It’s likely you won’t remember Steorn and their Orbo device – especially if you live outside the UK– so a little bit of memory-jogging in probably in order. Steorn is an Irish company that claimed, back in 2006, to have invented a device that would provide “free, clean, and constant energy” in contravention of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In other words these guys were saying that they’d managed to break science by inventing a perpetual motion machine. Perpetual motion machines are impossible for a number of reasons – you can’t create energy out of nothing (the First Law of Thermodynamics), amongst others – but the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a bit special. It states that the net entropy of a closed system always increases, and Arthur Eddington had this to say about it:
The law that entropy always increases, holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation
The second law states that the distribution of heat within a system will even itself out into perfect equilibrium given enough time. Thermodynamic entropy is a measure of how diffuse the heat distribution within this system is. If heat s concentrated in a single mass – a hot oven in a cold room, for example – then the entropy of the system is low. Over time the oven will radiate all its heat out into the room; the temperature of the room will increase and the temperature of the oven will decrease. Eventually the room will be the same temperature as the oven, and the entropy of the system will be total.
Why is a high level of entropy a bad thing? It’s because nearly all devices that do mechanical work are based on some form of heat engine. Heat engines convert thermodynamic work – represented by the transfer of heat from a hot body to a cold “sink” – into mechanical work. Popular heat engines include automobile engines and steam engines, but no matter what sort of engine you’re dealing with an increase in entropy is a bad thing since it’s the temperature difference that drives the mechanical work the engine does. If the hot source and the cold sink have similar temperatures then there is little heat transfer and little useful mechanical work that can be derived from the engine.
Now, it’s important to clarify what we mean by “closed system” here. A closed system is one into which energy cannot be added or taken away. In its broadest sense the closed system we are talking about is the universe, but it also applies to perpetual motion machines since by definition they just keep running on zero energy input whatsoever. No energy is being added to the system, and yet the perpetual motion machine is supposed to keep going. The second law says this is impossible; that no matter how efficient the machine is, eventually its entropy will increase and it will start to slow down and eventually stop.
Steorn claimed – and still do – that their technology was based around magnetic fields (“”What we have developed is a way to construct magnetic fields so that when you travel round the magnetic fields, starting and stopping at the same position, you have gained energy”). This puts the Orbo firmly into the realm of the perpetual motion machine and not a free energy device, since magnets do not work that way1. A sane and plausible free energy device would harness already-existing and easily-accessible energy from an outside source to fuel the work it did, and we have one of those already: it’s called “the Earth”, or perhaps more appropriately “solar panels”. Free energy devices are open systems, though; the Orbo is supposed to be a closed system perpetual motion machine. It is impossible. Thermodynamics says so; either it’s attempting to physically add more energy out of the system out of nowhere in contravention of the first law (conservation of energy), or else it’s trying to get by on the energy currently existing inside the system with no losses in efficiency in contravention of the second law (entropy increases).
However, this didn’t stop multiple news outlets from reporting on it with varying degrees of scepticism. Perhaps the most cutting was the BBC’s account, who got an actual physics professor to do an excellent summary of just how incompatible Steorn’s claims were with the entirety of modern science. I don’t like BBC News very much so it pains me to say that their coverage of this was exactly what it should have been once they decided they were going to do it at all, but others in the press including the Daily Mail and the Guardian reported on it in a way that became distressingly predictable; begin by saying just how unlikely it is the Orbo can do what Steorn says it does, and then proceed to give them the oxygen of publicity by parroting the company’s PR releases anyway. Why was this? The laws of thermodynamics are not an area of science you can choose to believe in or not; there is no room for dissenting opinions or getting both sides of the story on whether or not they’re applicable in this case. What Steorn were claiming they’d done with the Orbo was very similar to what the infamous Alex Chiu claims he can do with his immortality rings in terms of plausibility, and yet it was Steorn’s claims that got a lot of column inches in national newspapers. If I were a cynical man, I’d say it was because Steorn are much better at PR than they are at science – certainly better than Alex Chiu – and newspapers are perfectly happy to report on bullshit because they can’t tell (or don’t care about) the difference between that and the truth.
And what happened to the Orbo in the end? Well, after a number of failed public demonstrations Steorn submitted their device to a jury of twelve bona fide scientists who eventually reported that it was total rubbish, and not a peep has been heard from them about the Orbo in the last five years. Meanwhile they’ve been working hard to position themselves a company that helps to develop and market new IP. It’s almost like the Orbo was a not very subtle publicity stunt designed to demonstrate just how easily you can get the mainstream press to talk about complete bollocks as long as it’s packaged nicely.
1. I barely understand magnetism so I can’t explain why – although I suspect the explanation would run to the length of a short book, so I’m kind of glad – but fortunately it’s not just me saying this, it’s pretty much every electrical engineer on the planet.