World Affairs – Cold Fusion: An Impossible Invention

worldaffairsThis text was originally published in Vol. 20, No. 4, of the Indian journal World Affairs in January 2017. It was written on request by the journal’s editor and submitted in October 2016. The journal is circulated to many libraries, institutions, government departments and universities in more than 50 countries but particularly in India.

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What if there was an energy source that could provide clean water to planet Earth, zero-emission vehicles with unlimited mileage, a solution to the climate crisis and much more but was blocked not by Big Oil but the scientific community. Would that make sense? Much indicates that this is the case with the phenomenon known as cold fusion or LENR (low energy nuclear reactions). Little did I know, when I wrote a short news piece on cold fusion in January 2011 on the website of the Swedish technology magazine Ny Teknik where I worked as a staff writer, that this piece would throw me into a story full of scientific mystery and excitement, harsh discussions on fraud and pathological science and hope for a world changing technology and that almost six years later, the story would still not be settled. On the contrary, it has probably just begun. The news piece I wrote was titled Cold Fusion: Now Supposedly Ready for Production. It was a report on a semi-public test of a tabletop experiment with a heating device, not very impressive looking, boiling water that was being continuously pumped into it. The test was performed by the Italian inventor Andrea Rossi in Bologna, Italy on his device the E-Cat (Energy Catalyser). The device was exceptional if the claims were true, not only because it produced heat from minuscule amounts of fuel through a process that seemed to be in line with cold fusion but also because it started every time and the output power was in the range of kilowatts.

Ever since the two world-class electrochemists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons surprised the world in 1989 with experimental results that they suggested were based on cold fusion, such claims had always been in the range of watts and extremely difficult to repeat. Due to the difficulty of reproducing Fleischmann’s and Pons’ results and because the process was considered impossible according to known physics, after only a few months the scientific community rejected the claims with aversion as measurement errors or pathological science, that is, when scientists find results that are not true only because they want to find them. In contrast, a device like the E-Cat that started every time and could produce kilowatts of heat would be the answer to all earlier doubts on cold fusion. It would be nothing less than a scientific revolution and a world changing technology, more so since it seemed close to being commercially available.

When my colleagues and I noted that the news piece was getting close to 100,000 hits—several times more than any previous piece on the website—I realized that I needed to dig further into the story. Although there were immediate comments ranging from enthusiasm to indignation, it pleased me that our readers, mostly engineers, chose a pragmatic approach to the climate and pollution crisis. Rather than merely optimizing energy consumption and settling for known energy sources, they were more interested in solutions involving scientific discoveries leading to new unexpected energy sources or as Bill and Melinda Gates put it in their annual letter a few years later, “we need an energy miracle”—cold fusion would be just that. Most easily it could be described as a nuclear reaction without ionizing radiation and with no radioactive fuel or hazardous waste—in other words without all the dangerous side effects that have given the word “nuclear” its frightening and alarming connotation. Its most important aspect, however, is its high energy density. Nuclear reactions—like fusion which is the process that powers the sun and the stars or fission that is at the core of nuclear power plants—involve the atomic nucleus. The nucleus has a mass thousands of times greater than that of the tiny electrons, which are the particles involved in chemical reactions like combustion, oxidation, digestion and many other everyday processes around us. The forces that keep the nucleus intact are also several orders of magnitude stronger than those keeping the electrons in their orbits around the nucleus. This is one way of understanding why nuclear reactions release about a million times more energy from the same amount of fuel compared to chemical reactions, meaning that one gram of nuclear fuel corresponds to tonnes of oil or coal, which implies that with a nuclear energy source, the fuel of a car’s lifetime would fit in the palm of your hand.

So far, however, nuclear reactions have had the significant inconvenience of deadly radiation and hazardous radioactive waste. Furthermore, nuclear fusion, which has not even been achieved in a controlled form as an energy source despite decades of research and billions of funding, requires an operating temperature of a hundred million degrees. Cold fusion, on the other hand, operating at a temperature up to about 1,500°C would provide nuclear energy that is easy to handle—a compact, cheap, clean, silent and carbon-free energy source on-demand that would literally change the world. The issue is that so far no one has been able to explain how cold fusion can occur according to known laws of physics since nuclear fusion normally requires millions of degrees and produces lots of radiation, although cold fusion would not necessarily be the same case. “Hot” fusion happens between free nuclei colliding with each other, while cold fusion would take place among atoms fixed in a lattice in solid-state matter or possibly in a liquid and it is not even sure that what we call cold fusion should be defined as fusion.

What is clear is that the signs of this unexplained nuclear process—energy release far beyond what could be produced through chemical reaction and changes in the atomic nuclei—have been observed hundreds of times in experiments published in peer-review journals. Even direct replications of Fleischmann’s and Pons’ rejected results have been produced repeatedly, once the tricky and necessary conditions for the experiment were sorted out. However because the rejection from the scientific community in 1989 was so categorical, most of these results made by a small group of researchers scattered over the world, focusing on what is now labeled LENR, have not been noted. Nonetheless, these researchers helped some people become more open to the possibility that Rossi might have actually found something along these lines. Most people, however, did not think he had and many referred to Rossi’s past activities in the 1980s with producing biofuel from organic waste and eventually ending up in prison, as a clear indication that he was a fraudster. Since I know Italy fairly well, I soon found that this conclusion was a bit hasty and that as usual in Italy things were probably not what they seemed to be at first look. Instead, I found reasonable explanations to Rossi’s past troubles and some clues to his particular character, which in turn could explain why he might have succeeded where many others had failed. Just to give an example of his extreme strength of will and tendency to seek and undertake challenges on his own—at the age of 19, he set the Italian record in 24 hours non-stop running, covering a distance of 175 kilometers and 144 meters. Speaking Italian, I got in touch with Rossi, which led to a series of meetings and other connections and I eventually wrote the book An Impossible Invention where I tell the story of everything I came to know behind the scenes, until its release in 2014.

I introduced Rossi to two Swedish physicists—Professor Sven Kullander, a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Physics and Assistant Professor Hanno Essén, at the time chairman of the Swedish Sceptics Society, dedicated to debunking false science. Essén surprised me by immediately saying, “This looks interesting”. Later Essén and Kullander went to Bologna, Italy to assist at a test with Rossi’s E-Cat, after which they produced a report that gained a lot of attention, stating that the process of the device must be nuclear. I also assisted at four tests with the E-Cat, making measurements and videos that I published at Ny Teknik. At one of the tests in October 2011, Rossi detached the electric input which was necessary to ignite the reaction and to a certain extent keep it under control and for almost four hours the device kept boiling water that was pumped in, without any power input at all. Many others and I found the test fairly convincing. During this time I was both encouraged and personally attacked by our readers. Meanwhile, essentially all other mainstream media and journalists in the world kept quiet—for years. During this time, Rossi kept working and developing his E-Cat, demonstrating an impressive one-megawatt plant under unclear conditions in 2011 as well as making and breaking connections with several corporations, organisations and potential investors, including a Greek, a Swedish and an American investor group and organisations such as NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and National Instruments. As time passed, several prominent scientists passed away, among them Martin Fleischmann, Professor Sergio Focardi who was Rossi’s scientific advisor in Italy and Kullander, who though strongly criticised kept investigating the E-Cat, involving a few colleagues who continued his work and made an important long-term test of a second generation E-Cat with higher operating temperature in 2014.

The report known as the Lugano Report has as of today been downloaded over 200,000 times and since it contained an analysis of the fuel mix in the E-Cat—mostly nickel, hydrogen, and lithium—it led people all over the world to try and replicate Rossi’s effect and a few months later a Russian scientist claimed to have had some success. Meanwhile, Rossi finally found an industrial partner—the environmental investment fund Cherokee Investment Partners led by Thomas Darden who founded the company Industrial Heat (IH). In 2012, IH acquired the rights to produce and commercialize E-Cat technology in North and South America, Russia, China and the Arab Emirates and in 2013 IH helped Rossi re-build his one-megawatt plant that had been sent from Italy to Raleigh, North Carolina, where IH had its head office. Almost two years later, in February 2015, the plant was put in commercial operation for a full one-year trial at the premises of a customer in Miami, Florida, reportedly buying the heat. On 17 February 2016, the test was concluded after 352 days of operation, seemingly without major problems, producing its powerful output as hot steam, supposedly from only tens of grams of fuel that had lasted without recharging. Halfway through the trial, Rossi was also granted an American patent on the core technology of the E-Cat, to the surprise of many.

An informed and interested group of people closely following the development of the LENR field—estimated at thousands or even ten thousand persons globally—avidly awaited an independent report prepared by a reputable third party ERV (expert responsible for validation) having continuously controlled and measured the performance of the plant during the one-year trial but the report was never released. Instead, on 6 April 2016, the news broke that Rossi had filed a lawsuit against IH for not paying an agreed amount of US $89 million upon the successful completion of the trial—a lawsuit that is still ongoing, due for court in June 2017. At this point, I had to take a few steps back in order to reassess the information I had and re-evaluate sources, testimonials and my impressions of Rossi himself. Possible hypotheses ranged from Rossi being a full-fledged lunatic and mythomaniac, skilfully able to fool not only everyone around him but also himself, to conspiracy theories involving powerful financial and political interests wanting to control the introduction of such a hugely disruptive invention, potentially upending not only the oil and nuclear industry but eventually threatening the entire dollar economy. Fairly soon I could exclude the first of the extremes, concluding again that Rossi, certainly a peculiar individual, was definitely not an outright liar. Furthermore, the summed up amount of indications on his technology being valid and real was at that moment significant, including results achieved by other players in the same field, which I will soon get back to. The other of the extremes—the conspiracy theory—was almost by definition not possible to exclude, although I expected the truth to be found somewhere in between, with less exotic explanations. Over time this seemed to be the case.

The good thing about the lawsuit was that a series of details not known before or were protected by non-disclosure agreements immediately became public among them the license agreement between Rossi and IH, which turned out to be surprisingly advantageous to IH to a degree that made many people think that Rossi had been deliberately cheated. The license agreement also revealed that a 24-hour test of the E-Cat undertaken in May 2013 was successfully concluded and overseen by the same ERV as during the one-year test, entailing a US $10 million payment to Rossi, which was added to a US $1.5 million payment at the signing of the original agreement in 2012. In the lawsuit, Rossi also detailed key facts from the ERV report on the one-year trial that was never released—among them a coefficient of performance (COP) or a ratio of output power to input power of over 50. In other words, if the output power was one megawatt, all that power was possibly produced from tens of grams of fuel for a whole year, with an average power consumption for operating the plant of less than 20 kilowatts. Given that this was a prototype plant where performance could be expected to improve, this figure if true was completely disruptive from the point of view of energy generation.

What happened in the following months was interesting. IH obviously denied the allegations brought forward in the lawsuit, claiming that the performance of the plant was not as reported by Rossi and that “Industrial Heat has worked for over three years to substantiate the results claimed by Mr. Rossi from the E-Cat technology—all without success”. In a response to the lawsuit, IH later made a counterclaim of a conspiracy between Rossi, the ERV, and a few other persons involved, accusing them of fraud, claiming that the customer in Florida did not exist and that there was no process using the heat from the plant. More remarkable was that a group of people, of whom at least one with close connections to IH as an investor started an aggressive campaign against Rossi on different internet fora, making serious accusations, claiming to have proof of a series of irregularities committed by Rossi. To my knowledge, however, no substantial technical evidence has until this moment been filed by IH to prove that the plant was not working. In fact, in its response, even IH did not claim a COP below 10, which in itself would be scientifically sensational. Instead, IH seems to be fighting the case mainly on formal contractual grounds. What is also remarkable is that in defending itself against an alleged fraudster, IH has apparently decided to take help from the world’s most high profile public relations and crisis management agency, APCO Worldwide and the most prestigious law firm in the United States of America (US), Jones Day.

Meanwhile, people with insight to the ERV report that was never released have explained to me that the result presented in the report is conclusive and that the only possible way to attack it would be to attack Rossi, the ERV, and other people involved, for fraud. Yet, based on testimonials I have received, I find the fraud hypothesis highly unlikely. Obviously, it is premature to draw any firm conclusions while the lawsuit is ongoing. Still, my strictly personal assessment, adding all the pieces of the puzzle and weighing them in direct contact with several parties, is that IH was acting logically as a venture capitalist, trying to get hold of an incredibly valuable technology at the lowest possible cost, but that it misjudged the difficulties in dealing with the inventor and other people involved. This does not mean that I find IH’s behavior correct or defendable but again that is for the court to sort out and I have confidence in its ability to do so. At this moment, Rossi is busy with daily actions regarding the lawsuit and the situation might remind someone of what the Wright Brothers went through soon after they made their aircraft technology public. The situation is also similar in the sense that we are discussing a potentially world-changing technology that has been considered impossible from a scientific point of view—just like heavier-than-air flight—yet observations indicate its validity.

It is, however, more important to pay attention to a further development of the E-Cat technology that Rossi claims to have achieved. The new reactor generation is called the Quark X. According to Rossi, it is a tiny device as large as a match producing an output power of about 20 watts, which is not much. However, as with earlier reactors, the COP is supposedly high, the reaction starts instantly and the output is heat, light or even electricity. In addition, the tiny match-sized reactor can supposedly be combined in groups to achieve any total output power. This has yet to be confirmed and proven but again based on information from sources, I have reason to believe that these claims are true and that Rossi will be ready to demonstrate them within a year or maybe months. For anyone hearing this for the first time, it may seem completely absurd and unbelievable, not least since it seems obvious that such a revolutionary technology should be widely talked about and reported on by scientists and media by now, but is not. It is important to look back in history and remember how difficult it is for inventions threatening an existing scientific paradigm to gain recognition. Moreover, the resistance against the idea of LENR, which has become apparent, should not be underestimated. To quote the legendary physicist Max Planck, whose theories led to a paradigm shift, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”. Adding to this are economic interests—billions of dollars are directed towards research on “hot or plasma fusion” as an energy source—a research field that would instantly become obsolete if you could achieve the same energy density—sustainable and carbon free—from a reaction without the need for an operating temperature of a hundred million degrees and without deadly radiation.

Maybe most important is the fact that Rossi is not alone in this field. As always in the history of science and technology, new phenomena and inventions emerge through the work of several persons or groups, more or less at the same time, in different parts of the world. LENR research is actively carried out in countries such as Italy, India, Japan, Russia and the US. In Japan, a joint venture between Tohoku University and Clean Planet Inc was launched in 2015, with the aim to develop LENR technology for sustainable energy production and for mitigation of nuclear waste, which is possible through transmutation—the changes in the atomic nuclei that occur at the reaction. At ICCF—the international conference on LENR science—Professor Yasuhiro Iwamura of Tohoku University recently presented results showing stable and reproducible energy release. In the US, a company called Brillouin Energy has been working on LENR based technology for heat generation for many years. With a technology called Q-Pulse, it now claims to be in a research and development phase, being able to control the reaction, turn it on and off, which seems to be one of the main challenges in LENR and to consistently produce heat. The next step, according to Brillouin, is going to market.

The increased interest and activity in the field during the last few years has also led to political awareness and in June 2016 it was reported that the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee had ordered the Secretary of Defence to provide a briefing on LENR to the committee by 22 September 2016. However, the briefing was not expected to be public and it is not known if it has been completed or what it contains. These are just a few examples of events and players that add credibility to the LENR field. I emphasize that we are not talking about some fluffy dreamlike miraculous energy emerging from imaginary hidden dimensions that you just have to believe in to make it true. This is science. The energy released in low energy nuclear reactions originates, like in all exothermic nuclear and chemical reactions, from mass transformed into energy, according to Einstein’s epic formula ‘energy equals mass times the speed of light squared’ (E=mc2). What is not yet known is how these reactions can occur at relatively low temperatures and without dangerous high-energy radiation—that remains to be explained.

That the consequences of such an energy source would be disruptive is an understatement. Personally, I think it is high time to discuss the implications for industry, finance, and society and earlier this year I founded the New Energy World Symposium with this scope. The initial plans were to hold the first session in Stockholm, Sweden in June 2016, but because of the lawsuit and the missing report from the one-year test, I had to cancel the event and aim to re-launch the symposium next year. The reason this is important is that the potential implications are so profound that it is urgent to start discussing them, in order to avoid a chaotic energy transition. Some effects may not be disruptive from an industry point of view but yet would be of fundamental importance such as the possibility of providing clean water to every person on planet Earth. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that about 3.5 million people die every year from a lack of clean water and that 780 million people lack access to clean and safe water sources. With an energy source producing heat for months or years from grams of cheap fuel, anyone could sterilize water through boiling.

One step further is a device called Slingshot, developed by entrepreneur Dean Kamen, inventor of the self-balancing two-wheeled Segway. Slingshot desalinates water and can turn virtually anything wet into clean drinking water via a process based on vapour-compression distillation. It also supplies electrical power and is intended to work for long periods without maintenance. Slingshot is powered by a Stirling engine—an advanced version of the steam engine that needs only a heat source to spin. Heat is what an LENR based energy source offers. Has Dean Kamen developed an idea about this yet? As a source of heat, merely replacing fire, LENR could provide significant benefits. According to the WHO, three billion people use open fires and leaky stoves for cooking and heating, daily. Over a million people die each year from the lung disease COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), acquired from breathing polluted indoor air, while almost half of all deaths from pneumonia among children under five are also due to poor air where fires burn indoors. Moreover, collecting firewood takes a lot of time from women and children, reducing their ability to perform other productive work or go to school. A clean, new heat source, free of radioactivity and emissions could potentially address this problem, equally applicable to any other heating method. It is, therefore, most urgent to develop and deploy LENR based energy sources as soon as possible in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and solve the climate crisis. LENR based energy is carbon-free and sustainable. It consumes a few elements, but these are abundant on Earth and would be used at a pace which would not be an issue for millions of years.

Together with solar power, LENR holds the promise to stop global warming. Solar power is arguably the most viable among sustainable conventional energy sources so far, with a cost that is decreasing exponentially. However, a massive scale of installed solar power worldwide requires huge amounts of batteries for energy storage, which entails significant environmental problems for producing, handling and recycling battery chemicals. LENR based energy sources operate 24/7, even at night and could potentially reduce the need for battery storage to a fraction of what would otherwise be needed. Abundant access to cheap and sustainable energy would even make it possible to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, turn it into hydrocarbons, which requires energy, and pump it back into the ground, thus reducing global warming more effectively than even a complete stop of carbon emissions would.

So far so good but then comes the disruptive aspect, which makes it important to start discussing the implications of LENR based energy. We can already see the big picture. An energy source like cold fusion would over time not only substitute fossil fuels and nuclear power, saving the world from disastrous air pollution and radiation hazard but also challenge established structures in the global multi-trillion dollar energy industry. It would decrease the cost of production in virtually every industry from agriculture to steel and lower all transportation costs. If Rossi’s Quark X can be confirmed it is merely an engineering issue to provide electric vehicles—cars, trucks, and buses—with an energy source that removes the need for recharging the battery and reduces the necessary battery size to a relatively small backup battery. Together with technology for autonomous vehicles, the implications for the transportation industry are huge.

Conditions for military operations would also change fundamentally. Autonomous systems such as drones and unmanned underwater vehicles would be able to operate continuously on their own for months and the small size of the Quark X should make it possible to launch swarms of insect-like micro drones. Such drones are already being developed by the US government-backed consortium Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology but what is still lacking is a lightweight and durable energy source. From a consumer perspective, we could expect to see LENR based energy accelerate the potential for many households to go off-grid, which in turn would either challenge the business case for wide area power grids or increase the need for smart grids, with possibilities to input and consume power at all nodes in the network. Knowing how difficult it is to predict long-term effects of important innovations, this is probably only the start of what a cheap, abundant and sustainable energy source would mean for the world.

Yet, the main consequence of LENR based power generation may be even more disruptive. From a larger perspective, it would eventually mean that energy would shift from being controlled by a few to being easily accessible to everyone on Earth, just as what happened with information in a few decades through the development of the internet. Such a redistribution of energy control would bring a change of the same magnitude for individuals and society as well as geopolitically. With direct access to free information and cheap energy combined, opportunities for people all over the world to raise their living standards, gain access to education, realise their dreams and ideas, start businesses, take care of their health and protect their freedom would increase dramatically, while the possibility for nations, governments and large corporations to exercise power based on controlling energy supplies would be dramatically reduced. Hopefully, however, this access to abundant energy will not decrease the ongoing efforts to optimize energy consumption throughout the world. Moreover, from a scientific perspective, solving the theoretical mystery of LENR might, according to competent scientists, change and expand our understanding of matter and energy. Yet, many scientists still consider all this to be impossible.

Mats Lewan, October 2016.

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Due to the infected debate regarding the ongoing lawsuit between Rossi, his licensee IH, and other parties involved, where the transparency of personal interests may be limited, I have chosen to keep this blog closed for comments until all evidence is presented in court and the lawsuit is settled.