Jan 21 2011

More Cold Fusion

Yet another cold fusion claim has surfaced, this one from two Italian scientists – Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi. You may wonder why this story is not all over the mainstream media, as (if their claims turn out to be true) the world’s energy problems have just been solved, not to mention global warming. It might have something to do with the fact that cold fusion claims are nothing new, and every previous claim has fizzled under close examination.

So there is definitely a “boy who cried wolf” syndrome going on here. Of course, in the story the wolf did eventually come. It is unclear if cold fusion will ever be a reality (it looks highly implausible), but I always read over new claims to see if there is anything remotely interesting. So far, nothing has peaked up above the noise.

The big problem with cold fusion is that it is a field ripe for premature or false claims. Often claims are based upon excess energy being measured in some kind of setup. All of the energy inputs are measured and they are compared to all of the energy output, and if there is excess output that is often taken as evidence that cold fusion is going on and is producing the excess energy.

But this kind of claim is very tricky. It means that all energy input and output has to be accurately measured. It also means that all sources of energy input have to be accounted for  – and if something is missed (like a chemical reaction) then that can produce the false impression of excess energy from fusion. In other words, it is easy for researchers to fool themselves with complex rigs or sloppy technique.

This is especially true of the preliminary results that we often hear about – small rigs with equally small amounts of energy – so that a little bit of unaccounted for energy can skew the results. However, these processes never scale up to industrial size, because at large scale the small errors either fade to insignificance (and the apparent energy production along with them) or the process simply does not work.

For this reason, before cold fusion claims are taken seriously most researchers would like to see a few things. The first is a scale of production that is large enough that tiny errors in calibration or unknown energy sources could not be causing the apparent results. The second is to see the end-products of fusion. So if hydrogen fusion is claimed, it would be nice to measure the production of helium. It would also be nice to detect the radiation products of fusion, like high energy neutrons.

With the current claims Rossi and Focardi are barely even claiming that their process uses cold fusion (or low energy nuclear reactions, and proponents like to call it, to get away from the stigma of “cold fusion”). They are using nickle and hydrogen fusion. They make no attempt to detect the fusion process or the end products of fusion. Their claims are based entirely on excess heat energy from their process.

They claim that with 400 watts input energy they can produce 12,400 watts of output heat. Their math seems pretty straight forward, but the real question is – are they accounting for all sources of energy? Are they missing some chemical reaction? They address this by measuring the weight of the container of hydrogen used, but that sounds like an insufficient control.

They also say that the process can run itself – that the power generated can serve as the input necessary to continue the reaction (which is reasonable if real nuclear fusion is happening), but that they prefer to run the process with external energy input. To me that is always a red flag.

They further claim that their process will be ready for industrial use in several months. They are building large power generators right now and will be ready to go soon.

Their claims have many of the typical red flags for another premature cold fusion claim. They have not documented that cold fusion is actually happening, and they appear to be extrapolating from small-scale setups and are likely just making a mistake somewhere. Whatever the errors are, they will likely come to light when they try to scale up their process, or their process will simply not work in larger scale.

If history is any guide, Rossi and Focardi will not take such failure as evidence that their underlying methods or ideas are flawed. They will interpret it as a minor technical hurdle that they will soon overcome. Just you wait – they will have the problem licked before you know it.

It is also possible that after a string of failures, and despite very unimpressive claims, that this time cold fusion is for real. I highly doubt it, and I am not holding my breath. We will likely never hear of this process again, and it will fade into the pages of the alternative cold fusion press.

What I am usually most interested in is the precise mechanism of deception – how did the researchers screw up in order to convince themselves they finally achieved cold fusion? Failure can often be instructive – but only if you are willing to admit that failure has occurred.

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23 responses so far

23 Responses to “More Cold Fusion”

  1. jugaon 21 Jan 2011 at 1:28 pm

    “400 watts input energy per minute”

    I’m afraid there is no such thing as a watt per minute. Watt is a measure of power, or joules (a measure of energy) per second.

  2. SARAon 21 Jan 2011 at 1:56 pm

    Why criticize before they make their larger plant and prove or disprove themselves?
    And good on them for
    a. trying.
    b. not giving up

    I am a great fan of yours Dr. Novella. But it would appear that today’s article is on the possibility that these researchers are cranks (or delusional idealists) rather than any actual evidence that they are those things.

    You may very well turn out to be right, but you make assumptions on evidence of them not answering your questions. Not on the answers to those questions.

    I recognize that we all hate it when science gets misrepresented and when psuedoscience is lauded. However, we do not help ourselves by criticizing based on conjecture.

  3. Karl Withakayon 21 Jan 2011 at 2:19 pm

    This doesn’t smell like bad science, this smells like outright fraud.

    Anyone who claims that a new scientific breakthrough will be ready for practical application in a matter of months should be closely scrutinized to see if they have their hand out, palm up.

    Fusion reactions involving Nickel (or any element beyond iron) are generally endothermic, which is why you get supernovae; the energy output is less than the energy input from gravity, and the star can no longer resist collapse.

    Their paper was rejected by several peer reviewed scientific journals, and they published in a journal they founded..

    They have no plausible mechanism to explain their results.

    Their patent application was rejected.

    One member of the team has a history which allegedly includes illegally importing gold and tax fraud.

    Quote from an article: “But the duo does have something going for them in the fact that they’ve demonstrated their device publicly. ”

    -So have many successful fraudsters.

    They claim the process is H + Ni > Cu, but fusion reactions involving only one daughter product are very rare, especially for heavier elements.

    Only Ni58 and Ni60 exist in any significant quantities for their device to be useful…

    Adding a single proton to Ni58 or Ni60 would yield Cu59 or Cu61, both of which are highly unstable and very radioactive. In fact. the decay products of their decays are….Nickel.

    They claim their device produces radiation only while operating, but the reactions must produce radioisotopes.

  4. Karl Withakayon 21 Jan 2011 at 2:22 pm

    @SARAH
    “Why criticize before they make their larger plant and prove or disprove themselves?”

    Because they are likely seeking investors to fund their larger scale endeavors.

  5. Karl Withakayon 21 Jan 2011 at 2:33 pm

    @SARAH

    “And good on them for
    a. trying.
    b. not giving up”

    This assumes no fraudulent intent on their part.

    Even absent intentionally fraud, bad science, honestly performed is about as useless as fraudulent science. Crying wolf when you know there is no wolf has mostly the same effect as crying wolf when you believe there is a wolf, but have no rational reason to believe so.

  6. Steven Novellaon 21 Jan 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Sara – my criticism is based upon the highly implausible nature of their claims, and the fact that they are using only the most unreliable form of evidence to back their claims, while providing no actual evidence for fusion.

    Karl’s additional points are also very valid, but since they did not even speculate on a mechanism it’s not clear what they are specifically claiming is happening.

    As I said – I am always open to looking at a new claims, but there are red flags of either very bad science or duplicity here, and I’m not holding my breath.

  7. Steven Novellaon 21 Jan 2011 at 2:37 pm

    juga – thanks for the correction. I did mean just watts. They did calculate based upon heat produced per minute, but then translated that into watts.

  8. SARAon 21 Jan 2011 at 3:04 pm

    @Karl
    No indication of fraudulent intent was in this post.
    No indication of seeking investors was in this post.
    No indication of being rejected by peer reviews was in this post.
    No indication of irregular activity on the part of the researchers was in the post.

    Thank you for indicating that there may be evidence of these things.

    What was in the post was an indication of initial research without sufficient replication and no answers to some very valid questions. There may have been answers to those questions but they are not answered in this post. Nor is there any indication that the researches refused to provide them. Merely that they aren’t in evidence.

    My point is – asking questions is not a valid reason for casting aspersions. Evidence is a valid reason.

    If we want those who we criticize to have solid ground for their claims. In that case, we better have solid ground for our suggestions that they are frauds.

  9. Karl Withakayon 21 Jan 2011 at 3:11 pm

    In their paper, they admit that the energy input is insufficient to cause proton capture by the Nickel nuclei, but dismiss this by saying it happened, so what we know about nuclear cross sections of nuclei must be wrong.

    “The tunneling probability becomes”… “so small to make the capture of a single proton by a Nickel nucleus impossible. Nevertheless we have an experimental evidence of a large energy that can only arise from nuclear reactions between Nickel and Hydrogen, the only two elements existing in our apparatus.”

    They don’t make any mention of attempts to rule out experimental error or any other source of their results. They also make no mention of any control experiment either, such as the same apparatus with different substances, such as iron or helium. They built and setup the apparatus, ran it without experimental controls, got what looked like net energy production, and told the world.

  10. Steven Novellaon 21 Jan 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Sara – but I never suggested they were frauds. I said their claims were premature, that’s it. I based this on past history, low plausibility, and the flimsiness of their evidence. I knew there was another (very dubious) angle to this story, but I did not go there because I was still checking that aspect of things out.

    In fact I give them a lot of benefit of the doubt in treating their claims as probably a mistake. Nowhere do I even suggest fraud.

    So your criticism is simply off base.

  11. mindmeon 21 Jan 2011 at 3:20 pm

    I’m reading a history of cold fusion. It’s amazing how many researchers did not run controls, including P&F. Many didn’t run the rig along side the same rig using distilled water. If both the heavy water and normal water rigs are generating what seems like excess energy, it’s more likely you’re mis-measuring.

    Did these Italian researchers run a control at all?

    “The problem is, they haven’t provided any details on how the process works. After their paper was rejected by several peer reviewed scientific journals, it was published in the Journal of Nuclear Physics—an online journal apparently founded by Rossi and Focardi. Further, they say they can’t account for how the cold fusion is triggered, fostering deep skepticism from others in the scientific community. ”

    SARA, did you read the article? Nearly every paragraph of that article sets off classic warning bells. I mean, maybe, but then maybe North Korea also cracked cold fusion.

    Care to take a cash money bet?

    (Count down until Jed shows up and argues 1) no one is devoting enough research dollars to cold fusion but 2) we should take cold fusion seriously because all these impressive japanese companies are investing huge amounts of money into cold fusion.)

  12. Karl Withakayon 21 Jan 2011 at 3:30 pm

    @SARAH,

    Mention was made in the post that they intended to have a large scale, practical application of this technology within a few months. This alone should have been sufficient to raise the skeptical eyebrow a little higher. That’s generally not the speed at which science works. I would expect years if not decades before any practical application of any such new discovery.

    Steven also implied or directly pointed out that cold fusion is inherently implausible and that any claim for cold fusion must include a proposed mechanism to justify the plausibility, include evidence that fusion actually took place, or produce result on a scale large enough to rule out error.

    On a side note: The fact that the researchers conducted an experiment they has no reason to believe would be successful is a little interesting.

  13. Karl Withakayon 21 Jan 2011 at 3:44 pm

    To expand further on my side note,

    After they observed net energy production, they come up with some post hoc speculation to try to support themselves, but they had no a priori reason to conduct the experiment in the first place as they had no reason to believe the input energy was sufficient to cause the Nickel nucleus to capture a proton.

  14. daedalus2uon 21 Jan 2011 at 6:36 pm

    The patent application has been published. I consider it to be a very poorly written patent application.

    http://www.freepatentsonline.com/20110005506.pdf

    The only evidence they have of “fusion” is energy production. They don’t describe how they measured the energy production or how much it is. If they were generating this much energy, it would be trivial to show it with actual measurements that would be beyond doubt. They do not do so.

    There seems to be a flipping back and forth between energy units and power units (energy per unit time).

    They claim to demonstrate production of lighter elements by the presence of zinc, sulfur, calcium, potassium, silicon, chlorine, copper. They show two analyses of the post-treatment nickel powder, none of the pre-treated powder. It is extremely doubtful that they have a dozen or so fusion/fission reactions going on, producing tens of kw of heat and detect not a trace of ionizing radiation.

    They claim that the Ni power becomes enriched in Cu after operation for some time. They house their Ni powder in a Cu tube. If they are exposing the Cu tube to fluctuations in H2 and O2 levels the Cu would alternately oxidize to Cu2O and then reduce to metallic Cu. This would cause exfoliation of Cu from the tube surface into the Ni powder. 500 C is plenty hot enough for Cu to oxidize in air and then be reduced to metal by H2. Impurities in the H2 could be oxidized or reduced and that could be generating some of the heat they see. Ni can form hydrides, that is the basis of the NiMH battery. The nickel powder could be oxidizing at one condition and be reduced at another. Without long term reliable measurements of the system it isn’t possible to demonstrate the steady state necessary to show net energy production.

    There is quite a humorous comment at the linked to article which shows perhaps a lack of attention to detail in their marketing effort.

    http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-01/italian-scientists-claim-dubious-cold-fusion-breakthrough#comment-98296

    Or perhaps not ;)

    In looking at their description of how they measure the heat production, their method seems to be flawed (but it is hard to tell because the description is inadequate).

    They say they use flowing water with a temperature measurement on the inlet and outlet. This is ok, but they “calibrate” the heat load of their system by electric resistance heating their apparatus. This might be ok, depending on the location of the temperature sensing devices. It might not be ok. If the presence of H2 changes the thermal conductivity of their apparatus (it could change it by a lot), then unless they take time effects and thermal conductivity effects into account, their calibration could be off by a large amount.

    They talk about calibrating their system and needing to use a variable pressure of hydrogen. Hydrogen is very tricky to work with. It can easily diffuse into temperature measuring devices (like thermocouples or RTDs) and change their calibration. It is hard to tell what their apparatus looks like without a figure and without mention of what specific components they used. If they are using platinum RTDs (the most precise way of measuring temperatures in these ranges) and the Pt RTDs are not fully encapsulated and protected from the H2 atmosphere, hydrogen could affect the resistance, or the Pt could catalyze the reaction between H2 and O2 (from air leaks). They don’t mention having multiple and redundant methods of measuring temperature. Thermocouples are cheap. You could use dozens and log them every few seconds.

    The need to have variable pressures of H2 seems strange. If it is due to impurity O2, then changing the pressure might be necessary to get more O2 into the system. If there are leaks in their system, it might be necessary for them to change the pressure to get the right H2 + O2 mix to interfere with the Pt RTDs. In the figure, there is no cylinder of H2. The only tubes that seem to be going out of view (presumably to that H2 cylinder) look like they are made of plastic. Plastic is not a suitable material for H2.

    They don’t show any analysis of their H2, no diagrams of the equipment, no description with sufficient detail to understand how they do their measurements. My opinion from what I have been able to find is that their results are due to measurement error, maybe due to interference by H2 and/or simply bad placement. I see not even ordinary evidence of cold fusion or even of energy generation.

  15. SARAon 21 Jan 2011 at 6:49 pm

    Steve,
    My initial criticism wasn’t based on it being fraudulent. In fact before Karl came in with his comments, my assumption was that these two were working on an energy alternative that may work. I lauded the attempt.

    Your post criticizes their work, but your criticism seemed to be based on a lack of answers to your questions. It doesn’t suggest that they had inadequate answers, merely that you didn’t see the answers. And then you assumed that the historical actions of other apparently unrelated attempts would also be the actions of these researchers.

    So my skeptical reaction to your post was – why does a lack of answers to your make them worthy of your criticism?

    I appreciate that you didn’t want to address the issues that Karl is bringing up, but because you didn’t, I was left with the impression that you had chosen this research randomly and had critiqued for no particular reason than it crossed your path.

    I’m glad your are out there using a critical and scientific eye on these things. I just need more than questions to assume the worst of people and things.

    I don’t know if I am making sense, but that was where I was coming from. I hope you don’t take it personally. It was my impression.

  16. thequiet1on 21 Jan 2011 at 7:42 pm

    SARA,

    I see Steve’s position being that if these researchers want to be taken seriously they need to provide answers to certain questions. That given the magnitude of what they are claiming, the onus is on them to provide compelling evidence to back it up, which they aren’t doing. He isn’t stating that they are wrong, he is taking a critical eye to the available information and forming an opinion on what is most likely going on.

    Let’s say for argument’s sake that these guys end up backing up their claims and their method works. That doesn’t change anything Steve has said. They still went about things up till now very poorly and are proceeding in a manner you would expect if they were either bad researchers or fraudulent (not that Steve claimed fraud in the article, he’s very careful with his words).

    To clear a point I think you are missing, Steve is not criticising the work because there is unanswered questions, he’s criticising the researchers for not answering these questions. Given past experience, that does not bode well for the research. I think that’s a fair summary of his position.

  17. superdaveon 21 Jan 2011 at 10:03 pm

    Watts per second could be a real thing , it would imply an accelerating energy input.

  18. daedalus2uon 21 Jan 2011 at 11:20 pm

    I agree with thequiet1. There are obvious questions that have not been answered.

    Either the researchers don’t know enough to ask the questions and so have not formulated their research equipment and programs to answer those questions, or they have asked the questions, have the answers and are not presenting those answers.

    The questions are not about the inner workings of their apparatus, things that might be proprietary to their process, the questions are about the equipment they used to measure what they claim is excess energy.

    It isn’t just if they want to be taken seriously. If they want to not fool themselves they need to ask the right questions and then answer them with the right apparatus. I see no evidence that they are doing so.

  19. LedoSattson 22 Jan 2011 at 12:51 am

    I have a good feeling about this one. Hoverboots, here I come.

  20. Steven Novellaon 22 Jan 2011 at 7:31 am

    Sara – I don’t take it personally and I appreciate the feedback. My goal is to communicate well, so the feedback is very useful.

    I understand your position, but I think you are not seeing my points. Thequiet1 is essentially correct.

    This research did not just cross my path – it has achieved a certain level of attention in the media and in the free energy subculture. It is an active and new claim.

    The main point of my post is to simply answer the question – how likely is it that their claims are true. I feel it’s very low because cold fusion is very implausible, and they have not provided anything close to compelling evidence. They have only provided the kind of evidence that is most likely to be misinterpreted or due to sloppy methods. So – not very likely.

    In fact if you read my post again I don’t even directly criticize them at all – just point out that they have not backed up their claims.

    Second – I tried to put this into the context of history. They are not responsible for what has gone before them, but it is reasonable to use past history as a guide to what is likely to happen. As I said – I will give them a fair chance and wait and see. Maybe this is the exception, but I doubt it. I am making a prediction based on past history because I am highly confident that is what will happen. I hope I’m wrong and the world’s power problem has been solved.

    I will strengthen my only implied criticism – given the history of this field it is odd to the point of being irresponsible to make public claims with such flimsy evidence. They are not acting like responsible and serious academic researchers. That is also why I don’t hold out much hope for their claims.

  21. BillyJoe7on 28 Jan 2011 at 5:42 am

    Sara,

    I think your benign, and even somewhat positive, response to this cold fusion claim is the result of you are looking at this from the position of someone who presumably knows nothing about cold fusion and the history of cold fusion. Steve is looking at it for a position of knowledge and experience but, in my opinion, he is actually far too restrained in his response. On the other hand, Karl Withaway is saying what I think is in the back of Steve’s mind and what is very likely the truth of the matter. This is almost certainly a scam. And I could almost certainly have left out the “almost”.

  22. mikerattlesnakeon 28 Jan 2011 at 11:21 am

    SARA, you are not being skeptical, you are being critical. Furthermore, you are critiquing Steve’s post as if it exists in a vacuum. The skeptical approach would be to educate yourself about the topic at hand before criticising the article.

  23. thequiet1on 29 Jan 2011 at 5:00 am

    Actually I don’t think it’s fair to say Sara wasn’t being skeptical. She (I assume she?) thought Steve was being dismissive of this claim without enough information to do so, which could be a fair criticism if Steve was dismissing them. I think she just misread his more nuanced position that the claims they are making require far better evidence than they are presenting, which has been a problem before in this field, and that he therefore believes it’s extremely unlikely anything will come of this research.

    You can be skeptical and be mistaken, and it was a fairly subtle mistake in the scheme of things.

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