An Impossible Invention — Chapter 1

The crazy open the roads that the wise then travel on.[1]

Carlo Dossi, Italian writer.

1 – The start of an unlikely journey

I had tried for weeks to create a mental picture of the man, this strange Italian who seemed to have invented, or perhaps one should say discovered, an unparalleled source of energy with the potential to change the world. Literally the whole world. I had not met him, only heard his energetic voice on the phone a few times and seen a couple of short video clips from a presentation of his invention in Bologna on January 14, 2011—the presentation that led me to this remarkable story. Without deep thought I had imagined him as a typical clichéd inventor. You recall the movie ‘Back to the Future?’ Something of that sort, aside from Christopher Lloyd’s bushy white hair: a little manic and on edge, with an intense but somewhat distracted look in his eyes. Obviously this had little or nothing to do with the man standing before me on that cold and snowy afternoon, February 3, 2011. We stood at the entrance to the editorial offices of the newspaper Ny Teknik in central Stockholm, where I had worked as a journalist for more than ten years. No evasive look. On the contrary, facing me was a relaxed man in his 60s with lively eyes and a friendly smile, dressed in a gray jacket and a dark overcoat.

“Buongiorno!” Andrea Rossi said, extending a friendly right hand, easy and relaxed. In his left hand he held a copy of Ny Teknik in which we had published, the day before, a major feature interview of him and his scientific advisor Professor Sergio Focardi, with a photo of both men. Almost a comical pair: Rossi’s slightly lanky but vigorous frame and steady gaze, his arm around Focardi, a head shorter and a bit chubby. Focardi’s wondering eyes looked out from behind dark brown, horn-rimmed glasses with classic ‘50s cut and thick lenses. Rossi seemed delighted by the article. His gratitude was easy to understand. I knew that his invention—the ‘energy catalyzer’ or E-Cat—touched an area that had been stigmatized in the scientific community and the media for over 20 years: cold fusion. After the presentation in Bologna a couple of Italian newspapers had covered the event with brief reports. Otherwise the silence was almost total worldwide, both in the media and in the scientific community. So it would remain for a couple of years.

Thorough reporting in a serious, established technology newspaper such as Ny Teknik, with its 300,000 readers, represented an important confirmation of Rossi, something for him to celebrate. But Rossi’s unreserved delight worried me and made me suspicious. What had I missed? Was Rossi’s positive reaction a sigh of relief, satisfaction that I had failed to detect something about his work that I should have noticed? Had I helped support something questionable?

Indeed, when it came to Rossi I had been warned, on reasonable grounds. Within the physics community the concept of cold fusion was questioned strongly. There was no broad scientific acceptance that it was even possible. The delicate question of Rossi’s proprietary intellectual property made the situation even more complex: he did not explain in detail how the device was constructed, referring to ‘industrial secrets,’ intellectual property he had to protect. Moreover, he had a couple of failed but quite famous inventions in his past. One was to produce oil from organic waste, another to create energy from the difference between cold and heat via a thermocouple—a small metal structure normally adequate for measuring temperatures or at most for supplying power to electronics. But Rossi had claimed that he could make it produce significantly more energy. On top of that, the demonstration in Bologna created suspicion. It was performed for invited scientists and media representatives, like a news conference—usually a bad sign when it comes to scientific breakthroughs. It often leaves a disturbing aftertaste, the suggestion that the whole picture was not disclosed. Scientific news usually comes in professional, peer-reviewed papers in which all the details are included so that other researchers can replicate any experiment and confirm that the new work is indeed valid. The goal is to share knowledge, rarely the case when scientific news is presented at a news conference, often held to attract investment.

Here it was not a question of presenting a scientific novelty, even if it was revolutionary and epoch-making—if Rossi’s device could be shown to work. The presentation in Bologna was more about showcasing an upcoming commercial apparatus. Rossi did not mince words. He promised a pilot installation for a customer in Greece in October 2011, an installation that would produce one megawatt of thermal power. A megawatt is a lot—a well-chosen and moderately impressive power output. It’s negligible compared to, say, a nuclear power plant, perhaps a thousandth of such a plant’s power output. But it is significant, comparable to a thousand electric radiators at full power, simultaneously, or equivalent to the average consumption of about 300 Western households, including electricity, space heating, water heating and air conditioning. Reference to industrial secrets and IP was therefore justifiable. Rossi’s focus was not to convince the world about a new physical process. His plan was to show the world that he had created a new energy source that worked and could be commercialized. He had to convince customers and potential funders. Thus there was no reason to reveal exactly how the device was designed. The important thing was to show that it worked. That the presentation a few weeks earlier in Bologna had been made at all was, according to Rossi, because Sergio Focardi had asked him to demonstrate the technology. Rossi explained that he had wanted to wait for a public announcement until October, when he had something more substantial to show, but that Focardi had been impatient.

“I would have preferred to do it earlier. You see, when you achieve results, it is satisfying to spread them. Besides, I’m 78 years old and cannot wait that long,” Focardi explained when I called him.

Rossi didn’t seem immediately to be fishing for money. On the contrary, he stated clearly that no one would owe him anything before the plant in Greece was completed, up and running. He said that he was paying for all development himself, out of his own pocket, with money from his previous activities. So the old business and earlier inventions had to be considered. But even before I reviewed his background he had explained the situation to me and told me his own version of why his company—Petroldragon, with its invention of oil from waste—closed abruptly and led to his being arrested for environmental crimes and tax fraud, charges of which he was subsequently acquitted in most respects. His explanation, if not self-evident and easy to confirm, was at least plausible, I thought, though Rossi had paid a stiff personal price. In brief, he explained, you do not go unpunished when moving into an area where you fight two powerful interests simultaneously: the oil industry, selling oil, and organized crime, seeking to control waste management in many countries. I perceived acceptable explanations for all the warning bells that the skeptics observed—the failed inventions, the trade secrets, the news conference and the problems with his old business.

The crucial issue was the device itself. It may not have increased Rossi’s credibility that it looked like a sloppily built home-distilling apparatus wrapped in aluminum foil. The biggest problem was different: most physicists and scientists agreed that it absolutely could not function the way Rossi and Focardi claimed. Yet it seemed to sit there and simmer and produce much more heat than was supplied through electricity, and not small amounts, either. The device was boiling water to steam with a net power of ten kilowatts, roughly comparable to an electric stove with four burners at maximum heat. The scientist who testified that the device actually produced that much heat was Giuseppe Levi, an experimental physicist and researcher at the University of Bologna, widely considered to be the world’s oldest such institution. Levi had been a colleague of Professor Focardi for many years and had been engaged to monitor the demonstration in Bologna from a scientific point of view, with an eye on the instruments and on how the measurements were made. He stressed that the results were preliminary, but obviously the apparatus had made a strong impression on him.

“I saw this object for the first time in December 2010 and I am very impressed by the high power output,” he said, when I talked to him on the phone. “What impressed me and what sets this work apart from everything I’ve ever seen is that we have 10 kW of measured power output and this output is completely repeatable,” he continued.

It’s not particularly difficult to measure heat energy, especially such large amounts. You simply let the energy source heat water and then use straightforward formulas to calculate how much energy is required to heat that water from a certain temperature to another. If the water boils into steam, there is a simple formula for that, too. For physicists, either process is usually a breeze. But in this case the result was so controversial that everyone involved looked anxiously for all potential sources of error. What could possibly have been missed?

As for me, I stood there at my offices, that day in February, wondering if the man with the lively eyes, gentle smile and friendly handshake was perhaps an accomplished con artist. I realized that it would be difficult to uncover such a fraudster but I imagined that I could at least apply my journalistic experience and engineering education. My questions lined up one after the other, spanning a broad spectrum. What data were presented? How reliable were the sources? How credible were the theories according to which the apparatus could not work? How much of the scientific skepticism was pure sociology—resistance to the new? Who were the people involved? What were their scientific backgrounds and credentials? How did they behave? What were their motives? What risks did they take? How would a scam be implemented? How many people had to be involved in a possible scam? And who was Andrea Rossi?

“Rossi is behaving as a serious scientist. Anyone who tries to execute forgery behaves differently and does not go into a physics department, does not accept that you put up measuring instruments and does not confront scientists,” Levi had told me. I had never met Levi but I had no reason to doubt his judgment. On the other hand, the whole story was so controversial that I felt that basically I should not trust anyone. All these thoughts had passed through my mind as I stood there before Rossi. I took his outstretched hand and greeted him—his was a firm handshake, without hesitation.

He immediately held up the newspaper article. “This is lovely, bellissimo—many thanks!” he said. I mumbled that there was nothing to thank me for. We chatted, while I continued to think about who he really was, then asked if he’d like a cup of coffee. Rossi got a couple of copies of the newspaper and we went around the corner to my little watering hole, an Italian coffee bar that I used to sneak down to every morning for a seconda colazione or second breakfast: cappuccino and cornetto, plus a chat in Italian and time for reflection. Behind the bar the coffee machine gleamed, managed by Alessandro and Vincenzo, two young Italians from Puglia who ran the place. Their establishment was one of the few sources of really good quality Italian coffee I knew in Stockholm.

§

I had acquired a bad habit with la seconda colazione when living for a couple of years in Italy, obviously influential in this story. My wife is Italian and I learned to speak the language with relative ease. Added to my physics knowledge as an engineer, this seemed to have been crucial in contacting Rossi. After his previous experiences he was reserved towards journalists. Indeed, my Italian language skill had made me aware of Rossi’s device. A few days after his semi-public presentation in Bologna one of our readers had tipped the newsroom with a link to a blog in Italian. Looking at it, an informal report on Rossi’s work, I had realized quickly that the results were unique, if they were genuine. I thought also that with my skills in Italian I could perhaps examine the sources properly. I was skeptical, however, and in no great hurry.

Only the day after, I wrote a summary of the news, published on the newspaper’s website, entitled “Cold Fusion: now supposedly ready for production.” Then I thought no more about it. After a few hours I had to change my mind. The response was tremendous. Readers pounced on the news. From experience we knew that our readers—mostly engineers—were keenly interested in the topic of energy. While the general public was concerned about how energy consumption and carbon emissions affected the environment, most engineers’ approach was ravenous interest in every possible technical solution to the problem. Solving the energy issue had recently become many technicians’ ultimate dream—the Holy Grail—and the primary goal of many entrepreneurs, large and small, particularly those with a history of success in other areas who now had money to invest in new projects. A new energy source that promised cheap, clean and virtually limitless energy was an irresistible morsel for readers, especially if they could discuss whether it worked or not. The article exceeded all other stories on our website in number of readings and soon surpassed 100,000, well beyond any prior story. In absolute terms, this was also a high figure for a technical article in Swedish—Sweden is a small country with a population of nine million. Readers entered immediately into a lively discussion about the technology, based on their engineering expertise in various areas. Comments rapidly reached several hundred and soon the same polarization crystallized, as it had earlier with other observers: on one hand it couldn’t work based on established physics; on the other hand it seemed to be working. Then the readers’ questions arose: who was Rossi and what did he really want? They wanted to know more.

First I contacted Hanno Essén, a Swedish theoretical physicist at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. His profession as a physicist was in itself significant but he was also president of The Swedish Skeptics Society[2]—with its sister organizations around the world it persistently debunked pseudoscience, i.e. things presented as science but that according to the association were folklore or outright lies dressed up to instill scientific confidence. I asked him to review Rossi’s work and its documentation, including a somewhat scientific paper that Rossi and Focardi had published a year earlier, in February 2010. The paper carried little weight. It had not been accepted by established scientific media—a small world of specialist publications containing articles based on peer review, in which submitted papers are reviewed and critiqued by independent experts and researchers in the same discipline before being approved for publication. Rossi’s and Focardi’s paper could not be accepted in that world, partly because there was no scientifically acceptable explanation for the process within the unit, but above all because its design was not described in detail—Rossi’s famous ‘industrial secrets’ were precisely that, secret—and other researchers thus could not repeat the process based on the paper. Instead it was published on a website that Rossi started and named The Journal of Nuclear Physics, immediately evoking scientific journals, though it was Rossi’s own website.

Hanno Essén reviewed the material. To my surprise his first comment was: “This looks interesting.” I was immediately curious and asked him to explain. Like Levi, Essén noted that it revealed a hefty amount of energy and experimental data. “The fact that it’s reproducible, that they actually built a stable unit, that’s new,” he noted. A lengthy discussion ensued.

“But the objections regarding physics?” His response was that much of our knowledge of nuclear physics had been established for many years but areas remained where our understanding was poor. “There is no need to be dogmatic,” he said. He mentioned a paper of his own that he, like Rossi and Focardi, had posted on an open website without peer review. It could possibly concern the physics in Rossi’s device but had been met with silence when he published it. The paper described a phenomenon that occurred when you heated metals. Among other things, electrons were generated that orbited at speeds approaching the speed of light, creating a state of so-called plasma that was one area where scientific knowledge was still limited.

I recalled history’s great scientists and explorers, visionaries with subversive ideas such as Nicolaus Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin. Some clashed with contemporaries when presenting ideas contrary to established views and threatening a prevailing worldview. Others risked death or were—as with Bruno—even executed. Galilei, often cited as the father of science, focused his telescope—the invention he had himself refined—towards Jupiter. He discovered four moons circling the planet and realized that he not only had good reason to agree with Copernicus that the earth could not be the center of the Universe, with heavenly bodies attached to large globes of glass rotating inside each other, but that he, Galilei, had evidence. That he later observed the phases of the planet Venus through his telescope was icing on his astronomical cake. He could not with impunity question a view that had existed for millennia. The earth as the center of the Universe was a concept fundamental to the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church. If one could not trust the Church in that, how much more could one not question? What might people start to believe, or disbelieve? The Church had realized those dangers from the start. Galilei had ended up in front of the Inquisition, forced to renounce his ideas and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. But he continued to write in secret anyway.

New knowledge could indeed be that frightening, both to those representing the current knowledge and to those with powerful interests based on the current world order. Though our scientific methods may seem modern, a similar situation could occur even today. It was not hard to understand, though in this case it was about knowledge—nuclear physics—that was only about 100 years old, not 2,000 years. It was also obvious that enormous power interests were at stake, if a cheap, clean and virtually inexhaustible energy source emerged, but I had difficulty believing that this would be significant already in assessing the physics of the device. Instead, it was a threat waiting just around the corner, if the apparatus worked.

I thanked Hanno Essén for his comments, hung up and gathered my thoughts. A device that should not work but seemed to work anyway. A skeptical physicist who thought it ‘interesting.’ An overwhelming response from readers. This was an intriguing combination. I had to talk to Rossi, I thought, and sent an email in Italian to him and Focardi, formulated with the usual Italian courtesy phrases, noting that interest in Sweden was huge. Could I interview him? I apparently intrigued him and received a reply the same day. “Great, I’ll call you at 1400 tomorrow,” Rossi wrote.

The interview with Rossi and Focardi was the feature we published on Ny Teknik’s cover—the one Rossi had seen, stepping through our office door in Stockholm that day in February when we first met. As is our custom, we also published it on our website in Swedish in slightly different form. Since I began to understand that there was significant international interest and that no major media had picked up the news, I did a self-translation into English that we published on the website simultaneously. Later, it seemed that the English version had not only acquired a large international audience, it also seemed to influence events in this story.

On our website, the article was headlined: “Cold fusion may provide one megawatt in Athens.” In the newspaper, it said instead, on the front page: “We deserve the Nobel Prize.” It was not Rossi but Focardi who, politely cautious, expressed his views on the technology and the possibilities of the Nobel Prize when I interviewed him.

“You know, rewards are something I usually give to myself,” he first said, modestly. Then he added: “I believe—forgive me if I say it—that this is the greatest discovery in human history. So let’s say that if they were to award us the Nobel Prize, I think it would be well deserved.”

When I later saw the headline on the front page, mentioning the Nobel Prize, I thought that if it all turned out to be a well-executed hoax or misunderstanding, or if the apparatus simply did not work, the critics would take every opportunity to mock us for that title even if we had been quoting something Focardi had said. If it worked, it would be almost an obvious Nobel candidate, though it was not clear to whom it would be awarded. The front page of the print version would then be easier to defend, I said to myself, and thought of my editor Jan Huss who had made ​​the decision to publish it as big news despite his skepticism.

§

We grabbed an espresso at the coffee bar. I had a battery of questions. My own speculations, readers’ different views, ideas on how the device could be made to produce heat with hidden methods, oddities surrounding the Greek client, Professor Focardi’s role and a number of other matters that needed answers. Above all, I wanted to try to understand who Rossi was and what drove him. To all my questions he had direct answers. And I believed that I had understood two things. The first was that Rossi seemed to be a very intuitive person who often took quick and important decisions based on gut instinct. The second was that based on his intuition he already seemed to have decided to trust me. I realized that this could serve his purposes. Having an interested journalist as a friend in the Nobel Prize nation, with a large, curious and knowledgeable readership, was valuable to him even if he could not control what I wrote. Though he could not know what I would publish, he told me details that could harm him if they became public, including his early collaboration with a large American corporation that probably did not want to advertise a link to the suspicious cold-fusion area.

I ended up in a classic journalistic quandary. I had received information that I could not publish freely because I would risk losing the connection with Rossi, my main source. On the other hand, I could not reject the information he was giving me. It helped me to build up an over-all picture that formed the basis of relevant reporting. Moreover, I realized that the technology itself, with its huge potential, was so fascinating that those involved could become virtually spellbound and lose their perspective. I had to count on Rossi, the concerned scientists and my own judgment. I could console myself only because I understood the risks. I realized all too well that I had just begun a journey that could end up . . . anywhere. I knew that as far as possible I should keep in touch with people holding different views on Rossi and his invention, and enter into discussions with them, in person and with an open mind. Then it was just a matter of getting on the train.

© Mats Lewan, 2014


[1] I pazzi aprono le vie che poi percorrono i savi. Note azzurre, 1870/1907 (postumo 1912/64).

[2] Föreningen Vetenskap och Folkbildning

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