There have been enough developments in the cold fusion story during the last two weeks to warrant revisiting the subject. For those of you who came in late, cold fusion, also known as Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR), is a phenomenon in which hydrogen, under proper conditions, is combined with palladium or nickel to produce heat. If the reaction can be developed to the point at which it makes lots of heat safely, then the world will change forever as the ingredients for the process and the costs of the reactor appears to be very inexpensive. The process leaves behind no adverse products such as greenhouse gases, ionizing radiation, radioactive waste or even ash.
Should the phenomenon prove economically viable, it has the potential of eliminating the need to burn fossil fuels for heat, light, industry, and transportation. In short LENR seems too good to be true and therein is the problem, for there is much skepticism that a new way of energy that has the potential to render all other forms of energy production - oil, coal, gas, wind, solar, biofuels -- obsolete can possibly be real.
Leaving aside for the moment the sometimes acrimonious debate that is going on between true believers in the phenomenon and the hard-core skeptics and the lack of mainstream media coverage, let's review some recent developments. Last week at a meeting of the UN's World Sustainable Energy Conference in Geneva representatives of the International Society for Condensed Matter Nuclear Science gave presentations on the state of research on the LENR-Cold Fusion phenomenon. In short, numerous scientists from all over the world have conducted experiments in which they observed excess heat coming from combining either palladium or nickel with hydrogen. These reactions have been repeated many times and cross-verified by other labs, so there is now little doubt that the cold fusion or LENR can really take place.
In the hindsight of years of experiments we have learned two things about this phenomenon. The first insight is that getting the reaction to occur is more difficult than thought 23 years ago. This is the reason why other labs were unable to reproduce the Pons-Fleischman experiments that caused so much excitement back in 1989, leading to the whole concept being pronounced a failure. The second discovery is that the reaction seems to be different from the fusion of hydrogen or deuterium into helium that takes place in the sun or a hydrogen bomb. This suggests that endless comments from physicists that "fusion" can only take place at extremely high temperatures are missing the point. Critics are comparing apples with oranges.
With LENR we seem to be dealing with a new natural phenomenon which is not as yet understood although there are numerous theories which attempt to describe what seems to be happening. These theories involve the dense mathematics of nuclear theory and are for the most part incomprehensible to the layman.
The second development of recent days was the release of a video on a NASA website touting the future of LENR. This video was released as part of a U.S. patent application by a NASA scientist that seeks to patent LENR reactions for the U.S. government. The video can best be described as effusive for it says that a nickel-hydrogen reaction has demonstrated the capability of making excessive amounts of energy cleanly and will someday be able to replace fossil fuels. The NASA video is so strong in its endorsement of the concept that the NASA scientist involved was forced to issue a statement pointing out that there is much work still to be done and that without further proof, he does not endorse the claims being made by the Italian entrepreneur Andrea Rossi and his Greek competition Defkalion Green Technologies.
So long as cold fusion was restricted to lab-bench amounts of heat, few people paid much attention to a phenomenon which was generally perceived as discredited junk science. However, the current controversy started early last year when the Italian/American entrepreneur Andrea Rossi claimed that he was not only making heat from a low energy nuclear reaction, he was making so much heat that commercially viable cold fusion was already here. The problem with Rossi's announcement was that he, like Thomas Edison, wants to make some money from his claimed discovery that by putting finely ground nickel powder together with hydrogen in the presence of a catalyst, lots of heat is produced. As Rossi still refuses to release the details of his process or let other independent laboratories examine and reproduce the phenomenon, even several semi-public demonstrations of heat production have not been enough to quell the cries of "fraud," "scam," or "impossible under the laws of physics."
Rossi has dismissed the disbelievers and announced that he was going to validate his discovery by selling devices to the public that would produce useful amounts of heat while consuming only tiny amounts of powdered nickel. Those of you who have seen the video of a hydrogen bomb going off should be aware that nuclear fusion produces millions of times more energy than the simple combustion of a fossil fuel so that only very small amounts of nickel need to be consumed in making large amounts of heat.
Over the past weekend Rossi granted a rare interview to a friendly blogger in which he released considerable new information on his progress towards commercializing his process. During the interview he reiterated the concern the Chinese or others who do not take intellectual property rights seriously would reverse engineer and make off with his discovery if he were to release details of his process prior to having a marketable product.
This, of course, continues the controversy as to whether or not he has made a major breakthrough. Interestingly, Rossi has repeatedly said that the first prototype unit was sold to a "customer" in the U.S. - speculation is that it could possibly be DoD's DARPA. This device now has been in the hands of the unknown "customer" for two months who should have had time to figure out if it works or if he has just paid $2 million for a fraud. This of course assumes that there really is a "customer" which some still doubt as no one has stepped forward to acknowledge purchasing such a device.
In his new revelations, Rossi describes a home sized unit under development with a core about the size of a cigarette box that contains the nickel, some form of hydride that contains the hydrogen and the catalyst. This box takes about an hour to heat up before it starts producing excessive heat. Rossi says the reaction between the nickel and the hydrogen generates gamma rays which are turned into heat by the lead shielding of the box and must be carried away by a cooling system or the core will melt into a hot, but harmless, puddle of lead and nickel.
Rossi says he is working with the US firm of National Instruments to design a control system for his nickel-hydrogen reactor and with Underwriters Laboratory to certify the device as safe for home use. Interestingly, National Instruments has confirmed that they are working with Rossi, but refuse to release any details of the arrangements. Another interesting development is that Rossi now hopes to be selling the newly designed 10 Kwh home heating units in the U.S. later this year for $400-$500.
The question as to whether commercial cold fusion is as imminent as Rossi hopes is still open. As the story develops, more labs verify the phenomenon, and Rossi does not ask for money for other than actually selling a device, the cries of scam and fraud have largely melted away to be replaced by assertions that it is too good to be true and certainly nothing will be marketable in the foreseeable future. Rossi says he is preparing to contract with two European Universities in the near future to test and certify his device soon as many onlookers have been demanding.
The most interesting facet of this seemingly bizarre story is that while we are dealing with a technology that, if it works as claimed, will clearly be as significant to the course of civilization as the development of agriculture, steam power, electricity, and flight, it has been barely mentioned in the mainstream media. As more details are released, however, it is becoming apparent that if it is verified, we are dealing with a rather simple and cheap technology that could see widespread adoption in a very short period. As prices of fossil fuels increase, the attraction of an extremely cheap energy source obviously will prove irresistible despite opposition from those having much to lose from its widespread adoption.
It must be reiterated that while it seems likely that LENR reactions are a real phenomenon, it has yet to be proven that commercial products which can start replacing fossil fuels are only months away. We should have some answers to this question - one way or another -- before the year is out.
Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.