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Low Energy Nuclear Reactions

The challenge of meeting our energy needs: Has Andrea Rossi found an answer?

A major challenge in the years to come is how we will obtain the energy that we need given that:

  • The supplies of conventional fossil fuels such as coal and gas are finite
  • The burning of fossil fuels is increasing the level of CO2 in the atmosphere which is causing global warming
  • Nuclear power through fission has not turned out to be "too cheap to meter" but instead has many, well documented, problems of its own

The generation of power through fusion, the combining of hydrogen atoms to form deuterium and/or the fusing of deuterium to form helium has long been the holy grail. This is an attempt to reproduce the way in which the Sun releases energy as light and heat. The potential advantages is that the fuel supply is essentially unlimited, the problems of radiation and waste are dramatically less than those associated with conventional fission based nuclear reactors, and it is inherently fail-safe.

Billions of pounds have been spent on trying to do this by reproducing the conditions in the sun, ie high temperatures and pressures, examples including:

While these developments have been able to produce some fusion, they are still a long way from being a viable source of power. Critically, they require far more energy to be put into the system than is released by the process of fusion that then occurs.

The first section of my Science Notes describes the science behind the problem.

The Cold Fusion debacle, or was it?

In 1989 Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons announced that they had a system that could be set up for a few hundred pounds, could be run on a lab bench, and supported fusion; Deuterium atoms were fused together and energy was released. Critically, they claimed that more energy was released than was put into the system, although the amounts of energy concerened were small.

There were two problems: Many people could not reproduce their results, and many of the normal indications that fusion was taking place appeared to be absent. After the initial excitement, the ideas were apparently debunked and popular consensus was that nothing significant had occurred, and cold fusion was not mentioned again in polite company.

However, the experimental details that were published at the time were sufficient for many groups around the world to think that something interesting had occurred, and for the last 20 years they have working on developing theories and experimental techniques that build on the initial work of Fleischmann and Pons, and hundreds of papers have been published. A very detailed review was written about 10 years ago.

These experiments have helped physicists see why it was that the initial results were so difficult to reproduce, and why some of the traditional indicators of fusion, such as the production of neutrons, might be missing.

The first section of my Science Notes also talks about why there is such interest in the possibility of cold fusion.

The Italian connection

Fast forward to 2011, and there is a new flurry of activity, centred around the activities of Andrea Rossi and his product the E-cat or "Energy Catalyser".

It turns out that for some years Andrea Rossi and others have been working on a system using Nickel and Hydrogen, building on work that dates right back to 1983. There are a number of crucial differences between Rossi's system, which he calls the Energy Catalyser or E-Cat and the Fleichmann and Pons system and Rossi's system:

  • It uses Nickel, a common metal, rather than Palladium which is expensive, and as such looks much more promising as a basis for large scale production
  • It uses hydrogen gas, rather than heavy water, so is able to run at a much higher (400 C) temperature, which is also better for power generation

The problem is one of trying to obtain authoritative information on what is happening. There a number of factors that give appear to have created this problem:

  • Rossi wanted to get things covered by patents before going public, but there have been difficulties obtaining patents because of the, understandable, scepticism of the patent authorities to patent things relating to cold fusion.
  • Rossi had been working with a company called Defkalion who were going produce commercial devices. They fell out in the middle of 2011, and Defkalion now appear to want to steal Rossi'sthunder and the associated commercial opportunities. This has forced Rossi into 'going public' earlier than it appears he had intended. In some ways this mirrors the experience of Fleischmann and Pons who were pushed into going public before they were ready. It is proving difficult to identify the precise sequence of events as each side is now refusing to mention the name of the other.
  • The instinctive scepticism of many observers, given the history of work in this area. It is to be admitted that at this stage, because of the question marks that still exist about the data that is available, it is still possible that either:
    • It is part of a very elaborate scam. Supporters of this view point to Rossi's past criminal record, although this account of these events shows that the situation at the time was far from straightforward.
    • Rossi genuinely believes in the reality what he has found, but there is an underlying problem with his technique/physics/engineering and there is nothing of any significance going on at all.

Rossi's YouTube description of E-cat can be found here. The usefulness of a video is that it allows you to meet the man himself, and also get a picture of his setup.

The difference between now and what has gone before is that he claims to have a system that can generate 100s of kilowatts of heat power.

The competing systems

This is where it gets complicated. The story starts in the University of Bologna some years ago where the original investigative work was done, from which (at least) three different commercial developments appear to have arisen

The fact that once someone is 'in the know' they seem to immediately want to produce their own competing product could be an indication that there is something significant going on here.

So, where to go for information?

At the moment new websites seem to appear every other day. I am keeping my own list of interesting 'news' websites, but a more complete list is on the leonardo website.

Of these, one notable website is the Swedish technical publication NyTeknik has been following developments for some time, and appears to have made a valiant effort at producing a dispassionate and informed view of events. This link should take you to a current list of articles.

There is also E-Cat world, an on line journal that reports on developments. This appears to be a genuinely independent offering.

Another place to go is the Wikipedia article, which is not a bad place to start. Some of the back story can be found in the associated discussion pages

Views from the protagonists: DEFKALION

The Defkalion view of the story can be found on their website. As of early Dec 2011, events are sufficiently fast moving that the glossy front pages are somewhat behind the times, and the up to the minute information is largely in their forum. Notably it includes a link to their recently release Product Specification

Views from the protagonists: ROSSI

Getting information from Andrea Rossi is a challenge. As well as Ecat.com, the officially sanctioned web site, in February 2010 he created a the "Journal of Nuclear Physics", which is a cross between an on-line journal and a blog. This was in response to the problem that it was proving difficult to publish papers in the 'conventional' journals because of the reputation of cold fusion. Discussion between Andrea and hs suporters and detractors tends to take place in the discussion section at the end of each published article. This is the most definitive place to find Andrea's view of events. I had come up with my own view as to the most likely mechanism to explain what Rossi has found, and then found it was already on this website 

Views from observers and experts

There have been a number of very informative presentations within NASA in September 2011, for which the slides have been obtained:

As I first found out about Rossi during a discussion with Brian Josephson while waiting at Boston Airport, I feel I need to mention that Brian has been closely monitoring developments for some time and gives his views on his website, which includes a wonderfully idiosyncratic but informative video and he has also made some very useful contributions to the debate at this physics forum blog.

While no serious attempt has been made to date to reproduce the full power levels of the Rossi system Brian Aherne has managed to obtain a continuous 8W heat output from a very simple system. On 7/12/11 he was due to present his work, but had to pull out for various reasons, but his patent and slides have been put on-line.

Reactions and discussion

As would be expected, this is generating a wide range of reactions. As well as the discussion forums on the Defkalion website, and also Rossi's Journal of Nuclear Physics, there is also

A quick Google search will find a wide range of reactions, which ranges from:

to

In the media

And government involvement

As might be hoped various governments are keeping an eye on things.

Conferences and seminars

And what is actually going on?

A good question. My hunch is that something interesting is going on. Time will tell whether the time when I first found out about this will rank with the first time I read articles about the possibility of single chip computers and fibre optic cables, and the first documentary that I heard about AIDs (except that at that point it had no name). In each case things were never the same again. In the case of fibre optics, the work on ultralow loss waveguides for transmission of digital data was made obsolete almost overnight. Could the same happen to plasma fusion research?

As I find out more, I intend to use this page as my notebook.

And finally, essentially reading for anyone working in this field: The 10 commandments for exotic energy inventors