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Extract: The inside story of Steorn, the Celtic Tiger start-up that couldn't

Barry J Whyte has been looking at the intriguing story of Steorn for a new book.

Barry J Whyte

IN THE SUMMER of 2006, Ireland had reached the apex of the Celtic Tiger. That year, a company called Steorn hit the headlines when its founder Shaun McCarthy took an advertisement in the Economist to announce they had discovered a machine that could create energy from nothing.  

Steorn’s list of investors was a veritable who’s who of high society during the Celtic Tiger years. When the demonstration of the technology inevitably ended in spectacular failure McCarthy was pegged as a scam artist and fraud, and he lost his money and his reputation. But he wasn’t a conman or a chancer: he was a zealot and a true believer, writes journalist Barry J Whyte in his book about Steorn, The Impossible Dream. Here’s an extract from the book: 

Ian MacDonald was sitting on the beach in Bonaire, an island claimed by the Netherlands in the southern Caribbean, just off the coast of Venezuela, when that issue of the Economist dropped into his letterbox.

Life had been good to MacDonald. He’d been an academic in the University of Alberta for a while, he’d worked for the US government and he had spent the seven years before his retirement working in private industry. His field was photonics, which is the science of light and how it is manipulated.

The company MacDonald been working for before he retired was JDS Uniphase, a half-Canadian, half-American conglomerate that worked on a range of commercial applications of photonics. Its share price exploded throughout the late 1990s as most countries and companies built out trillions of miles of fibre-optic cables during the great internet capital infrastructure boom. The company’s share price at one point reached $153 per share, making millionaires of any staff members who had stock options – including MacDonald. The company was huge in a way that’s hard to recall now because we have forgotten a time when the internet wasn’t a ubiquitous part of our lives. On paper, at least, JDS Uniphase was worth more than the Royal Bank of Canada or the Ford Motor Company, and it once had all the excitement that Facebook, say, carries today.

But it wasn’t to last. In 2001 there was a collapse in the company’s share price – not unrelated to the tech-bubble crash that had wobbled Steorn so badly – and its shares fell to as low as $2. By then, though, MacDonald had cashed in his shares and gone into retirement.

So, when he picked up the Economist on that morning in 2006, he was that perfect combination: solvent, free of encumbrance and curious as hell.

Moreover, his wife was Irish, and a visit to Dublin would give them a chance to see her family home on Ailesbury Road in Dublin. In spite of the likely backlash from his friends in the scientific community – some of whom would turn out to be critical of him for being so open-minded about an obviously unscientific project – MacDonald applied, along with hundreds of others, to be on the Steorn jury.

He tried to convince himself that maybe, just maybe, someone had achieved the impossible – after all, wouldn’t that make life interesting? But his logical mind refused to allow him to consider a discovery that would overturn laws that had been the basis of his career.

To his surprise, MacDonald was among the final panel of 22 selected to go to Dublin. Steorn announced the formation of the jury in December 2006 with typical braggadocio, explaining in a press release that it had finally signed contracts with the independent jury, which it described as ‘the latest milestone in Steorn’s efforts to get validation for its technology, which began when the company issued a challenge to the world’s scientists’.

The technology, Steorn said, ‘can be applied to virtually all devices requiring energy, from cellular phones to cars’. The jury process had been oversubscribed several times, with hundreds of qualified scientists applying to be part of the jury, [who have all] agreed to see the testing process through to its completion and have their names and findings disclosed once the testing is complete. Steorn has agreed not to identify members of the jury until the results are made public, to protect their privacy and avoid unnecessary interruptions to their work.

It included scientists from all over the world with expertise in cold fusion, electrical engineering, magnets, lasers, particle physics and in the case of the self-penned biography of one researcher for NASA named Creon Levit, ‘heretical (that is not a typo) physics’.

The jury also featured academics and commercial scientists. The ground rules of the jury’s task were simple. To prove its claim, Steorn would have to hit certain targets – which it called ‘gates’ – the first of which was a working demonstration thatits claims were true; it would then would give the jury a description of a machine – an Orbo – that bore out its claims.

The second gate was that the jury – having been convinced by a display of a working prototype – could go away and build their own versions of the machine to test and examine the principle behind it. It was a reasonable process, most thought. If the jury saw a working Orbo, they could at least take away the instructions and figure out what was happening and, crucially, discover whether Steorn had made an elementary
mistake that was creating the anomalous finding.

Although Steorn was keeping its cards close to its chest – even the names of the jury members, who were bound by non-disclosure agreements, were kept private for a number of years after the demonstration – it did define its claim in one of the documents related to the jury agreement.

The angular velocity of a loaded rotating element of a device, constructed solely of permanent magnets and mechanical elements, can be sustained without input power under laboratory conditions. In short, it was an over-unity device. The company further claimed that the device can produce more energy than is contained in its magnets; the production of energy by the device is not accompanied by a significant
change in the magnetization of the permanent magnets nor by a change in the overall mass of the device under test.

If the first phase – or gate – established that there was indeed something to examine, the jury would proceed to the second, formulating a plan to define the steps required to satisfactorily conclude the process. That meant building and testing it themselves – a process that could be facilitated by a number of labs to which the jury members had access. They were not short of facilities.

Michael McKubre was a New Zealander who had studied cold fusion and had been injured in an explosion in a lab in 1992 when a cold-fusion cell exploded, killing one of the researchers. He was director of the Energy Research Center at SRI International in California and offered up the SRI lab. Meanwhile, Dr Emil Prodanov of DIT’s School of Mathematical Sciences offered up a lab in DIT.

In June 2007, the jury members were put up in Jurys Hotel in Ballsbridge, Dublin, ahead of their first meeting. McCarthy recalls that one member invited him out for a pint and offered him money. McCarthy immediately recognised it as a ham-fisted sting operation and thought, ‘He thinks we’re committing a fraud here.’

The sting didn’t work – McCarthy had enough money to run the company for several more years – but things didn’t get any better from there. At the jury’s first meeting in June in in the Steorn offices, McCarthy first explained what he could about the Orbo technology and told the jury it operated on the principle of magnetic viscosity, which refers to the time dependence of magnetisation in a constant magnetic field and temperature and is related to McCarthy’s claim of having developed a ‘time machine’ of sorts. It was a loose discussion of the concept rather than a detailed explanation, though, which would prove to be typical of the jury process.

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As they talked, a small group of Steorn employees in an anteroom was working on the simple demonstration model. The idea was that someone with an airgun would blow the wheel, setting it moving, and that the arrangement of the magnets would spin in such a way that the magnets would maintain and increase the wheel’s momentum, allowing it to spin by itself long after the force from the airgun had dissipated.

However, the demonstration wasn’t working, and MacDonald sat in the main boardroom with the jury listening to the airgun being repeatedly triggered. Eventually, McCarthy entered the boardroom and apologised, telling them that the demonstration wasn’t going to work.

The jury was then told that a better version of the first magnet motor would be flown in from Kinetron in the Netherlands. In the meantime, the jury found themselves at a loose end, with nothing to study and nothing substantial to discuss. So, they did what any tourist to Celtic Tiger Dublin would have done: they went on an expensive holiday. MacDonald and his wife took an impromptu historical tour of the country, visiting Newgrange before heading north to Belfast, all the while eating and drinking quite comfortably – at least partly on Steorn’s dime.

MacDonald was struck by the wealth in Dublin, with cranes dotting the skyline and providing a canopy over expensive restaurants, skyrocketing property values and streets full of new cars; but he developed a bad cold – he had been travelling by bus, which, even in the middle of summer, was a great deal less balmy than the beaches of the Caribbean – so he returned to Dublin to see if the Kinetron model had arrived.

When the jury returned to Steorn’s office, they were told that the courier from Kinetron’s offices had missed the flight to Dublin, so the device wouldn’t be available until Friday. Then, on Friday, they discovered that the airline had no flight that day.

Meanwhile, it had become clear that McCarthy’s plan for the jury wasn’t to have a panel of scientists observe a model he had built, but simply to provide them with an instruction manual to build one of their own, which few jury members considered a task worth their time. It was a leap past gate one to gate two, and it would prove to be a sticking point between Steorn and the jury.

Eventually, the time came for MacDonald and the jury members to leave after a singularly unproductive trip. Not only had they not seen a working demonstration model, but they had left without having had much in the way of technical conversation with McCarthy.

He’d talked a lot, of course, and they had been taken out for a hugely expensive dinner in a very loud pub, during which he had laid on the full promotional spiel; but, not having been given any details, MacDonald left Ireland as unedified as he had arrived.

Extracted from The Impossible Dream by Barry J Whyte (Gill Books, €16.99)

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