Rossi and Focardi to demonstrate “cold fusion” technology on Oct. 6, but don’t expect the mainstream media to pay attention

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 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.

Nova Scotia holding competition to attract world’s best clean technology companies

Nova Scotia, which under an NDP government has been more proactive on the clean energy and environmental front, has launched a competition through its technology commercialization agency, Innovacorp, called the Nova Scotia CleanTech Open. Entrepreneurs have until Dec. 1 to submit their entries. It’s a bold initiative for a small province, and perhaps Ontario officials should ask themselves why they haven’t done the same thing. “The winner of The Nova Scotia CleanTech Open will receive $100,000 in cash, $200,000 negotiable seed investment, mentoring, and in-kind business building services, including one-year free rent of turn-key space at the Innovacorp Enterprise Centre,” according to the CleanTech Open web site.

Good luck, and congrats for taking the initiative.

German environment chief’s message to Ontario: “Be Patient” with green energy strategy

Had a chance last week to sit down with Dr. Harry Lehmann, executive director of Germany’ federal environmental protection agency. He was visiting Toronto to speak at the inaugural Sustainable Energy Initiative Seminar Series, hosted by the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. Lehmann’s presentation was insightful, as it offered some historical context that is often lacking when pointing to Germany as a green-energy success story. The point being that Germany didn’t get to where it is today overnight, or even over a few years. It started more than three decades ago with a focus on energy conservation, driven by concerns related to the 1970s oil crisis and the Chernobyl disaster a decade later. Renewables didn’t enter the picture in a big way until the late 1990s, but this still gave Germany more than a decade to build itself into a green energy powerhouse. Lehmann’s message to Ontario, as you’ll read below, is to “be patient.” We have a vision, one that may have flaws but is pointing in the right direction, and we need more time to nurture it.

On a side note, I did ask Lehmann one question that has been on the minds of many environmentalists: If Germany plans to accelerate the phaseout of its nuclear power fleet in a post-Fukushima world, won’t this put greater reliance on coal and increase — not decrease — the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions? Isn’t the nuclear phaseout counterproductive to a serious climate strategy? Lehmann said it may appear to be the case, but pointed out that Germany is part of a European-wide carbon trading system. Take nuclear out of the equation and the lower supply of emission-free energy will lead to an increase in the price of carbon. German utilities can choose to burn more coal, but it will cost them. For this reason, he says, the market will shift to less carbon-intensive energy sources, such as natural gas — and more renewables. The cap-and-trade system in Europe, in other words, will prevent the shutdown of nuclear plants in Germany from leading to increased reliance on coal. Curious to know what my Clean Break readers think of this explanation. Feel free to weigh in.

My Clean Break column about Lehmann’s visit to Toronto is pasted below. Continue reading German environment chief’s message to Ontario: “Be Patient” with green energy strategy

Listen to my Mad Like Tesla interview on CBC Radio’s national science show Quirks & Quarks

I’m a big fan of CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks, as well as show host Bob McDonald, so I couldn’t have been more excited when asked to come in for an interview.  My interview was aired today (in Toronto FM 99.1) and will replay during the week, but you can listen to the segment by clicking here. Thanks to the Quirks & Quarks team for the opportunity to chat about Mad Like Tesla.

An open letter from a climate science researcher/student about impact of Environment Canada staff and program cuts

As you may know Environment Canada has cut lots of expertise from its midst – critical to climate science.  What follows is an e-mail from a student who was working with Dr. Brad Bass, a leading researcher on climate change, a hugely knowledgeable person about urban heat islands and the use of vegetation, ie. green roofs, to mitigate climate problems.

I am writing in follow-up to the e-mail Dr. Brad Bass sent out in order to clear up some confusion surrounding the changes at Environment Canada. Dr. Brad Bass and many other Environment Canada scientists have had their jobs cut. Due to political intervention in what EC scientists can and cannot say, Dr. Bass could not include any information about these changes in the e-mail he sent out to you previously. As a student who works with him and has been following many of the changes Canada  now faces, I have decided to send this out independently so as to clarify what Brad could not.
Over the past several months we have seen major cuts to Environment Canada that are leaving it without any real scientific or research power. We have seen many prominent scientific jobs cut, research funding slashed, and our ability to effectively do environmental assessment and management largely neutralized. Our scientists have been muzzled, and their ability to go to press has become tightly managed by a new “media relations office” put forth by the Harper Government. There is no more money to do research on Adaptations and Impacts as we do, projects on water quality have been halted (including those serving Aboriginal reserves and northern communities), and many of the tools and researchers necessary in order to adequately measure the consequences of the Athabasca Tar Sands are presently in a questionable state of limbo. This rearrangement of staff – preceding the 5-10% first round of budget cuts coming in February as part of Harper’s “balancing the books” will effectively leave Environment Canada powerless and effectively useless. They even went so far as to slate twenty-one out of twenty-four water quality monitoring stations in the Northwest Territories for shutdown – an act that managed to embarrass Harper (who was touring the region at the time) sufficiently for it to be reversed. But the cuts and targeting of research in the public interest continues.
Tony Clement perhaps put it best: Environment Canada is now “open for business” – you may now hire their award-winning scientists at will, privatize their research and keep them from working in the public interest. One of the most prominent areas to be hit was climate change research and adaptations: exactly what our thirty-person lab has focused on and our broader Adaptations and Impacts Research Section has pioneered in for the past seventeen years since its formation. Dr. Bass is a co-recipient of the IPCC Nobel Prize, and the work many of our researchers do is critical to the advancement of science and the development of viable responses to climate change the world over. Because Environment Canada scientists cannot go to press over this, coverage (and response) has largely been muted – and the Canadian public, by and large, is unaware of the changes that are taking place. This is, to put it lightly, a major problem not just for Canadians but for the whole of the international community.

Our lab in particular, based at the University of Toronto, does cutting edge research on community energy systems, energy conservation, urban agriculture and food security, new methods of waste management, and urban sustainability through design and green infrastructure to address many of the problems we now face as Canadians. Our research is open, our results are available to the public, and we are presently slated to lose everything – much like many other prominent Canadian research institutions if nothing is done and no attention drawn to the changes we now see. Government research partnerships with universities are likewise slated to be terminated.

Myself and a number of students working with Dr. Bass have independently decided to attempt to address and draw attention to the cuts as we now see them. We have put together a list of very simple things even ordinary Canadians can do in order to fight the changes we now see. These include writing to your MP or school board trustee – just a short “I don’t want to see this laboratory gone” should do – *and spreading the news about the cuts. The CBC recently drew attention to one aspect of our research and our team is rushing to put up a website to draw attention to some of our projects to address the  food crisis, do away with plastic waste, make desalination cheap and easy to do and much, much more.

James I. Birch
Student Researcher
Adaptations and Impacts Research Section
University of Toronto