Cold Confusion

In 1903, the well-known member of the French Academy of Science, Prosper-René Blondlot, responsible for the first measurement of the speed of radio waves, announced a new form of radiation at the University of Nancy, whilst attempting to polarise X-rays. Excitement rose, and no less than 120 other scientists in 300 published articles also expressed the ability to detect this new radiation, which acquired the title "N-Rays"; notably there was a very disproportionate number of French scientists among the number. There was even debate over who discovered them first.

But other scientists, mainly from an Anglo or German background, could not replicate the observations and one, American physicist Robert Wood went to Blondlot's laboratory to investigate. When the experiment was conducted, in a darkened room, Wood sabotaged the experiment. He removed a prism from the experimental apparatus and replaced a file that was supposed to give off N-Rays with a piece of wood, which would not. Despite these changes the experimenters still recorded that they observed N-Rays and Wood was able to publish in Nature that their observation was entirely subjective. Today the story is well-known as an example of experimenter bias and less politely as "pathological science".

As a more contemporary example cold fusion falls into this category. In nuclear physics, fusion is when two or more nuclei join together and is usually accompanied by the release or absorption of large quantities of energy. It can be distinguished from nuclear fission, the breaking up of a heavier nuclei, also accompanied by the release or absorption of energy. Iron is a good breakpoint; fusion of nuclei lower than iron usually releases energy, whilst fusion of nuclei heavier than iron requires energy; the reverse is true with fission. Nuclear fusion occurs naturally in stars, the simplest example being the formation of the hydrogen isotope deuterium; two protons are brought close enough for weak nuclear force to convert either of the protons into a neutron, thus forming deuterium. Laboratory experiments have been successful, however the energy input to initiate fusion has always exceeded the energy output.

In 1989, Martin Fleischamm, a well-known electrochemist at the University of Southampton, and Stangley Pons at the University of Utah, claimed to that the electrolysis of heavy water on the surface of a palladium electrode resulted in excess heat that could only be explained by a nuclear processes along with small amounts of nuclear reaction by-products (neutrons and tritium). Not surprisingly the announcement drew great attention, as cold fusion would provide extremely cheap and very abundant energy without the related risks of greenhouse gas emissions or other environmental damage related to energy production. Despite a handful of initial reported successes (retracted as experimental errors), other attempts failed to verify the claims, with the American Physical Society sessions and the Department of Energy sceptical of the theory and claims, with the latter conducting to thorough studies in 1989 and in 2004.

The media, having been bitten once is twice shy on reporting cold fusion claims. It is perhaps then not surprising that there has been little coverage of a remarkable study from the University of Bologna with Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi claiming to have invented a device they call the Energy Catalyzer, which uses hydrogen and nickel as fuel to produce, via cold fusion, heat and copper. A patent for the device has been accepted by the Italian Office for Patent and Trademarks, but this was after previous application was rejected for "offend[ing] against the generally accepted laws of physics and established theories, the disclosure should be detailed enough to prove to a skilled person conversant with mainstream science and technology that the invention is indeed feasible."

A demonstration in January 2011 fed 1 kW of power producing 12 kW of energy. Further tests were conducted in February and March, the latter in the presence of two Swedish physicists, Hanno Essén, associate professor of theoretical physics and a lecturer at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology and former chairman of the Swedish Skeptics Society and Sven Kullander, Professor Emeritus at Uppsala University and also chairman of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences' Energy Committee. In their report the claim that the excess heat generated from the experiment is not chemical and "[t]he only alternative explanation is that there is some kind of a nuclear process that gives rise to the measured energy production." Further public demonstrations were conducted twice in April. Rossi has since announced an agreement with the newly formed Greek company Defkalion Green Technologies as his first client for the delivery of a one megawatt heating plant to be inaugurated in October 2011. In the agreement Rossi will only be paid when the installation is operational.

If it sounds too good to be true it probably is, but not a probability is not a certainty. Rossi and Focardi aren't exactly sure how their device works. Professor Peter Hagelstein, an electrical engineer at the MIT and a proponent of cold fusion notes that "in conventional nuclear physics, when nuclear energy is released, it comes out as nuclear radiation". He then goes on to claim "[i]n this process, when you make energy you don't get radiation at all, implying there's a new physical mechanism at work" (emphasis mine). This is an extraordinary claim or ,to use Karl Popper's language, a "bold conjecture". Such claims therefore need extremely strong proofs. So far Rossi and Focardi have been unable to publish their paper on the phenomenon in mainstream academic journals, having to establish their own Journal of Nuclear Physics. So there is some cause for doubt; independent replication in particular is needed. But if this does turn out to be true, there should be no doubt of its significance - one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time.

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lev.lafayette's picture

Tests conducted at NASA Glenn Research Center in 1989 and elsewhere consistently showed evidence of anomalous heat during loading and unloading deuterium into bulk palladium. At one time called “cold fusion,” now called “low-energy nuclear reactions” (LENR), such effects are now published in peer-reviewed journals and are gaining attention and mainstream respectability. The instrumentation expertise of NASA GRC is applied to improve the diagnostics for investigating the anomalous heat in LENR.

Relevant Presentation:
+ Download presentation given at a LENR Workshop at NASA GRC in 2011 [available soon].

lev.lafayette's picture

1 MW E-Cat Cold Fusion Device Test Successful

On October 28, 2011, Andrea Rossi demonstrated his 1 megawatt E-Cat system to his first customer, who had engineers/scientists on hand to test/validate its performance. Due to a glitch, it provided 479 kW of continuous power for 5.5 hours during the self-sustained mode.

Well, the big day has come and gone. Andrea Rossi's one-megawatt-capable E-Cat cold fusion device has been tested in Bologna, Italy; and the unknown customer, who ran the test, is apparently happy.

There were some issues, so it couldn't be run at full power in self-looped mode, but what it did do was plenty impressive.

It ran for 5.5 hours producing 479 kW, while in self-looped mode. That means no substantial external energy was required to make it run, because it kept itself running, even while producing an excess of nearly half a megawatt.

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Fuel gain exceeding unity in an inertially confined fusion implosion

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An international project to generate energy from nuclear fusion has reached a key milestone, with half of the infrastructure required now built.

Bernard Bigot, the director-general of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter), the main facility of which is based in southern France, said the completion of half of the project meant the effort was back on track, after a series of difficulties. This would mean that power could be produced from the experimental site from 2025.

Nuclear fusion on brink of being realised, say MIT scientists

The dream of nuclear fusion is on the brink of being realised, according to a major new US initiative that says it will put fusion power on the grid within 15 years.

The project, a collaboration between scientists at MIT and a private company, will take a radically different approach to other efforts to transform fusion from an expensive science experiment into a viable commercial energy source. The team intend to use a new class of high-temperature superconductors they predict will allow them to create the world’s first fusion reactor that produces more energy than needs to be put in to get the fusion reaction going.

Bob Mumgaard, CEO of the private company Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which has attracted $50 million in support of this effort from the Italian energy company Eni, said: “The aspiration is to have a working power plant in time to combat climate change. We think we have the science, speed and scale to put carbon-free fusion power on the grid in 15 years.”