In my book Mad Like Tesla I have a chapter on a company called General Fusion, which is making what is in essence a mechanical fusion reactor — a thermonuclear diesel engine, if you will — using $50 million or so in government grants and venture capital, some of which has come from Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. General Fusion says it can do with tens of millions and within a few years what large, bureaucratic international consortia, such as ITER, aim to do with many billions over at least a couple of decades.
But enough about GF. You can read the book for that.
I mention this because as part of the chapter I go into a bit of history around nuclear fusion, and specifically some of the past scandals related to cold-fusion claims — e.g. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann’s public claim in 1989 that they had achieved a cold fusion reaction in their university lab. If you can’t remember the day of that event, just go on YouTube to view the original news conference. The media was abuzz, and the world thought we finally had the solution to the world’s growing energy crisis. Yay! Except, wait, nobody else could replicate it and after a few months government scientists put out a comprehensive report that said Pons and Fleischmann’s claim lacked “convincing evidence.”
The two scientists, tails under their legs, walked out of the limelight and the quest for “cold fusion” was, as far as the mainstream media were concerned, a dead end.
Except is wasn’t a dead end. Since then there have been many serious and not-so-serious scientists quietly labouring away on cold fusion. One of the most prominent is Peter Hagelstein, an associate professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The group, generally, is shunned by the mainstream scientific community, and yes, spurned by a media still stinging more than two decades after Pons and Fleischmann.
But it will be interesting to see how long they will stay out of this story, considering the progress Italian scientists Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi are apparently making.
Back in January 2011 the two men demonstrated their own cold fusion apparatus, which they claim fuses nuclei of nickel and hydrogen to produce copper and huge amounts of excess energy. The device is being called the E-Cat, which stands for “energy catalyzer.” According to the site E-Cat World, which was created to follow the work of Rossi and Focardi, “The E-Cat is a device in which hydrogen gas, powdered nickel metal, and an undisclosed catalyst are combined to produce a large amount of heat through a little understood low-energy nuclear reaction (LENR) process inside a specially designed chamber… In this process, when an external heat source is applied (electric or fossil) it is claimed that the nucleus of a hydrogen atom, a proton, penetrates a nickel nucleus and in doing so a nickel atom becomes a copper atom, and releases a large amount of thermal energy” — much more than the energy that goes into the process. That heat, of course, is used just like any heat source to drive a steam generator that produces electricity.
Furthermore, no radioactive waste is created from the process and no CO2 is released, it is claimed.
Honestly, I don’t know what Rossi and Focardi have, but they have attracted much attention in the blogosphere — no surprise there — and have conducted a number of demonstrations in front of scientists, such as two Swedish physicists who — while still skeptical — have admitted that the reaction is real and not based on chemical reactions.
I write all of this now because, as he promised earlier this year, Rossi has plans to demonstrate a 1-megawatt version of his technology later in October, and possibly as early as Oct. 6 will test a single E-Cat unit in Uppsala, Sweden. Apparently a number of scientists from around the world — and some select journalists — have been invited to attend. The demonstration of the 1 -megawatt plant will be interesting, as this is being positioned as a pre-commercial demonstration. Something to watch for, certainly, and the outcome of this larger 1-megawatt demonstration could either reinforce the skepticism toward the cold fusion concept or, after 20 years, finally attract the attention of the mainstream media.
Stay tuned. In the meantime, it’s worth watching this 60 Minutes show from spring 2009 — one of the rare detailed looks by a mainstream media outlet at the state of cold-fusion research. It cited research from the U.S. Pentagon, specifically the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which found after a thorough analysis of the research that “there no doubt that anomolous excess heat is produced from these experiments.”
Also in the show, Robert Duncan, vice-chancellor of research at the University of Missouri and an expert in energy measurement, said he was a cold-fusion skeptic until he took a closer look at the data. He’s now convinced that we should be taking seriously some of the research in the field. “To say we don’t fundamentally understand the process, and that’s why we’re not going to study it, it’s like saying we’re too sick to go to the doctor,” he says, encouraging the mainstream scientific community to do their homework before making knee-jerk dismissals. “Read the published results, talk to the scientists, and never let anybody else do your thinking for you.”
I’ll report back later in October with an update on the Rossi and Focardi demonstration.
Just one more note: the term cold fusion is thrown around loosely now to encompass any kind of non-chemical reaction in a relatively ambient-temperature environment that can’t be easily explained. Defined narrowly, what Rossi and Focardi are attempting to do may not even be cold fusion — or even just fusion. But it’s something that may be producing much more energy than goes in. The same can be said for BlackLight Power, which claims it has a catalyst-driven process that turns hydrogen atoms into what the company calls hydrinos. The process of turning hydrogen to hydrinos releases an enormous amount of energy, according to the company — another venture to watch.
Calling each of these innovations a form of “cold fusion” is the equivalent of calling the research crackpot science, and this does a disservice to those individuals who are devoting their life and labours to exploring these energy unknowns. Perhaps one day we can move beyond the cold fusion label and the memories of Pons and Fleischmann and give this broad area of research a more committed, objective look. We need more of this kind of exploration and experimentation, not less. We should cautiously praise it; not ridicule and ignore.
General Fusion, of course, is far from a cold fusion play — though anything considered unconventional fusion is often wrongly tossed into the cold fusion bucket. What General Fusion is attempting is a lower-cost mechanical approach to fusion that takes the best of magnetic fusion (ITER) and intertial confinement fusion (U.S. National Ignition Facility) — i.e. a hybrid approach known as magnetized target fusion.
Keep your eyes on General Fusion as well, and on the fusion field in general. Often written off as that forever-emerging but never-emerging technology, there are significant advancements coming down the pipeline — sooner than many people think.