is it viable cold fusion or an imminent scam?

January 27, 2011

Now, is it just me, or has it been a while since we last heard about cold fusion? The last time it was brought into the limelight was when Stanley Pons and Martin Fleishmann claimed to have cracked it only to have their device questioned when scientists across the world failed to replicate their claimed results. But recently, two physicists from Italy are claiming that they not only managed to create cold fusion, but that they have a reactor ready to be sold to investors looking for a source of cheap, plentiful energy. Surprisingly, they haven’t been able to publish their results in a peer reviewed journal because their paper simply states that power is being generated by their reactor and leave it at that, and their patent for a cold fusion reactor was turned down since they neglected to explain how the device is supposed to work, which generally tends to be a requirement for a patent. Nevertheless, they’ve successfully been powering an undisclosed factory for two years with their little machine, and are ready to go to market with it, declaring that the time for scientific debates is over and the it’ll be up to their customers to decide whether the device works or not. So, how do you say “red flags” in Italian?

Let’s think about this for a second. Despite Mike Adam’s conspiracy theories regarding fusion, trying to get two atoms to combine into one is no easy feat and we’re still a long ways away from viable industrial reactors despite years of sustained effort, often in the wake of budget cuts and constant nay-saying. The only place in our solar system where the kind of powerful fusion reactions we want to generate take place, is deep in the core of the Sun, at 13.6 million °C and 340 billion atmospheres. That’s roughly 6 trillion psi, the equivalent of laying on your back and balancing a typical asteroid on your chest. Yeah, that’s what it takes to overcome the Coulomb barrier and turn hydrogen into helium in the natural world, and the most promising reactor designs so far produce nearly 100 million °C while being pushed to ~150 million °C and beyond to achieve sustained fusion, to produce maybe 1.5 times the energy put into the reaction at best. And now here come two guys who not only claim that they’ve tamed fusion and can produce 31 times the power they put into the system (fusion could be considered commercially viable when it provides ten times the power it’s fed), and that they’re done all this on a tabletop and at room temperature. Wouldn’t you be a little suspicious of these claims? And would it comfort you to know that they have no idea how their creation works, why we’re not detecting any neutrons or gamma rays which should easily penetrate their shielding, and claim they’ve been using it for two years?

Were someone to succeed in creating tabletop fusion, the radiation from the resulting reaction would melt the table. And the researchers. The device being advertised by Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi looks like it may be missing the hundred tons or so of shielding that would be required to keep the reaction from giving them, and everyone around them, radiation poisoning, and if the shielding they do have really does contain gamma rays and neutrons as well as they claim, it must be the most incredible radiation shield ever built. Yes, it’s not impossible that they managed to find some loophole in the laws of physics by serendipity and build a reactor that’s several decades, if not a century, ahead of our current capabilities. But it’s far more likely that this is just a publicity stunt and once they line up enough gullible investors looking for a way to get rich quick, that will be the last time we ever hear of this cold fusion reactor. Or the physicists, who’ll be busy enjoying their cash on a secluded island somewhere in the tropics. There’s been a whole lot of wishful thinking about cold fusion and there are people out there convinced that it works and that it’s being constantly replicated, especially by some of the U.S. Navy’s top labs seeking new and better reactors for their aircraft carriers, but the truth of the matter is that a working cold fusion reactor would already be put to work if it were real and viable. So where is it?

Look, I’m going to be the last person who complains if a real cold fusion reactor shows up, complete with the kind of peer-reviewed science and real, working prototypes spewing all the right neutrons and gamma rays in every direction at room temperature, or even kitchen oven or pottery kiln temperature for that matter. However, there are also some very basic laws of physics to consider here and this reactor is fishy from every angle you can think of. The scientists won’t explain how their device works, won’t give any details about what factory one of their prototypes has been powering for two years, won’t provide any data on the physics of their reactor, and won’t let anyone independently verify it, insisting that their critics will have to wait after they set up their energy conglomerate, built on cold fusion power plants. Is there not a single detail in this story that doesn’t raise any major red flags? So if you were thinking of getting in on the ground floor of tomorrow’s energy source with our intrepid Italian duo, save your money. Unless you’d like to pay for their getaway piña coladas of course…

[ illustration by Khang Le ]

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  • Dave

    Last few days everyone is more or less dismissing this, giving statements that its probably an impossible task for humans, and this is just another scam. However, I do not see anyone making any guesses what they actually are doing. You would at least expect someone making an attempt to explain what’s actually going on. There were 50 people in that conference. Are they all in on it? Are they really that stupid that eventually, when their device comes apart and an existing energy process is revealed!

    In that case I don’t think they will be having any pina coladas at all, they will just be making fools out of themselves or living in shame that they were perhaps forced by the prominent Mr Berlusconi!

  • Greg Fish

    “You would at least expect someone making an attempt to explain what’s actually going on. There were 50 people in that conference. Are they all in on it?”

    Yes, yes you would, but the problem is that no one has actually been able to personally examine the device in question or make any accurate measurements besides the lack of gamma rays and neutrons. All the schematics published by Rossi and Focardi have the reactor as a black box labeled “reactor” which is quite odd considering that it’s not a simple component but the very heart of the machine. One would think that since they’ve been successfully testing it for years and building multiple copies of it, they’d be able to shed some light on what goes on inside of it, or basically, show their work.

    Some of the “theory” they’ve thrown out sounds awfully bizarre and suspicious, clumsily trying to merge the mechanics of a hydrogen fuel cell with ionization of hydrogen atoms in water. My first guess is that they’re just using a battery-aided hot plate to boil water in their “cold fusion reactor” and get some neat spikes to show up on the instruments. I’m not sure if that’s really the case, but again, it’s not like they’re sending their invention for analysis to anyone curious about how it works and are desperately trying to convince a lot of people that their device works just fine even though nobody knows how, including them, and that they’re about to start on a 1 MW-H power plant with 125 reactors.

  • Josh

    Its obvious that these morons actually believe that scientists should take them at their word. Not to say that discoveries this big cannot be accomplished through sheer luck (it has happened) it is just extremely unlikely. i think that Greg is right, they are just waiting until enough gullible people invest in their scam for it to be worth while making a run for it, preferably to a country with no extradition treaty.

    mmmm maybe they are not morons i am sure that there are enough gullible people out there willing to fork out their money to make this scam worth it.

  • Dave

    Seems to me its more likley it may actually be something different than “cold fusion” process. Rossi never used the words “cold fusion” but rather calls his device an “Energy Catalizer”

    Some interesting reading about that here:

  • Paul


    While it’s probably complete crap, if I invented a practical cold-fusion device and suspected I couldn’t get a patent, I’d keep the damn thing a secret and just build power-plants to supply electricity at very-slight-below-commercial-rates. Secrecy itself isn’t a guarantee of bullshit.

    (Hell, even if I could get a patent. They only last 15 years, and chances are someone richer would find a way to screw me over anyway. If I can keep the process a closely guarded secret and just sell the power, I can make money even after a patent would have run out.)


    “Seems to me its more likley it may actually be something different than “cold fusion” process. Rossi never used the words “cold fusion” “

    “Cold Fusion” means anything that fuses hydrogen at anything below stellar temperatures. If you had a device that catalysed the fusion of hydrogen at 2000 degrees, it would be “Cold Fusion” even if it isn’t exactly “cold”.

  • TPBurnett


    The only problems with your observation is that Rossi is using his own money to finance his reactors. He get is the only investor that gets screwed if this is not real.

    The problem with lack of radiation is not really an issue. In the thousands of times that independent labs have replicated the cold fusion effect (although too randomly to be commercially viable up to this point), the radiation has not been there. The energy shows up, just not as high end radiation.

    Paul’s point is well taken above. In an environment that forbids a patent if the words “Cold Fusion” appear in the paper, there are few options left but the use of industrial secrets and a strait forward push to market.

    Lastly, the device as presented, doesn’t appear complex enough to be protected from duplication by an average mechanic. In this world that means that if you want to make any money on your invention, you have to get it out on the market before the copies come along.

    Personally, I think this is the dawn of the “Age of Aquarius “

  • Greg Fish

    “Rossi is using his own money to finance his reactors.

    Then why did he advertise it to potential investors? His plan was not to build his very own private power plant because that would be far too expensive to pull off without a good amount of outside cash.

    “The energy shows up, just not as high end radiation.”

    So what you’re saying is that cold fusion violates the laws of physics? That burst of radiation is what will always happen when you breach the Coulomb barrier. What’s your evidence for this rather than simply stating that cold fusion has been replicated while it broke the laws of physics thousands of times with no citation?

  • TPBurnett

    Rossi has not advertised for investors. He has contracts to install his one megawatt plant (in Greece) only to make money when the energy it produces is delivered. Rossi did not even want do go public as soon as he did, but others talked him into it.
    I am not saying that cold fusion violates the laws of physics. I am suggesting that the laws are still being discovered.
    The following website should get you up to speed on the number of labs (including U.S government labs) that have been having positive results in cold fusion.

  • Greg Fish

    You know TP, you seem to know an awful lot about Rossi’s finances and business deals. Care to share where you get your information about how he set up his fledgling fusion business?

    Here’s the problem with your claim of cold fusion replication. You say it’s been done thousands of times, you point me to a site with books and papers filled with repetitions of these claims, but not one of them actually shows or explains how a fuel cell actually fuses atoms. But you take these claims at face value, and then proclaim that obviously we lack the formal physics to spot cold fusion because cold fusion is being replicated all over the place when there’s no evidence that it’s actually happening.

  • TPBurnett

    Ok, I only refer to what I have read about Rossi and his history. This following site contains links to much of the history of Andrea Rossi. He sold his interest in LTI – Leonardo Technologies Inc. to finance his current project.

    What the thousand plus papers claim is a replication of the cold fusion effect. I.E. excess heat, bi-products such as (helium, tritium, copper, and various radiations). These are measured things that should not be there, measured by careful scientist. In the case of Rossi’s work, If he puts Hydrogen and Nickel in and gets heat and copper out, maybe it is not cold fusion. But, it sure looks like that.

    I don’t want you or anybody to take the papers on face value, but I don’t think they should be rejected on face value either. If you choose to believe that hundred of labs are lying or self deluded into publishing claims that defy conventional wisdom, that’s OK.

    This is a link to the best library of papers on the subject I know.

    Some points;

    The Wright Brothers had a similar problem in the 3 years it took them to convince the U.S. Government that they were actually flying around. The actually got the French on board and that impressed the U.S..

    There are also a number of things of utility that are used all the time, yet there is no current explanation of how they work. High temperature superconductors or even gravity for example.