Archives For cold fusion

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Last year, I wrote about Andrea Rossi’s claim to have created a cold fusion reactor and suffice it to say that I wasn’t very optimistic about the prospects. Not only did it seem to defy some basic laws of physics but its inventor was exceedingly cagey about how the device worked, claiming to have simply stumble on the wondrous reaction at first, then claiming to protecting a trade secret behind a new 1 MW power plant he was building for a client. The paper he and his partner sent to physics journals and the patent they tried to register were both rejected for the same reason: in place of a basic diagram of how their cold fusion reactor was supposed to work they placed a black box. Without plausible explanations of how they were getting the reaction they claimed was taking place and without a formal, qualified third party validation of their results, there just wasn’t enough for reviewers or the patent office to conclude that the results were legitimate. And there were the two tiny little problems of Rossi being a convicted con man whose engineering degree came from a now defunct diploma mill, making it hard for him to establish credibility.

But it seems that Rossi is anything but persistent and he’s kept his experiments going. The Pop Sci story really tries to keep an open mind when talking about cold fusion, or as its advocates refer to it, low enery nuclear reactions (LENR) and tried not to be too hard on Rossi, but what it portrays is very unflattering nonetheless. Rossi steadfastly refuses to release any details, hand-picks the audiences for his demonstrations, doesn’t unplug his device during these demos, and refers only to "important institutions" and "major technical reports in progress" when pressed for some specificity in his claims. Not only that but he is almost pathologically paranoid of criticism, so much so that he refused to meet with the story’s author several times because he got wind of the fact that his critics would be asked to weigh in as well, finally consenting to be interviewed in one of the pettiest ways imaginable: at the exact time the author booked his critics’ interviews. If I were a potential investor in his business, this would definitely spook me. And considering that we aren’t told who may be interested in investing, there may be no real takers for Rossi’s E-Cat.

After the first post on Rossi, several people posted and sent me links to cold fusion sites filled with papers claiming to see low energy reactions in a variety of improbable machines, arguing in favor of keeping cold fusion in mind as a potentially viable power source. However, none of the papers seemed to make a whole lot of sense from either a physics or an engineering standpoint and the vast majority of them reported the kind of energy that could’ve easily been created by a random chemical process or impurities in the materials used to construct these test reactors. To claim viable cold fusion you need more than a small temperature rise. You need to have a major spike in energy and some radioactivity to prove that the reaction is indeed nuclear in nature. On top of that, you need the reactor to clearly be scalable, enough to get a 15 to 30-fold return on the initial energy investment so plans for power plants could be drawn up. A lot of weird stuff can happen on very small scales, but that weird stuff is not cold fusion or anything like it as far as all the verifiable, consistent evidence we have tells us.

What seems to be happening is that LENR advocates see small temperature bumps and a wide variety of anomalies they can’t explain, and because they so badly want to do what science said cannot be done, attribute it to the first stirring of cold fusion. And since they’re so invested in the idea, they refuse to take no for an answer and reject any alternative explanation for what they’re seeing in small scale, insisting that with just a little funding their table top experiments could be turned into energy farms. But because they can’t explain what they’re seeing and how it works, a scientist with access to the cash they need isn’t going to be swayed into hobbling his or her own research for a gamble on an unexplained anomaly. After all, the LENR enthusiasts are asking us to do the equivalent of buying a car that doesn’t seem to have wheels or a gas tank, with a hood that’s welded shut without test driving it first, claiming that they’ve driven it and while it wouldn’t do 0 to 60 in 5 seconds, it can waddle along by some wondrous phenomenon they can’t explain which is why we need to buy it and invest in modifying it into a cargo ship. It’s simply too much to have to buy into before writing a check, which is why cold fusion has been long mothballed.

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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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Last week, I wrote a follow up post on the living alt med conspiracy klaxon we know as Mike Adams and how he sees most of the world around him, i.e. though the standard issue crank goggles. After a furious fit which was written to slime his skeptics by using his nearly non-existent knowledge of science as a bludgeon and parading his 9/11 Truther convictions with the kind of condescension you can only get from those who are so utterly oblivious to what they say in public, they’d try to argue with you that the sky is actually purple, he decided to throw all his energies at the recent retraction of the Wakefield study which spawned today’s anti-vaxers. And to make his point, he decided to once again probe the seemingly bottomless pits of his inflamed paranoia to produce a scathing rebuke of a conspiracy to suppress cold fusion by the agents of the “hot fusion” industry…

There are three steps at being a professional conspiracy theorist. The first is to create some sort of a sinister conspiracy. No surprise there, I’m sure. However, the trick is that the conspiracy theory doesn’t need to have a connection to your field of commercial interest. It need only to exist. If you’ve already used every conspiracy you can think of, create one on the fly. Step two is to find a villain, which shouldn’t be all that tough. Just chalk it up to a big something and its nefarious agents in the media and corporations, and you’ll be fine. You can use the good old standbys like Big Pharma or Big Oil or Big Government and its subsets like military black ops, legal machinations by lobbyists, or just big businesses in general. The last step is to use this conspiracy to attract the attention of people who vehemently oppose anything conventional and eagerly rush to embrace anything contrarian as infallible, and sell them your product using the Galileo Gambit and a quick nod to the conspiracy theory you’ve detailed. This will serve as proof that because you say something seemingly wrong, you should actually be right by the very virtue of being different, just like the poor, oppressed victims of the Big Blank. This, in a nutshell, is Mike Adams’ general business plan.

So how exactly does the great hot fusion conspiracy have anything to do with Wakefield? Well, you see, when the maverick doctor working for trial lawyers interested in suing major pharmaceutical companies and using his work to create his own version of the MMR vaccines, announced his ground-breaking results, Big Pharma tried to silence him for over a decade. Just like the evil scientists working on hot fusion tried to silence a cold fusion discovery by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons by viciously discrediting them to maintain their “hot fusion” monopoly in the apparently booming business of nuclear fusion

The conventional physics community went berserk, attacking Fleischmann and Pons relentlessly, attempting to destroy their character and any scientific credibility they might have held. [Physicists] paraded a gang of “hot fusion” scientists through the mainstream media, telling everyone it was “impossible” to create nuclear fusion at tabletop temperatures. Through a repetition of lies, they convinced the world that Fleischmann and Pons were frauds.

Yeah, that’s a great story and all. The only problem is that it never happened. Scientists did what they do with any claim. They tested the claim that something odd was going on when current was fed through a palladium cathode in heavy water. After replicating the original setup and feeding current to the fuel cell for weeks, there was an elevation in temperature as some reaction was taking place in the heavy water. However, it wasn’t the dramatic 20°C rise reported by Fleischmann and Pons, and teams of experts couldn’t detect the tell-tale signs of fusion. There was no elevation in gamma rays or flow of neutrons in the heavy water. In fact a trial by experts from Brookhaven and Yale found an unremarkable 0.4°C rise in temperature instead. Likewise, the study by nuclear experts in the UK showed no dramatic effects and both teams ruled that the slight interactions in the fuel cell may have been problems with the instruments or the effect of cosmic rays which constantly rain down on us from the upper atmosphere, or in other words, nothing as exotic as nuclear fusion.

But forget all that scientific mumbo-jumbo about peer review and subsequent testing. Our little conspiratorial airhead has no use for those elitist tools of our invisible oppressors. Instead he insists that the only reason a cold fusion reactor isn’t supplying power to our cities today is because billions of dollars were invested in hot fusion technology and tens of thousands of lives hinge on it, which is why Fleischmann and Pons were tarred and attacked so badly that scientists went so far as to shrug at their claims and said they couldn’t replicate the results of their experiment. Their original paper was never even retracted or threatened, that’s how furious the sinister agents of the hot fusion lobby were. Really, at this point I wonder if in math class, when Adams wrote that 2 + 2 = 5 and got points off his work, he blamed his mistake on a conspiracy by Big Math and it’s insidious Big Integer agents in schools…

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