I didn't get an invite to the grand Steorn unveiling of its Orbo technology, but at the moment the doors were opened to the public in Dublin today, a ZDNet UK reader popped in and started relaying pictures and commentary back to base. Although they prefer to remain anonymous, I exchanged plenty of emails and had a phone conversation, so my profound thanks.
Here's what they had to say:
"The biggest surprise is that it's surprisingly conventional - there isn't anything particularly unusual in it, it looks like a ordinary electric motor. Looks like they've got some sort of flywheel arrangement, so it won't take much to keep it going.
If you look at the exploded view, they've got a ring magnet, which may be part of the bearings. A couple of little things don't add up - why is the base so difficult to see through, when so much else is transparent?
Most surprising thing is how standard it is. There's nothing in there that makes me go "that's interesting". If it's still running in 12 hours time, then perhaps. There doesn't appear to be anything there thats odd, but there's no explanation of the electronics, no metering of any sort. None at all.
There's nothing to measure watts in and watts out, and no explanation. It looks like a battery-powered motor."
This matches my impression from the photographs. Steorn has a launch video up on its site, where CEO Sean McCarthy claims that the battery is recharged from the device, and that there's a 3:1 power ratio.
But without any form of meter on the device — the simplest possible thing to include — and with no details of the actual power requirements, it's impossible to say what's going on. The battery, by the way, is the largest capacity rechargeable D-cell on the market and it's certainly plausible that it could run the rig as a plain motor for a long time. If what Steorn says is true, then the thing could run forever from a tiny AAA battery – or even a super-capacitor the size of a broad bean.
It's hard to explain why such simple measures — which, while they wouldn't be convincing by themselves, would certainly be more impressive — weren't taken. All I can tell from the rig is that it could easily be a very efficient motor powered by a very capacious battery.
One other detail is peculiar — the use of toroidal coils. These are very efficient when used as transformers or chokes, because they trap virtually all the magnetic field from the coils within the toroid. Normal electromagnets and pick-up coils are arranged so that all of the magnetic flux appears at one end, to most efficiently couple it into or out of the device. Toroids retain all the flux internally. They're normally the last thing you'd use for a motor or generator; but without more information from Steorn it's impossible to determine the significance of their use.
There's also a video on the site from various engineers who were invited to inspect a test rig at Steorn's HQ a while ago, which boils down to "It looks like there's more energy coming out than going in". All well and grand, but as they say it "appears" to work and "People need to see it for themselves”. It being a promotional video, there's no mention whether any engineers inspected the rig and decided it wasn't doing much.
The other big announcement is the Steorn Knowledge Development Base, which is a developer programme that costs €419 to join and gives its members access to information and a licence to use the technology for personal non-commercial use. In exchange, Steorn appears to get all the rights to anything developed for ever and for nothing – with clauses like this "You hereby grant to STEORN and any person or entity now or in the future employing the Covered Rights under an ORBO Technology Developer License or an ORBO Technology Commercial License, a non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide license (and exclusively to STEORN, the right to sublicense) under Your Modifications to employ Your Modifications under Section 2 above."
Not being a lawyer, I wouldn't like to say what's actually in it for the developers, but it seems on first blush like something which deserves a good scrying from IP experts before plunking down your dosh at the start of February.
Meanwhile, we wait for what we've always waited for — an independent analysis and replication of technical claims.