Archives For fusion

alpha centauri bb

Carbon is a great element for kick-starting life thanks to its uncanny ability to form reactive, but still stable molecules perfect for creating proteins, amino acids, and even the backbone of DNA and RNA, or their functional equivalents. And yet, according to those who argue that the reason we exist is that the universe is somehow fine-tuned for us, or that life exists as a random, one in a trillion chance, it shouldn’t even be here. You see, when the first stars started fusing hydrogen into helium-4 deep in their searing cores, the resulting helium atoms should have combined into beryllium-8 which decays so quickly that there should have been virtually no chance for another helium atom to combine with it to form carbon-12, which accounts for 98.9% of all carbon in the known universe and makes life possible. According to astronomer Fred Hoyle, whose misuse of the anthropic principle has been used to justify many an anti-evolutionary screed, since carbon based life exists, there must be a mechanism by which this beryllium bottleneck is resolved and the clue to this mechanism must lie in the conditions under which the star fuses helium.

You see, when atoms fuse into a new element, the newly formed nucleus has to be at one of its natural, stable energy levels, otherwise the combination of the protons’ and neutrons’ energies, as well as the energy of their kinetic motion will prevent the fusion. Hoyle’s insight was than any new carbon atom must have had a resonance with the process by which a beryllium and helium atom would combine, which would exert just enough energy to slow down the decay rate for the reaction with a passing helium-4 atom to happen, so the natural energy level of the result would sustain a stable carbon-12 nucleus. Imagine rolling magnetic spheres down a hill, and as these magnets roll, they collide. Some will hit each other with just enough energy to keep rolling as a single unit and absorb new spheres they run into, others combine, then break apart, or just roll on their own. The angle, the force of impact, and the speed and masses of the spheres all have to be right for them to join, and when they do, they’ll have to stay that way long enough to settle down. This is quantum resonance in a nutshell, and it’s what made carbon-12 possible.

But while this is all well and good, especially for us carbon based lifeforms, where does Hoyle’s discovery leave us in regards to the question of whether the universe was fine-tuned for life? If we assume that only carbon based life is possible, and that the only life that could exist is what exists today, the argument makes sense. However those assumptions don’t. Even if there was no quantum resonance between helium-4, beryllium-8, and carbon-12 in the earliest stars from which the first atoms of organic molecules were spawned, the first stars were massive and it’s a reasonable guess that when they went supernova, they would have created carbon, silicon, and metals like aluminium and titanium. All four elements can be useful in creating molecules which can form the chemical backbones of living organisms. In fact, it’s entirely possible that we could one day find alien life based on silicon and that in some corner of the galaxy there are microbes with genomes wound around a titanium scaffold. Life does not have to exist as we know it, and only as we know it. We didn’t have to exist either, it’s just lucky for us that we did.

When creationists try to come up with the probability that life exactly the way we understand, or have at least observed to exist, came out the way it has, against all other probabilities, they are bound to get ridiculous odds against us being here. But what they’re really doing is calculating a probability of a reaction for reaction, mutation for mutation, event for event, repeat of the entire history of life on Earth, all 4 billion years of it, based on the self-absorbed and faulty assumption that because we’re here, there must a reason why that’s the case. The idea that there’s no real predisposition towards modern humans evolving in North Africa, or that life could exist if there’s no abundant carbon-12 to help bind its molecules is just something they cannot accept because the notion that our universe created us by accident and we can be gone in the blink of a cosmic eye to be replaced by something unlike ourselves in every way, is just too scary for them. They simply don’t know how to deal with not feeling like they are somehow special or that nature isn’t really interested in whether they exist or not, just like it hadn’t for at least 13.8 billion years…

transformer box

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.

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 ]