Remember the “cold fusion” fiasco of 1989? Well, I have come to realize that it wasn’t what it seemed at all. Denial, groupthink, dirty tricks and easily manipulated media combined to create an historical injustice. Two decades have been wasted virtually ignoring this game-changing discovery. Today’s environmental disasters, expensive energy and oil wars could possibly have been avoided. I’ll say more in a moment about what really happened in 1989, but first, let me tell you what got me started reexamining what I thought I knew about cold fusion.
You probably think that 4700 watts of clean, radiation-free power from a three cubic inch reactor sounds like yet another impossible hoax. But this was a third iteration demo, designed to satisfy skeptics of two previous demonstration at the prestigious University of Bologna. Attending the third demo were two Swedish scientists. One was chairman of the Swedish Skeptics Society and the other was chairman of the Energy Committee of the Swedish Royal Academy of Science. They were both allowed to freely examine the entire setup except for the contents of the tiny, 50cc reactor chamber.
Their written report ended with: “Any chemical process for producing 25 kWh from any fuel in a 50 cm3 container can be ruled out. The only alternative explanation is that there is some kind of a nuclear process that gives rise to the measured energy production.” They also noted that you would have to burn 3 liters of oil to produce 25 kWh. There has since been another confirmation.
The inventor, Adrian Rossi, is very accessible on his blog and has said that more than one hundred of his 4.4 kW reactors are running in four countries. He plans to ship a larger unit in October that produces one MW of hot water. It consists of hundreds of the small reactors in series/parallel mounted in one 2 X 3 X 3 meter box. It weighs two tons. The proprietary nanopowdered nickel fuel will be replenished every six months. Everything has been financed using Rossi’s own money and the customer will pay only when satisfied.
Rossi is an inventor and businessman who decades ago noticed excess heat effects while working with a nickel catalyst to synthesize fuel from hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Using Edison-like experimental techniques, he soon learned to control the heat production. He even kept his factory heated for two years with a prototype reactor. More than two thousand prototypes were built and destroyed in refining the design and learning how to control and scale up the reaction.
Researching the science literature, Rossi soon found Dr Sergio Focardi of the University of Bologna, who had regularly published work on nickel-hydrogen reactors since 1994. Using his own money, Rossi contracted with Dr. Focardi and the university to help him understand and develop the technology as a product. By January 14, 2011 they were ready for a public demonstration of a 10 kilowatt desktop reactor.
The press reaction was muted in Europe and nonexistent in the U.S. Skeptics accused him of hiding a battery inside the reactor so another, longer, demonstration was held, using calorimetry that heated but didn’t boil water to answer other critics. The 18 hour demonstration produced 18 kilowatts average over the entire 18 hours. The U.S. press was still silent and skeptics were still suspicious so two more demos were held.
Still, the silence from the U.S. media was deafening. Rossi announced that there will be no more demonstrations until October 2011, when the million watt heating plant will be shipped to a customer in Greece. If he succeeds, be prepared for a repeat of the Sputnik shock of 1957 when the US woke up to find that they had fallen way behind in science.
Nickel is plentiful and cheap and so is hydrogen in the tiny amounts used. Nickel is so plentiful that energy becomes virtually free. Rossi’s reactor is very simple in principle. Powdered nickel and a catalyst are simply heated to about six hundred degrees centigrade in a stainless steel chamber filled with pressurized hydrogen. At a certain point, the gradual heating starts accelerating due to nuclear reactions in the metal lattice. The heating resistor is backed off to keep the reaction going at a steady state, with about 15 times more heat output than input. Much higher ratios are possible but can be unstable and dangerous. This is why the 1-MW plant will be built using hundreds of smaller modules.
The reactor is enclosed in a lead shield because some radiation is, unpredictably, produced during operation. However, the spent fuel is not radioactive but contains copper that has transmuted from nickel in the nuclear reaction. The lack of dangerous radiation drives hot fusion experts crazy, but clearly there are things happening that are not covered by the equations used in hot fusion. Obviously, quantum mechanics needs to be rethought to include these reactions.
There are many proposed theories. Biological processes have been found to produce transmuted isotopes without radiation. Also, tritium sometimes comes out of volcanic vents from unknown reactions inside the earth. Clearly, the physicists have more to explain if they will just open their ears. Here is an equation they should study carefully:
Groupthink + Denial = Environmental Disaster + Expensive Energy + Wars
Groupthink can make us totally irrational. The dot-com bubble and the housing bubble are examples of renowned experts becoming completely blind to facts that are now obvious in hindsight. Making a lot of money tends to blind us poor humans to clear evidence that we are living in a fantasy world. The consequences can be terrible.
Nuclear physicists in 1989 were riding a bonanza of tens of billions in government research money for the development of hot fusion reactors. After several decades of hard work, they were still far from achieving break-even, where output energy exceeds input energy. Just as the next round of appropriations was assured, Fleischmann and Pons came along with the announcement that they had already achieved excess heat output without government support and on an inexpensive desktop setup.
Denial was immediate. MIT and Caltech, who had been leaders in hot fusion work, immediately went to work “trying” to replicate the experiment. In just five weeks Caltech announced negative results. At a May 1st 1989 APS meeting in Baltimore, two thousand physicists gave a standing ovation to the Caltech team’s presentation. A lynch mob mentality, combined with denial, turned the exciting discovery of cold fusion into an enemy.
MIT helped set the tone by arranging a front page story in the Boston Herald on the day of the meeting with the headline, “MIT bombshell knocks fusion “breakthrough” cold.” The story was an interview with leaders of the MIT fusion lab that accused Fleischmann and Pons of fraud. The charge was later denied but tapes of the actual interview confirm what was said.
MIT further disgraced itself by altering data in its failure to replicate study. This was discovered two years later by MIT employee Eugene Mallove, who found copies of the July 10 and July 13 drafts of the paper. The July 10th version had a graph that clearly showed excess heat. In the July 13 version the graph was redrawn to show no excess heat. The atmosphere at MIT, as shown by a “Wake for Cold Fusion” party (before the data was analyzed) and t-shirts and mugs offered by the plasma fusion lab, was hardly impartial.
To this day, denial reigns among most of the guilty parties of this travesty. The Department of Energy, Nature magazine, Scientific American, the American Physical Society, the U.S. Patent Office and many of the world’s top physicists still cling irrationally to the belief that cold fusion is junk science. Of course, this is how denial works: We protect our belief system by quietly stepping around the “elephant under the rug.” As long as a majority of our group backs us up, our view of reality remains grossly distorted to preserve the group-think consensus. Global warming deniers do this every day.
The Fleischmann-Pons announcement should have been the start of a new era of cheap, clean energy that would have saved us from the financial and environmental disasters and wars caused by fossil fuel energy. Instead, denial and dirty tricks caused us to waste 23 years and tens of billions of dollars on failed nuclear projects as though nothing had happened. The Presidents 2012 budget includes $2.5 billion for such projects. The first DEMO hot fusion plant is currently scheduled for 2033.
A surprising natural process was discovered in 1989 that can provide us with clean, essentially free energy. It clearly conflicts with the current consensus understanding of quantum mechanics that works nicely for hot fusion reactions. It seems reasonable to try to improve the theory to accommodate this new reality, but denial has instead tricked many good scientists to try to “shoot the messenger.”
The time has come to admit the mistake and get busy trying to improve our understanding so that we can perfect this amazing new technology. We have spent $20 billion and 55 years trying to reach break-even with hot fusion. Time to give cold fusion a chance.
There have been many painful scientific battles in the past over paradigm changes, but truth has a way of prevailing eventually. Cold fusion work has continued under the radar using the more accurate term “Low Energy Nuclear Reactions” (LENR.) Shunned by the establishment, supporters of LENR have created their own journals and meetings. Much progress has been made.
The reasons for the initial difficulty in replication of excess heat have been identified and the amount of excess heat has increased. By 1995 there were 21 published replications showing excess heat of up to 205 watts. Strangely, the press lost interest after the initial media circus. The media’s face-saving denial has left most people with the impression that cold fusion is still dead. In 2009, 60 Minutes broke the silence and did an excellent update. But the rest of the media simply ignored it and focused instead on less risky reports on newsworthy items like rising gasoline prices.
Annual conferences have continued. A weeklong working demo of LENR was included at the tenth ICCF conference, which was held in 2003 at MIT. The power output was 2.3 times the power in. The most recent meeting was held in San Francisco in 2011 under the auspices of the American Chemical Society. The number of presenters at this meeting have quadrupled since 2007. The results this year were so enthusiastic that the American Institute of Physics refused to publish the 370 page proceedings. The cancellation of the publication contract was a last minute decision, clearly ordered by someone at a high level. This attempted blackout of a new technology will backfire in the long run as results get stronger and stronger.
By using nickel and ordinary hydrogen, several researchers have significantly increased energy output and reduced costs. In 1992, Thermacore, a U.S. military contractor ran a cell for nearly a year with a 50 Watt output and 3X excess energy. In 1996 Dr. Sergio Focardi of the University of Bologna in Italy described an experiment using nickel & hydrogen that produced an average excess power output of 39 watts continuously for 278 days. There are a dozen competing theories to explain how nuclear reactions can produce so much energy without emitting dangerous radiation. Theories are helpful but not necessary. We still don’t really know how permanent magnets work, yet we use them every day. Practical applications can be developed experimentally, just as Edison developed the light bulb.
Now that Rossi and Focardi have shown what can be done, expect to see a flurry of new announcements. New technologies tend to take forever to totally debug, so it won’t be surprising if the October delivery is delayed. There are several other companies such as Lattice Energy LLC, Blacklight Power, Brillouin Energy, and Energetics, who have announced product plans to the press and then gone silent.
Silence is not necessarily a bad sign, as the Bloom Box demonstrated. My bet is that we will have some amazing surprises within a year that will be a wake-up call, just as Russia’s Sputnik launch was in 1954. This moment could have come ten years ago if only we had listened to Fleishman and Pons in 1989.