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Saturday, December 26, 2015
Science ... Technology ...

In one off my past blog entries from way back in 2004, I admitted my interest in cold fusion, along with my hope that there might be something to it. Recall that cold fusion became a big topic of interest for the public back in 1989 when two chemical scientists named Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons claimed to have come up with an electrically powered table-top device that produced more energy output (heat generation) than would be expected from any known chemical reaction. Their device consisted of palladium metal dunked in heavy water, i.e. water which has a lot of deuterium; deuterium is a “heavy” isotope of hydrogen, because its atomic nucleus contains both a proton and neutron, while the regular hydrogen found in plain water has only a proton in its core. Deuterium is a necessary material in the process of nuclear “fusion”, the process which keeps the sun burning and which converts regular nuclear bombs into super-powerful “H-Bombs”. Fleischmann and Pons made a bold and ultimately unsustainable claim: that they had come up with a simple way to exploit nuclear fusion for small-scale power and energy producing applications.

If you have followed the story of science’s attempts over the past 50 years or so to harness the power of fusion in a controlled manner so as to generate heat and electricity (without blowing everything sky-high), you know that it’s a rather sad story. Since the 1960’s there have been various government and internationally funded projects attempting to devise a commercial fusion reactor; but despite all the experiments and test reactors that have been set up, fusion turned out to be a “wild maverick” that could not be tamed by “standard” technological methods. The standard methods either involve creating a super-hot bottle of gas (a “plasma”) held together in mid-air by magnetic fields, or by aiming a whole slew of laser beams at a small pellet of deuterium fuel and trying to create the crushing pressures and temperatures needed to force the neutron reactions that would break the barriers and unleash the reservoir of energy stored in heavy hydrogen’s atomic nucleus.

Why put all the money and effort into developing fusion? Well, if it could be made to work, fusion would be a relatively low-pollution energy source that wouldn’t need much input fuel; the hydrogen in a gallon of seawater would give the equivalent energy of 300 gallons of gasoline or around 16 barrels of oil. Since the USA now uses about 7 billion barrels of oil per year, we’d need around 370 million gallons of sea water each year if we could entirely replace oil with fusion (which we couldn’t — but throw in replacement of coal and natural gas and you might get to this level). However, the oceans hold about 352 billion billion gallons of water, around a trillion times more than we’d need in a year. So it would take a while to use up the ocean’s deuterium supply (the water used in a fusion reactor would be recycled, it would just have less deuterium and more regular hydrogen in it). Given the global warming situation, our world could really use an anywhere, anytime source of megawatts that doesn’t spew carbon into the atmosphere.

Two big international projects (the ITER “Tokamak” magnetic bottle project in France and the National Ignition Facility laser project in the USA) continue to pursue “hot fusion”, hoping to eventually find the right mix of technology needed to sustain a fusion reaction and continuously draw out more energy than was put into it. They are both still many years away from developing a commercial reactor that could be used by power companies on an economical basis.

Cold fusion is basically the notion that there has to be a different way to unlock all of that atomic energy without all the heat and pressure and big investment required by the two standard “hot fusion” techniques. It is based on the hunch that there is some crafty way of luring heavy hydrogen nuclei into a particular atomic grid structure (usually the atomic structure of some sort of metal), and with a little bit of urging from an electricity flow, cause that nucleus to shift around enough to break loose all of the potential atomic energy stored within it. This hunch is not simply a daydream; it is at least partly based on established scientific principals. But obviously, it has not yet been fully proven (although recent progress in the cold fusion field is arguably getting close to that).

So, I was delighted to read a recent essay in indicating that cold fusion is “still in the game”, despite the “reputation trap barriers” placed around it by mainstream science. I.e., after Fleishman and Pons were embarrassed back in 1989 when other scientists and labs failed to reproduce their work, most of the universities and labs and funding sources (both government and capitalist) put their feet down against continued cold fusion development. A young PhD graduate would be committing career suicide by devoting his studies to a topic with such a bad rep. The bottom line is that the “scientific establishment” is a human institution driven by political and financial concerns, and thus sometimes throws the baby out with the bathwater, despite the popular notion that science is the world’s most open-minded institution.

Luckily, there were enough other scientists and technology people interested in cold fusion in the late 20th century to keep the candle burning; i.e., there was already some “institutional momentum” behind cold fusion that evaded the Fleischman/Pons “crack down”. In the past decade, an Italian engineer and entrepreneur named Andrea Rossi appears to have made the most significant advances in designing and building a cold fusion reactor mechanism that could be commercialized. Unfortunately, Rossi is not a scientist and is ultimately looking to make a buck. Therefore, his public announcements about making real progress in building a sustainable “net positive” cold fusion reactor have generally been dismissed by scientists. Rossi didn’t help matters by mostly refusing or severely limiting the tests of his invention that main-stream scientists were proposing. But a recent series of positive tests by real scientists on Rossi’s “E-Cat” machine appear to be legitimate, and an increasing number of scientists and money people are starting to take a second look (although many critics remain unconvinced, including astrophysicist Ethan Siegel).

Even more important, at least one other scientist (Alexander Parkhomov of Lomonosov Moscow State University) recently published a paper on how he constructed and tested his own small version of Rossi’s set-up, and recorded that it was generating excess heat and creating the by-products that would be expected in a real fusion reaction. There are now indications that NASA, DARPA and Royal Dutch Shell are taking cold fusion more seriously. There is also an unverified rumor that the US Navy has already bought an E-Cat reactor from Rossi; it turns out that Navy research labs never gave up entirely on cold fusion (obviously a small fusion reactor running on sea-water could be of great use in powering subs and aircraft carriers, which now run on regular uranium-based atomic reactors and have all of the problems inherent to nuclear power, including difficult fueling procedures and radioactive waste disposal).

Finally, there is some indication of increased interest on the theoretical level of physics in pinning down exactly what could cause a cold fusion reaction. For example, in a recent paper, Swedish scientists proposed that a known electromagnetic phenomenon called “ponderomotive Miller force” allows a metal atomic structure to squeeze a fusion reaction without the huge amounts of energy needed by the “big hot fusion” techniques. In a paper called Nuclear Spallation and Neutron Capture Induced by Ponderomotive Wave Forcing, scientists Rickard Lundin and Hans Lidgren proposed that ponderomotive forces at resonance frequencies shake out neutrons from elements such as deuterium and lithium, and that these neutrons are then captured by metal e.g. nickel, resulting in energy release by well-known physical laws.

Personally, I have no idea what “ponderomotive wave forcing” is about. But it is good to hear that some real physicists are now taking cold fusion seriously. Perhaps the stigma and the “reputation trap” of cold fusion are starting to subside. Cold fusion may not in the end revolutionize how humankind produces energy, as wood, coal and oil did in past centuries. Cold fusion would still have down-sides (it requires very complex machinery, and it does produce some radiation although much less than a uranium-based nuclear reactor). But I’m starting to think that it really could bear a significant portion of the carbon emission reduction that is needed to avoid significant global warming dangers to our civilization.

Green energy sources such as wind and solar are great and are getting better and better; but don’t hold your breath waiting for them to replace even half of the current carbon fuel infrastructure. The International Energy Agency projects that solar power could provide around 25% of world energy in 2050, and wind could contribute another 12%. Solar and wind will expand beyond their current “niche applications” only if highly efficient energy storage and distribution technologies are developed. As President Obama has said, we need an “everything” approach to de-carbonizing our world economy. It’s good to hear that despite all the institutional doubt, cold fusion might yet play a significant role in a sustainable future for our species and its civilizational achievements.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:31 am      

  1. Jim, For some reason I too am glad to hear that the attempt to find a way to develop cold fusion is still quietly on the table. I remember vividly the fuss when scientists decided back in the 1980s that the attempt was all a fake. So, some 25 years later, it’s quietly being studied (if I get the idea right here). I think that *my* being glad is likely due to the fact that I like it when those who’ve been told “can’t be done” and “should not be done lest you ruin your career”, quietly go about their interests and refuse to be told “can’t be done”. Maybe it can be done, and the way simply has not been found yet.

    One question occurs to me. Since I could not be less of a scientist, it’s possible this question is not a sensible or valid one. Nevertheless . . .

    If I understand this correctly, the water in the oceans could conceivably be used in cold fusion; but in that use the deuterium in the oceans’ water would be used up (gradually, I’m sure, but eventually also). Thus it seems to me that there would be a small, subtle, but real change in the oceans’ waters. What effect would that change in the oceans’ waters have on the multitude of plants and animals in the oceans?

    If ocean water would be taken, changed (no matter how subtly or in what a small way), eventually, I would think there would be some effect on the water in the oceans that would also have some effect on the planet. Would this be a matter of “in trying to find an easy way to generate energy for the use of humans on the planet, might more damage be done than at first tho’t? This makes me think of the Amazon Rainforest and its ongoing destruction in the search for oil. At first it was a helpful thing to humans, finding oil in the Amazon, only to find that much, much harm is being done that was not first considered. Could a similar type of thing occur with the oceans’ waters? Just a question, not a criticism or anything else – just a question.

    Meanwhile, I recently saw pictures of cities in China where the pollution was so bad people were not allowed to travel because they were unable to see or breathe because the pollution (smog?) was like the very worst fog only filled with things that harm almost the entire planet. For an immediate “fix” might China think in terms of cleaning up its pollution? Some years ago Los Angeles was in a similar position; its smog could be seen for miles and was a danger to humans; however, LA managed to clean up its pollution. While we wait for the development of cold fusion and find the answer to how its development might have a deleterious effect on the earth in ways not immediately seen, might some of the countries/cities of the world who seem to have no care for pollution control take some responsibility for pollution control in their own countries. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 26, 2015 @ 3:04 pm

  2. Mary,

    According to this fellow, who seems to know what he is talking about, the concentration of deuterium oxide (water made from deuterium) in regular water is about 1 part in 20 million. Also, deuterium water is chemically identical to regular H2O. And remember, even if and when fusion technology really gets going, we would be affecting deuterium from around 1 trillionth of the water on earth each year. So first off, taking out all of the deuterium from a glass of water doesn’t change it for purposes of normal every-day chemical reactions. Given the fact that D2O and H2O are chemically identical, plants will still grow with pure H2O, animals will be just fine drinking it, life on earth probably would never notice, even if ALL of the deuterium water was gone. Which it wouldn’t be for about a trillion years. And even if there eventually were some sort of effect, there’s already a solution in sight. Just look up at the moon. The moon’s surface has a lot of “helium-3”, an isotope that is kind of a “heavy helium”; turns out that He-3 would also make a good fusion fuel. There is already talk about mining it and using it here on planet Earth. Right now that would be prohibitively expensive with present rocket technology, but if we were to perfect cold fusion, it could possibly be used to power mining ships between the earth and the moon; you’d still need a regular rocket to get off the earth’s surface, but one you got into orbit, you could use a fusion rocket to push away to the moon and then get back. A fusion upper-stage would be a lot lighter than a chemical upper-stage rocket, thus requiring less fuel on blast-off. And as to getting the helium off the surface of the moon, you might also need a chemically-fired rocket, as a fusion engine might not develop enough short-term thrust to beat even the moon’s weaker gravity. But, over time, we could harvest the frozen water that is known to exist on certain parts of the moon’s surface, and process it into rocket fuel using power from — you guessed it — fusion reactors set up on the moon. So, after a few decades, we might not even need earth water anymore for fusion power, once we can mine the moon for helium-3 and start burning that stuff in our fusion reactors. I think it’s all pretty cool myself. But first, they need to get cold fusion to really work! Jim G

    Comment by Jim G — December 29, 2015 @ 8:08 pm

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