Thursday, August 24, 2006

Perpetual Motion

The dream is older than science: someone finds a way to break all the known rules and produce perpetual motion, turn lead into gold, or in today's climate, create "free energy." I was already planning to write on this general topic, before an old friend sent me a link to the latest example of this phenomenon from an Irish company called Steorn. They claim to have a gizmo that produces net energy by means of a vaguely-described interaction of magnetic fields. Steorn has issued a challenge in the Economist for scientists to try to debunk their invention. The odds are billions to one that one of two outcomes will follow, as was the case in every previous instance of similar claims. Either Steorn will turn out to have missed counting all of the energy inputs into the system, thus ending up with an actual net loss, or they will have discovered a novel effect that can neither be scaled up nor turned into useful "work." In the one-in-a-bazillion chance that their claims hold up, I'll cheerfully eat these words--provided they are printed on rice paper, of course.

Whenever the price of energy spikes up, or something else causes us to worry about the sustainability of our present sources, the wild energy ideas come out of the woodwork. They get our attention, because we're already focused on energy, and in our hearts we want them to be true. I'm reminded of the "Dean Drive" controversy of the early 1960s. If you've never heard of it, you probably didn't grow up reading science fiction, because the letter columns of the better science fiction magazines were full of debates about whether or not Norman Dean's "reactionless drive" device was possible. No matter how much scientific training someone had, if he already believed in the possibility of space travel without rockets, he was more easily convinced that someone had devised a way to do it. Who wouldn't want free energy from a black box?

Another reason many of us may want to believe that a radical energy innovation could happen this way is that we've fallen in love with the story of the personal computer, developed in a garage, that ultimately dethroned the massive, centralized mainframes of IBM and its big competitors. What would be the role of big oil and gas companies, or of OPEC, in a world remade by the Steorn device, or something like it? As humble purveyors of petrochemical feedstocks and fuel suppliers to hobbyists, no doubt. Even highly reputable Ballard capitalized on this sort of romance about fuel cells a few years ago.

As to Steorn's gizmo, I believe it is telling that the video clip on their impressive website focuses mainly on the invention's geopolitical, environmental and convenience benefits, and on the resulting business proposition, rather than its actual features and construction. Nor does their management profile page indicate the background or even the presence of a "chief scientist", behind the parade of finance and IT types. The Chaos Manor ur-blog, on the other hand, which brings together a very astute community of science and technology folks, has taken a look at Steorn's idea on its Mail page, and is extremely skeptical--as we should all be. This certainly seems like the perfect news story for the "silly season."

I think we're witnessing a classic unintended consequence of high energy prices and perceived energy scarcity. If these conditions persist, we'd better prepare ourselves, both as consumers and as investors, for a proliferation of competing claims to have beaten the rules, energy-wise. I'm old enough to remember the claims of 200 mile-per-gallon carburetors. But as both Dr. Pournelle and my friend suggested, the real test of something like this isn't the claim, but an actual working unit, powering something that proves its usefulness. A car, refrigerator or phone powered by Steorn would do nicely. Of course that would make it harder to explain failure, later. By remaining in the realm of theory and assertion, inventors can always contend that their idea was crushed by the entrenched establishment, rather than fizzling out in plain sight. Stay tuned.

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