07/06/2007 09:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

You Can't Beat the Odds at the Entropy Casino

In engineering college, my physics professor shared C.P. Snow's shortcut for understanding the Three Laws of Thermodynamics. He likened the laws to the house rules in a cosmic gambling den:

1. You can't win. (You can't create or destroy energy in a closed system.)

2. You can't break even. (You can't convert one form of energy to another with 100% efficiency.)

3. You can't get out of the game. (You can only achieve 100% efficiency at absolute zero, but it's impossible to cool anything down to absolute zero.)

It's because of these laws that the gasoline engine in your car is only about 15% efficient. In other words, less than one-sixth of the chemical energy in your car's fuel tank is converted to the mechanical energy that propels it down the road. The other 85% is wasted in the form of friction and other losses.

Anyone designing a car engine or a power generator can either try their best to engineer a efficient system within the limitations of the three laws, or they can choose to ignore these axioms and attempt to beat the odds at the Entropy Casino.

Most engineers pick door number one. These people are the ones who have designed every motor, engine, and power-producing system on the planet. Those who've thought they could break the laws of thermodynamics have designed and built thousands of non-functioning perpetual motion devices dating back to antiquity. Not one of these devices has ever been able to run indefinitely on its own power, much less produce additional energy.

With a track record of zero, you would think the perpetual motion school of applied physics would have shut down long ago. Not so. Today, there's a company in Dublin, Ireland, called Steorn, which claims to have developed a device, called Orbo, which violates, or at least effectively skirts around, the laws of thermodynamics. They say once the technology -- which allegedly exploits hitherto unknown properties of magnets to generate free energy from nothing, is refined -- it can be used to power cars, electronics, and just about anything that needs energy to make it run.

Recently Steorn announced it would unveil Orbo, at, of all places, a London art gallery on July 4. However, the demonstration was a failure, because Orbo failed to work. Steorn's official explanation sounds remarkably like the excuses offered by all fringe inventors after their machines fail to work in front of an audience: "We are experiencing some technical difficulties with the demo unit in London. Our initial assessment indicates that this is probably due to the intense heat from the camera lighting."

Why not simply turn the camera lights off, and illuminate Orbo with cool burning fluorescent lights, and go on with the show?

I have a feeling that as more light shines on Orbo and its creators, the more they will fade into the darkness. Of course, that won't stop others in the future from trying to beat the odds at the Entropy Casino. I wish them luck.