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 forĀ  – 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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