leonardo da Vinci, who included drawings of several self-driving devices inside his notebooks. However, he was publicly critical of such schemes, comparing them to the alchemical quest to transmute lead to gold.
Documenters of such schemes nevertheless find an unbroken string of subsequent proposals, tests, and failures that stretch to the present day, occasionally crossing over lines where would-be inventors are accused of running out-and-out con operations.
Perhaps the most famous recent claimant is a flamboyant only-in-America figure named Dennis Lee, who has spent much of the last decade churches and auditoriums across the United States promising "free electricity," among other inventions, and selling rights to open "dealerships" for thousands of dollars at a time. His efforts have led numerous state attorneys general offices to seek sanctions, including a recent string of fines and court orders in the state of Washington.