Mark Harris

Orbo - another disappointing perpetual motion machine
Free energy: Mark Harris goes in search of power that’s too cheap to meter

Whenever I hear about a new miracle power source, Scotty’s response to James T. Kirk’s requests for warp factor 11 springs to mind: “Ye canna break the laws of physics, Cap’n!” But that’s not what Sean McCarthy thinks. He’s the CEO of Irish technology company Steorn (, which announced last year that it had discovered a method of generating an endless supply of cheap, clean energy – from nowhere.

I’m at a London art gallery ( for the grand unveiling of Steorn’s technology, called Orbo, to an understandably sceptical world. Unfortunately, things aren’t going to plan. A sheepish McCarthy is forced to confess: “We screwed up. We bought three systems with us, and got one working. But it ceased to function the following day and it looks like the bearings are bust.”

The audience of journalists, scientists and perpetual motion geeks is unimpressed. We were lured here on the promise of seeing a polycarbonate wheel rotating under the power of nothing more than a few, precisely positioned magnets. Instead, we’re looking at an empty, transparent plastic case. McCarthy says, “I recognise that we have lost a bit of confidence but these units are prototypes, they aren’t rolling off a production line. If we were here to rig a demo, you’d be watching a wheel spin now.”

McCarthy seems sincerely baffled by the failure of his machine, but perhaps he shouldn’t so surprised. History is littered with inventors convinced that they’ve discovered a source of perpetual motion – so many that the US Patent Office now demands a working sample of any machine that claims to run on thin air before beginning the patent process. Dr Claudia Eberlein, Senior Lecturer in Physics at University of Sussex, has a simple explanation: “When it seems like you’re getting something for nothing, there’s been a mistake. Any physicist will tell you that you have to have conservation of energy.”

Sean McCarthy doesn’t pretend to understand the physics behind Orbo, but he’s adamant that it works. The effect was first noticed when Steorn was developing a miniature wind turbine to power security cameras for cash machines. Its engineers kept improving the turbine’s efficiency, until it became more than 100%: more energy was coming out than going in!

Steorn then stripped Orbo back to its basics: a system of fixed and moving magnets that it claims has reached efficiencies as high as 485%. “We’ve had systems that have been running for a couple of weeks at a time,” says McCarthy. In August of last year, Steorn was so certain of its technology that it advertised in the Economist for impartial scientists to validate its findings – a process that’s now under way. So what went wrong with the London demo? “We don’t know why exactly,” McCarthy admits, “But it was very hot in here.”

Dr Eberlein has a different idea. “Magnetic systems may convert magnetic energy inside the materials to something external, but they’re not getting something for nothing. Such effects involve very complex and very subtle re-ordering of energy that can be hard to explain.” The prospect of free energy is understandably enticing as reserves of fossil fuels dwindle, and Orbo is far from the first system to promise electricity that’s too cheap to meter. ‘Cold fusion’ fever swept the world in the late 1980s, after two researchers thought they had found a way to spark fusion at near-room temperatures, removing the need for complex, expensive (and polluting) nuclear reactors.

“ Unfortunately, most scientists now agree that’s not what they saw,” says Dr Eberlein. But even if these technologies never deliver the limitless power they’re claiming to, they can still inspire useful research. “The world is moving rapidly towards miniaturisation, nano-structures and quantum computers,” says Dr Eberlein, “We need to understand how quantum objects interact.”

Or then again, perhaps Orbo does work and the London demonstration was sabotaged by oil companies? And can it be a coincidence that the Kinetica Museum’s lease has suddenly come to an end? Perpetual motion may not be powering our houses just yet, but never doubt its ability to generate an infinite supply of conspiracy theories.

Batteries not included
Free energy may remain just a dream, but there are plenty of gadgets that can work without a regular helping of AA cells.

Sun Jar £20
Pop this stylish Mason jar on a window ledge and it’ll absorb daytime light to provide up to five hours of atmospheric candle-style glow after the sun goes down. It’s completely watertight for use indoors or out.

Orange wind-powered phone charger £TBC
Orange recently unveiled a prototype phone charger powered by nothing but hot (or cold) air. The wind-powered device is small and light enough (just 150g) to fit in a backpack and can be mounted on a tent. Its 30cm blades generate about 0.5W of power in a stiff breeze – enough to charge a mobile in under two hours.

Orla Kiely wind-up radio £19.99
There are two things you can do when confined to a caravan by rain – and Top Trumps get predictable when you’ve been through the pack a few times. This splashproof radio picks up AM and FM stations with just a few cranks of its handle, and a built-in LED torch lets you enjoy Orla Kiely’s funky design in the dark.

Exhaustive research
Can we drive ourselves to a greener future? According to Reuters, Welsh scientists have come up with an unlikely gadget to reduce the impact of cars on climate change. The Greenbox fits on the exhaust pipe of almost any vehicle, absorbing its carbon dioxide emissions. The gas is then fed to special algae which convert the greenhouse gas into a bio-oil that can be used to fuel diesel engines. The Greenbox is currently under development, with several global car companies vying for the technology.

  Return to Metro journalism page