Wednesday, August 30, 2006

We have a crisis! The perpetuum mobile has been invented!

The title of this post refers to the crucial words of one of the members of the 'Topmost Ten' in a Oliver B. Bumble comic by Marten Toonder. These Topmost Ten people were the richest people in the world, owning everything. They lead a horrible life of paranoia since they can only lose their possessions and gain no more. The story details of Bumble acquiring a certain machine from a woodland friend, which he claims has a wheel that turns forever, powered by nothing.
Understandably, the Topmost Ten immediately declare defcon 1 because this perpetuum mobile, when made public, will instantly turn all other fuel resources useless and without value. The story is great.

So, what about it? It's just a story, the perpetuum mobile does not exist. Not only that, it's a physical impossibility that would destroy the world if invented. (Because every machine produces heat, and a machine that produces heat from nothing will eventually cook the world.)
Well, there is this company, you might have heard of it. They're located in Ireland and are called Steorn. The first time anyone heard of them was when they put forward a promotional video, which was posted on BoingBoing. While the video is riddled with marketspeak, vague claims and snakeoil, it also describes a technique they invented that providesd 'free energy'. In other words, it produced more energy than it required for operation. They claim to have reached fuel efficiencies of 285%. Yes, they claim to have invented the perpetuum mobile.

So how does it work? Well, they won't tell. The promotional video just babbles vaguely about meticulously arranged magnets. On their website, they're inviting people to sign up for a chance to test their technology for flaws, but a recent article in the UK Guardian says that scientists who signed up didn't receive squat because Steorn is so afraid to lose the intellectuel property rights to their revolutionary technology. The whole thing is being compared to two scientists (Pons and Fleischmann) who claimed to have cracked the mystery of cold fusion back in 1989: a lot of claims and promises to change the world, but no actual proof.

Could Steorn be serious? The physicist in me says 'no' without a moment's hesitation. The perpetuum mobile is physically impossible in this universe. On the other hand, Steorn put a lot of money into a full-page ad in the Economist. They openly challenge scientists to come and prove them wrong. But the sentimentalist in me can't convince the physicist.

Plus, Marten Toonder is right: a perpetuum mobile would wreck the world's economy.

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