Oct 10 2014
For years Andrea Rossi has claimed that he has invented a method for generating cold fusion, but has been unable to convince an appropriately skeptical scientific community. Fusion is the nuclear process of combining lighter elements into heavier elements, such as fusing hydrogen into helium. Fusion is what powers stars – in fact, the only processes scientists know about that can cause fusion require the heat and density of stars.
When lighter elements combine into a heavier element that overall has less mass, the missing mass is essentially converted into radiation and energy. The amount of energy released is orders of magnitude greater than what can be released from chemical reactions. Only matter-antimatter reactions are more energetic.
Now Rossi is claiming that an independent third party has verified that the E-Cat cold fusion device can generate large amounts of energy, the kind that can only come from nuclear fusion. What are we to make of these claims?
The researchers tested a small E-Cat device for 32 days. They found:
The total net energy obtained during the 32 days run was about 1.5 MWh. This amount of energy is far more than can be obtained from any known chemical sources in the small reactor volume.
The isotope composition in Lithium and Nickel was found to agree with the natural composition before the run, while after the run it was found to have changed substantially. Nuclear reactions are therefore indicated to be present in the run process, which however is hard to reconcile with the fact that no radioactivity was detected outside the reactor during the run.
That sounds impressive at first glance, but such claims requires a closer look. Rossi’s claims have been around for a while, and so far the scientific community has not been impressed – outside of cold fusion true believer circles.
Ethan Siegel does a thorough job of discussing why it is unlikely that the E-Cat is fusing nickel into copper, as Rossi claims. To summarize: We know that nickel does not fuse into copper even inside stars. If the extreme heat and pressure of stars is not enough to result in this fusion, it’s unlikely adding a few catalysts under moderate pressure will do so.
Fusion should produce a lot of radiation, including high energy gamma rays. None were detected, and if they were present much greater shielding would be needed to protect anyone near the device. This is pretty much a deal-killer – no radiation = no fusion.
In prior tests the copper found in the device after alleged fusion took place had the same isotopic ratio as normal copper, which would not be the case if the copper were freshly made by adding a proton to nickel. Also, by Siegel’s calculations there was more copper found in the device than would have resulted from even a completely efficient fusion process.
From a scientific point of view, the claims made for cold fusion in the E-Cat device are extremely improbable, and the evidence we have does not support such claims. We don’t have a clear scientific explanation for how the device can work, with evidence (in terms of output products and radiation detection) that match predictions from a specific model.
What we do have are very curious anomalies.
Tim Worstall, writing in Forbes magazine, comes at the question from a completely different angle. He argues that if Rossi had a device that could generate power, he could be selling that power back to the grid and using the income to finance further development. The fact that he is not doing this, but instead is looking for outside investors, means he does not have a device that is actually producing power.
This is very similar to an argument I have used before in relation to all free-energy or cold fusion claims. Show that you can produce electricity, not in a rigged demonstration, but in a practical application.
In the face of this new apparently independent replication, I remain skeptical. Proponents are likely to point out that our scientific knowledge is forever incomplete. We can never say something is impossible, and when we encounter an anomaly it just means we have an opportunity to learn something new.
This is true, as far as it goes, but at the same time the more a new claim runs contrary to existing well-established scientific findings, the more unlikely it is. We also have to consider all possibilities.
In this case the physics strongly argues that the alleged reaction taking place, fusing nickel and hydrogen into copper, is extremely unlikely, and the evidence being presented has some serious (even fatal) holes. So – one possibility is that the results are simply in error. The researchers are not accounting for a more mundane source of power, or are not properly measuring or accounting for all inputs and outputs.
It’s also possible that there is fraud taking place. The fraud can be gross and deliberate, or perhaps just cutting corners on the part of a true believer.
It is also possible that Rossi has stumbled upon a discovery that will ultimately rewrite the physics textbooks and transform our civilization. I think some combination of 1 and 2 are far more likely than the third possibility.
The profound nature of the claims being made need to be recognized. If the E-Cat were truly able to generate large amounts of clean energy in a small package, the practical applications would be overwhelming and would squash any skepticism. All you would have to do is just build it. Industry would not wait for the physicists to catch up, which they eventually would do.
If such a discovery were made one day, I don’t think we would be reading about it in obscure article in a tech journal.
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