Thursday, November 10, 2011
Cold Nuclear Fusion | 'E-Cat' research promises to change the world
Is Andrea Rossi the messiah -- or just a very naughty boy?
Rossi, an Italian inventor, claims to have come up with the Holy Grail of power generation, an "Energy Catalyser" or E-Cat, which produces limitless energy. He has already carried out laboratory demonstrations in front of scientists and the Italian media, and in October he plans to unveil a one-megawatt power plant in the US. If it works, the E-Cat is the biggest thing since atomic power, bringing an inexhaustible supply of cheap energy. It looks much too good to be true and many dismiss it as an obvious scam, but Rossi has powerful support from some surprising quarters.
The E-Cat is deceptively simple: hydrogen is passed over a special catalyst based on nickel in a container about a litre in size, and enough heat is produced to boil water. A demonstration in January appeared to show a several kilowatts of output from a four hundred watt input. The catalyst is secret, but Rossi says it can be produced at low cost. The two questions that matter: does it really work? And what are the implications if it does?
The E-Cat is the latest incarnation of cold fusion, an area long shunned by respectable scientists. In 1989, researchers Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann claimed to have produced a small amount of energy by nuclear fusion on a lab bench via electrolysis. This was unprecedented and appeared to contradict accepted science, as fusion only occurs at temperatures of millions of degrees in the Sun and stars. Other scientists failed to replicate this cold fusion, and the whole field was soon labelled bad science at best. Few journals will cover it these days. In science terms, an interest cold fusion is up there with astrology and alchemy.
A few scientists do still work in this field, notably at the US Naval Research Laboratory. Occasional papers are published claiming positive results in the area of "Low Energy Nuclear Reactions" and "excess heat generation". Nobody calls it cold fusion, and this is an area led by experiment rather than theory. But some scientists are breaking cover.
Frank Acland has been following Rossi's work closely, and has a website, E-Cat World, tackling the latest developments. He reels off a list of scientists who have examined the E-Cat for themselves and verified what was happening.
"They have all gone on the record to say that they believe that there is a nuclear reaction taking place, " says Acland, "that the levels of energy output the E-Cat produces could not come from a chemical reaction."
The demonstrations appear to show a lot more heat is coming out of apparatus than goes in. Two Swedish scientists from NyTeknik magazine ruled out any hidden power source and concluded: "The only alternative explanation is that there is some kind of a nuclear process that gives rise to the measured energy production." Unlike the Pons and Fleishman experiments, where the excess heat was tiny, this is on a massive scale. Rossi even claims to have been heating a factory using E-Cats. It's a big effect -- or a big hoax.
Rossi's heavyweight supporters include 1973 physics Nobel prize winner Brian Josephson. Josephson also supports telepathy research. Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at Nasa's Langley Research Centre, appears to be a believer in the E-Cat, commenting in a recent interview with Electric Vehicle World that the science was being worked out and, "I think this will go forward fairly rapidly now". However, Nasa scientists are still at the stage of exploring whether there is valid physics behind the E-Cat rather than actually buying them.
Darpa, the Pentagon's advanced science wing, has also been involved in this field. Budget documents reveal a longstanding interest in low energy nuclear reactions, and the plan for 2012 includes the line "Establish scalability and scaling parameters in excess heat generation processes in collaboration with the Italian Department of Energy."
Ex-Darpa chief Tony Tether told New Energy Times that "If it is a hoax, it's a damned good one."
Inventors often complain that their technology could change the world if investors would just give them a few million to produce it. Rossi will get his chance. The one-megawatt device Rossi plans to soon demonstrate was originally meant to be made by combining 300 small E-Cats. It will now comprise 52 larger E-Cats.
What will it mean if it does work? The E-cat will provide a lightweight source of cheap energy, without any CO2 emissions. (And unlike nuclear fission, there is also no radioactive waste.) This could turn the world upside-down, and trigger a new industrial revolution which would shift away from fossil fuels and into an era of clean, plentiful energy.
The simplest application would use the steam or hot water from an E-Cat for heating. An E-Cat could heat your home so you would never need gas, oil or coal again. It could be scaled to heat offices, factories, or other buildings. Rossi eventually hopes to make 300,000 E-Cat modules a year.
The E-Cat could also bring back the steam engine. The steam car powered by an E-Cat could replace the electric car as green transport. The idea is not as peculiar as it might sound; steam cars have a long pedigree, and speed record for this type of vehicle is held by the British Steam Car team who achieved an impressive 149 mph in 2009. It might not make the sort of noise beloved of Jeremy Clarkson, but you'd never have to stop at a petrol station again, just top up with water at intervals.
Electricity generation is more challenging. Rossi says the E-Cat only runs at about 500 degrees for safety reasons; modern power plants run at higher temperatures, which are more efficient. Rossi says he is working on the problem, and reckons that E-Cats could produce electricity for about 2,000 Euros per kilowatt initially, with costs falling dramatically when economies of scale kick in. Combined heat and power units would be most economical, and domestic E-Cats could see people selling to the grid rather than buying from it. Energy prices would plummet, and it could create a new type of economy.
"Many people go to work every day to have enough money to fuel their cars, pay the light and heat bills, and to pay for goods whose cost is largely made up of the energy required to produce and transport it," says Acland. "If energy prices go down across the board, theoretically goods will become much cheaper, and people won't need to work in the same way that they do now just to survive."
Because it does not produce carbon dioxide, the E-Cat solves the CO2 emission problem at a stroke. Transport, manufacturing and heating will all switch over to E-Cat because of the lower costs, and fossil fuels would become a thing of the past. Britain's reliance on imported gas would end, and oil imports would all but cease, being confined to a few niche applications. Oil companies, and oil-based economies, would collapse.
It's an appealing vision -- unless you happen to be working in one of the sectors that would be affected -- but until later this month we can't tell if it's for real. Skeptics point to the lack of published science, and the way that Rossi keeps details of his special catalyst secret. They also point to his past involvement in Petroldragon, a company involved in converting organic waste into fuel, which collapsed in the 1990's amidst allegations of dumping toxic waste. (Rossi maintains that he was the victim in this complex case).
And the E-Cat development has thrown up its own scandal. Until August of this year, Rossi was planning his big launch in Greece, and an E-Cat factory was being built in Xanthi. But the deal has somehow fallen through for unexplained reasons, vaguely blamed on pressure from "international energy interests" who may be threatened by the invention.
The megawatt E-Cat will be unveiled in America. Rossi has licensed the technology to a start-up called Ampenergo. Though new, the company has credentials; one of its founders is Robert Gentile, Assistant Secretary of Energy for Fossil Energy at the US Department of Energy (DOE) in the 90's.
Rossi claims the demonstration will be attended by high-level scientists and science journalists, unlike previous occasions which have had little mainstream coverage. They have not so much attacked his claims as ignored them.
Surprisingly enough, Rossi's most severe critic is Steven Krivit, editor of the New Energy Times. Krivit has had years of experience at looking at all sorts cold fusion devices which have been claimed to produce power. His team have carried out a very thorough analysis of Rossi's demonstrations and they have their doubts.
"According to my analysis, his claim has no scientific credibility," Krivit told Wired.co.uk. The device he claimed to heat a factory in Bondeno seems to exist only on paper."
Krivit's analysis looks at the amount of steam that actually comes out of the device and the way it is measured. He concludes that the E-Cat does not have nearly the output he suggests, and may not even be producing excess energy.
Krivit's answer to the question of whether Rossi's demonstrations support his claims is: "Definitely no."
There is some irony at work here: we apparently have a number of mainstream scientists backing an outlandish project which investors are putting money into, while the most vocal critic comes from the world of cold fusion.
Who's right? The only way to find out will be to watch out for what Rossi does later this month.
Cold Fusion: Future of physics or phoney?
Today is set to be the start of a new era of cheap power, as a new type of low-cost nuclear reactor goes live in front of an audience of scientists and media representatives in Bologna. Once the mystery customer who commissioned the device has confirmed that it really is producing one megawatt, they'll pay the developer, Andrea Rossi.
Unless, of course, it all goes horribly wrong.
ossi's "energy catalyser" or E-Cat is based on a Low Energy Nuclear Reaction which produces vast quantities of energy from a few grams of hydrogen. Otherwise known as Cold Fusion, it's a field largely shunned by mainstream physicists. Rossi's work may have a significant number of followers, but it's still extremely controversial and some critics accuse him of outright fraud.
A demonstration earlier this month in Bologna with a smaller E-Cat was intended to answer some of the criticisms. Previously, Rossi had used the E-Cat to produce steam; this has led to arguments about the measurement method used to determine the weight and temperature of the steam. In a demonstration on 6 October, an E-Cat with a heat exchanger warmed a quantity of water. After initial electrical input from an external source, the E-Cat ran in "self-sustaining" mode for three and a half hours.
According to an analysis of the data produced during the demonstration by Matts Lewan of Swedish science magazine NyTeknik, during the self-sustained mode the E-Cat was producing between two and three kilowatts of power, apparently generating energy with no input. According to the Italian edition of Focus magazine, the scientists attending gave a standing ovation at the end of the demonstration.
However, Steven B Krivit, editor of New Energy Times and one of Rossi's staunchest critics remains unconvinced. His report on the 6 October test was headlined "E-Cat Test Demonstrates Energy Loss" because his method of calculation shows that during the experiment as a whole, including the warm-up period, the total energy output was less than the energy input.
Others dispute this and claim there was a net gain. Bob Higgins of Motorola Solutions carried out an analysis indicating the device output over thirty kilowatt-hours for an input of nine kilowatt hours.
There were criticisms of the methods used to measure the temperature of the water, and the fact that the demonstration only went on for a few hours. By running the E-Cat for 30 hours, Rossi might have conclusively disproved suggestions that the E-Cat simply contains hidden batteries or other power sources in its thick shielding. Rossi countered that if he had used more sophisticated computerising measurements, people could have claimed that the data was being faked, and that a 30-hour demonstration would be too long for any audience.
"Enough is enough with the tests, you go on the market and customers speak for us," he told Focus (translation from Italian).
And that's the important thing about the 28 October test: for the first time it will be carried out by the customer's consultants, not by Rossi himself. The customer, apparently a large US company which has declined to be identified, will be measuring for itself whether the E-Cat does what it says before it will pay for it. Rossi has claimed that the device will output six times as much energy as it consumes. If it fails to perform, Rossi will not get paid and the customer will doubtless remain anonymous to avoid the inevitable bad publicity. If it succeeds, the customer might reveal itself to take credit for financing the biggest breakthrough in energy production of the modern era.
There is a lot at stake for Rossi personally. He has reportedly sold his house in order to fund development work, and has been working 16- or 18-hour days for the last few months to get everything ready for the demonstration. The exact design has changed repeatedly; originally the one-megawatt generator was to be composed of three hundred small E-Cats, then it was 52 larger "fat cats", now the number seems to be 43.
On Sunday, Rossi claimed on his blog that the one-megawatt plant was being tested for the first time, and that it was working well.
Meanwhile, the E-Cat is beginning to be noticed by the mainstream media, with articles in Forbes and the US National Reviewonline edition. While few appear to have much faith in the E-Cat, it's might be compared to buying a lottery ticket: the chances of a success are low, but the prize is gigantic.
Energy costs are a big problem for many people, and the UK government recently expressed concern over domestic heating bills. After the October test, Rossi proposed as his own solution: a home E-Cat, a cube measuring 40 centimetres a side, which will produce all the heating and hot water you want. (Think "Mr Fusion" Home Energy Reactor in Back To The Future). His target cost is 500 euros per kilowatt, so replacing a typical boiler with an E-Cat would cost about £6,000 -- but you could then leave the heating on 24/7 and never see a fuel bill again. Rossi claims it could be on the market within months, though one suspects that there might be regulatory issues with people have nuclear reactors in the homes.
Cheap fusion power would transform economies, and con-artists play on the dream of free energy. But fraudsters usually keep asking for a bit more money to complete their invention and keep delaying the actual proof. It would be a very bold fraudster who offered to let a customer test their magic energy-maker for themselves before getting hold of the money. And fooling people with a few hidden batteries is one thing; faking a one-megawatt power plant under close scrutiny would surely be impossible.
Or would it?
Rossi says that today the experimental results will be updated hour-by-hour, with a full report and video at midnight. Will it be a triumphant success, or an abject failure? Or will there be endless squabbling about measurements and standards, allegations of cheating or sabotage?
We'll know by the weekend.
Success for Andrea Rossi's E-Cat cold fusion system, but mysteries remain
Against all the odds, Andrea Rossi's E-Cat cold fusion power plant passed its biggest test yesterday, producing an average of 470 kilowatts for more than five hours. (A technical glitch prevented it from achieving a megawatt as originally planned). The demonstration was monitored closely by engineers from Rossi's mysterious US customer, which was evidently satisfied and paid up.
The energy was output in the form of heat, measured by the quantity of water boiled off. The results are reported in NyTeknik and Pure Energy Systems News, who both had reporters present for the test. Associated Press also sent a correspondent who should be filing a story in the next few days (one suspects his editors might have some questions).
But this does not mean we can crack open the champagne and celebrate the end of fossil fuels quite yet. Skeptics have plenty of grounds to doubt whether the new test really takes us any further forwards.
For a start, the US customer remains anonymous. In other words, a group of unknown, unverifiable people carried out tests which cannot be checked.
Secondly, observers apart from the customer were only allowed to view the test for a few minutes at a time and during the entire test the E-Cat remained connected to a power supply by a cable. The external power was supposedly turned off; as a demonstration it would have been more impressive for the reactor in its shipping container to be visibly disconnected while operating.
The successful test should pave the way for further work at the University of Bologna, and more contracts with the enigmatic customer. NyTeknik did discover one possible clue to their identity. The customer's controller, one Domenico Fioravanti, apparently reports to a man whose title is "Colonel". This suggests that the mystery customer might be DARPA, the Pentagon's extreme science wing which, as Wired.co.uk has previously noted, has expressed interestin Rossi's work -- but which might not be quite ready to explain to its political masters why it spent millions on a cold fusion device.
Plenty of mysteries remain. But the game just got a lot more interesting.
Cold fusion rears its head as 'E-Cat' research promises to change the world
Cold Fusion: Future of physics or phoney?
Success for Andrea Rossi's E-Cat cold fusion system, but mysteries remain
E-Cat World | Andrea Rossi's Cold Fusion Reactor
Andrea A. Rossi Cold Fusion Generator (E-Cat)
NyTeknik - Cold Fusion
Mainstream News: Andrea Rossi's LENR E-Cat
Low Energy Nuclear Revolution
The Magic of Mr. Rossi
Andrea Rossi Ecat Test Bologna October 6