When he bribes the golden-ticket winning children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Arthur Slugworth wants just one thing: the ever-lasting gobstopper. Wonka predicts it will revolutionise the confectionery business and Slugworth determines to unearth its secrets from the bowels of a factory he himself could never hope to enter.
Penetrating the inner-sanctum of Shaun McCarthy’s “Steorn” headquarters in Dublin’s docklands is a lot easier and yet it still has the feel of entering the chocolate factory.
After years of speculation, mystery and controversy, the public are finally getting their teeth into Steorn’s gobstopper – the everlasting (or self-charging) battery. Whether or not they will swallow it is another matter.
On a tour in December, a couple of weeks after the company began taking its first tentative orders, McCarthy is resigned to a cynical response. The finest scientific minds have dismissed his technology as nonsense. For McCarthy though, the moment of truth has arrived. The proof of the pudding will be in the charging.
Whatever happens, it has been a long road. Steorn emerged at the turn of the century and to date it claims to have attracted €23 million in private investment, an indication of the paradox it has created – some believe it will be a revolution, others that it is, in no specific order of suspicion, a hoax, fraud, delusion or the most elaborate marketing scheme the world has ever seen.
Put at its simplest, the “Orbo” technology is a non-polluting, almost cost-free source of power. It is not a battery but offers the same function - and Steorn’s early steps into the consumer electronics market have seen the company applying it to phones and chargers.
It is engineering based on complex physics, and yet the physicists agree it defies basic laws – there is no evidence energy is produced as opposed to being stored.
“What we found is that we could speed up and slow down electromagnetic fields which traditionally should travel at the speed of light. When we did that we got these energy anomalies,” McCarthy says in an effort to distil the “Orbo effect” to its most basic explanation.
“So I suppose you could take a view, which we are not qualified to make [scientifically], but if you ask our guys what we really think we are doing, we think that we are converting time into energy. Which sounds very grandiose when you see three strips of metal and two wires.”
Steorn is spread over two industrial units in a complex in north inner city Dublin. It has been here for most of its 15-year lifespan and has about 23 employees with millions in financial backing.
McCarthy (49), an engineering graduate of DIT who has worked in a number of countries, is instantly ingratiating and down-to-earth, his humour tipping regularly into self-deprecation. He is weathered by the suspicion and criticism that has haunted his ambition and yet he seems entirely comfortable in his own skin. He is utterly resigned to detraction.
“You have this logic trap,” he says. “[The general perception is] okay, what we are claiming is clearly impossible. They are clearly not idiots – therefore it must be a con. It must be a fraud.
“Or it is something else – it’s a viral marketing campaign. I think after 15 years, a viral marketing campaign is probably not realistic. Therefore [what’s left is that]...clearly it’s a fraud? Again the logic is quite compelling.”
McCarthy’s point is that if he were a fraudster it would be easier to pocket the cash and run. Further, touring the Steorn facility, nothing is held back, everything is open (bar the initial sales figures which will be reported, he says at the end of the first quarter, 2016) and it suggests if this is all some mad ploy it is quickly running out of road.
At the Steorn premises a table displays rows of heavy crimson skull-shaped boxes, known as power cubes. They are flanked by stacks of slickly-designed boxes and if they don’t work, they certainly look the part.
These are the “everlasting batteries” of lore and, since early December, the first Steorn product to go on sale. Each, according to the claims, holds numerous small “batteries” which recharge themselves allowing for a permanent supply of energy.
Cube units retail at €1,200 and the first orders are due to arrive with buyers this month.
However, the cube is not seen by the company as a mass-market product. They are simply a showcase for the technology. The real focus is on the mobile phone that never needs to be recharged.
The circuit board technology that fits inside looks straightforward and small but it will be another year or so before the next generation is ready to power smart phones (they are currently only producing old analogue models).
Orbo is at a nascent stage but the long game is to licence the technology to producers, not to manufacture products.
Forbes Magazine described the whole thing in 2007 as "powered by blarney" while the Economist went with "perpetual nonsense".
Over the years countless articles, blogs and opinions have lashed out at Steorn and McCarthy, delivering blow after sapping blow to the company’s integrity.
McCarthy says, as engineers, their passion and focus is firmly on developing and producing the technology whereas a complete understanding of how and why it works is beyond them.
That’s not surprising when you speak to scientists who do know attempt to break the claims down.
"Really what Steorn are saying is that they can create mass out of nothing," Prof Luke Drury, a leading physicist at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, told The Irish Times.
Drury explains that while things can change and transform, they cannot simply pop in and out of existence.
“Matter and energy does not appear spontaneously out of nothing, and nor does it disappear without trace,” he says.
"Our modern understanding of physical conservation laws dates back about a hundred years to the fundamental insight of the mathematician Emmy Noether who showed that there is a deep connection between conservation laws and symmetries.
“In particular she showed that energy conservation is a consequence of the fact that the laws of physics do not change with time.”
Explaining his own technology, McCarthy dismisses previous suggestions they are claiming to have developed a perpetual motion machine (a hypothetical device that works indefinitely without an apparent energy source) as there is no moving parts.
“Technically it isn’t a battery at all; you’d call it a battery substitute technology. It’s something that replaces the function of the battery. It is really a generator rather than a storage device,” he says, but the “deep science” is not their area of expertise.
“As to [whether it ]is really contravening any laws of physics, there are bigger questions there. All that we can say is it’s not degrading or drawing on any known energy source but then there are vast swathes of energy that we call dark energy in scientific terms,” he says.
“This could just be capturing that and then it really wouldn’t be the heresy that it appears on face value.”
Drury describes this reference to dark energy and dark matter as clever – it is a mysterious subject and to date nobody has managed to detect it.
But, he continues: “I find it inconceivable that a simple electromagnetic device could couple to this ‘dark physics’ sufficiently strongly to power a smartphone without a signal being seen – and one has to add that electromagnetism is probably the best understood area of physics.
“Even if one could make such a coupling, the absolute energy content in the dark sector is very low and it would be like trying to power a smartphone from starlight.”
In summary, Drury says: “I’m not buying one. And I would strongly recommend not buying any stock in the company because incredible claims need incredible evidence.”
This is a point echoed by Dr Paul O’Leary at the engineering school of the Waterford Institute of Technology who argues adamantly such a device should not go on sale until it has been independently verified.
Such a suggestion is likely to send a shiver down the spine of Steorn engineers. They have been here before. In 2006, the company took out a £75,000 (€99,000) advert in the Economist magazine inviting expressions of interest from the scientific community to form a 12-strong jury tasked with testing their claims. Nearly three years later the jury returned with a public statement: "The unanimous verdict...is that Steorn's attempts to demonstrate the claim have not shown the production of energy. The jury is therefore ceasing work."
McCarthy says: “At the end of the day the failure of the jury process wasn’t a failure of the jury it was a failure of Steorn. We set this up, we went: ‘Come on, prove us wrong’ and they said, ‘Well, you can’t prove yourself right’.”
In spite of everything – the open and seemingly honest nature of McCarthy and his company, the appearances and guarantees, the conviction – being unable to prove their claims continues to be the itch they cannot quite scratch.
Efforts to convince an enduringly sceptical public have previously fallen flat – a demonstration in London and a lower key version when, last year, a cube was placed behind the bar of Slattery’s pub on Grand Canal Street in Dublin.
On its Facebook page, the bar wrote: “I heard if you plug an Orbo into another Orbo it can mend holes in the ozone layer.” Everlasting scepticism is a far easier thing to harness than energy.
Back behind the gates of the Steorn factory, McCarthy’s boyish enthusiasm for the technology could place him in danger of being swept away by his own chocolate river. The taste of potential success is disarmingly sweet and “delusion” is a familiar charge.
“At the end of the day, if you live the dream even for a nanosecond, the ability to produce energy at no cost changes everything. That is clean water, light, food. You could almost take it too far but everything is energy. Drinking water is energy, light, heat, education.”
The endgame could be a dizzying vindication or a crippling denouement. McCarthy wouldn’t get a job as a taxi driver if it all came crashing down around him, he says.
But with parts coming in from China and the final assembled shiny skull-shaped cubes almost with their owners, one way or another, we’re about to find out.
“At the end of the day we can say what we like about the tech [but] it’s what the users say [that matters],” he says.
This is an edited version. For the full feature and video on the Irish firm and its everlasting battery see the latest Innovation emag at irishtimes.com/innovation