There is a fascinating drama taking place over in Bologna, Italy involving an engineer by the name of Andrea Rossi and a physicist, Sergio Focardi, who say they have developed an entirely new source of cheap, clean, energy. This energy is said to be produced by fusing nickel and hydrogen inside a low-cost, table-top-sized reactor. Moreover, the inventors say this device is already in limited commercial production and is being sold to customers with the first delivery being made to an unknown American buyer this week.
Now, most nuclear physicists believe that fusing nickel and hydrogen is impossible this side of extremely high temperatures, so Rossi's device cannot perform as he claims and some sort of sophisticated fraud is taking place. The claim of unverified cold fusion naturally has become controversial with charges and counter charges being hurled across the Internet. The validity of the claim that an unlimited supply of cheap, clean energy is available now is apparently too much for the mainstream media which has been strangely quiet about the affair.
The problem with the "scam theory" is that for the last 10 months, the developers have been putting on demonstrations of their device before groups of learned physicists and selected members of the press in an attempt to show that their "energy catalyzer" actually works. When the reactor is heated up, so much energy in the form of steam is emitted that, short of fraud, the only answer seems to be that nuclear fusion is indeed taking place. The amount of heat being reported and apparently verified by outside observers is simply too much for any known chemical reaction.
Support for the position that this is a fraud comes from the fact that so far only the inventors and their closest associates seem to know what is going on inside the reactor. Visiting physicists can verify that heat is coming out and that there are no obvious signs of something untoward, but this is not the same as having independent laboratories with full access to the technology declaring that it is for real.
If you are interested in the details of all this, the account in Wikipedia under "Energy Catalyzer" gives a reasonably balanced version of the story thus far.
Following the cold fusion furor of 20 years ago in which the scientific establishment declared that low energy fusion was not believable, scattered pockets of ill-funded scientists continued cold fusion research, while the world of big science continued working on multi-billion dollar fusion projects involving magnetic containment and lasers. From time to time those working on cold fusion reported observing abnormal amounts of heat being emitted when they attempted to fuse nickel with hydrogen, but as nobody could explain what was happening, scant attention was paid to their reports. Focardi was among the scientists performing and reporting on these experiments over the last 20 years.
Somewhere around 2008 Rossi, who appears to be more of an entrepreneur than a scientist, is said to have come to Focardi with an idea of how the fusion of nickel and hydrogen could be sped up to the point where a commercially viable, energy producing, reactor could be built. Three years later demonstrations of such a device began.
Last Friday the story got even better when a demonstration of a larger device designed to produce 1 megawatt of power was held. At the end of the day, outside consultants working for an American firm or organization declared that the test was satisfactory and the working prototype was immediately sold to the unidentified American "customer." Skeptics say this "test" proved nothing as the identity of the testers and the customer were unknown and could be part of the scam which they fervently believe is taking place.
Rossi says more reactors will be delivered shortly. We should not have to wait long find out if indeed a major breakthrough has occurred. Rossi says he will sign research contracts with the universities of Bologna and Uppsala to explore the physics behind production of so much heat.
As anyone who has ever seen the old movies of hydrogen bombs being tested can tell you, gigantic amounts of energy can be obtained from the fusion of atoms. What would be remarkable, if this story pans out, is how energy could come from such a simple device - a container, some powdered nickel, some sort of catalyst (which some believe is electro-magnetic energy), a touch of hydrogen, and a heating element. It should be noted that thus far, nobody has reported any sign of lethal radiation flying out of the reactor or radioactive waste resulting from whatever is taking place inside.
If this development is for real, and we will not know for a while, parts of our understanding of nuclear physics will have to be rethought for it seems there is much more in nature to learn about. Cheap, pollution-free energy could, in theory, reset the clock on global warming for if these devices spread rapidly, the transition away from carbon-based energy might just happen in time to save the earth. Cheap energy would allow for cheap desalinization of water, cheap transport, cheap food, and a lot of other changes.
Needless to say, major industries -- coal, oil, nuclear, green, etc. -- and economic relationships between nations would be upset by a rapid transition away from increasing costly fossil fuels. What happens to oil in all this is hard to say. Complete transition to nuclear fusion would likely take decades to accomplish. High costs for fossil fuels would be a major incentive, but simply re-provisioning 7 or 8 billion people would be a major job. This would suggest that higher oil prices will remain a factor in our lives no matter what happens with other sources of energy.
Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.