Just over a year ago I wrote about something that was incredibly exciting: A commercial cold fusion power generation system. Assuming it worked as claimed, the cold fusion power generation system would herald huge changes in not only the energy industry, but pretty much every aspect of the global economy.
In IT, practical cold fusion generators could, in theory, power entire data centers for next to no cost and provide power in locations far from the grid. And the existing power grid would, itself, be potentially obsoleted by fusion power generation. As for the impact on transportation ... imagine a car that could be driven from coast to coast several times without refueling for a few cents! That's the promise of cold fusion power.
Note that cold fusion is often termed "Low Energy Nuclear Reaction" (LENR) these days, but I'll stick with cold fusion for this article.
Before I update you on where we've got to in this story, let me first explain the background for those of you who might not be up on the story. Those of you who are "au fait" may care to skip ahead.
The generation of energy by fusion is based on the theory that if you can persuade the nuclei of atoms to "fuse" together such that a new, heavier nucleus is formed you will generate energy ... a lot of energy. The reason for this output is that some proportion of the mass involved in fusion is converted to energy.
Now, there are two ways, at least in theory, to achieve fusion. The most publicized and the technique with vastly more research dollars attached to it is "hot" fusion. Hot fusion attempts to emulate the conditions found in stars and so involves temperatures and pressures that are simply mind boggling.
Hot fusion is the goal of projects such as the National Ignition Facility which, along with the likes of the Large Hadron Collider, are fine examples of "big science." The NIF has cost, so far, in excess of $3.54 billion (the LHC is even more spendy, with a price tag of "$9bn ... as of Jun 2010".
Hot fusion is, if you're a geek, sexy. It involves enormous machines the size of houses, enough power to run a large city, and swarms of lab-coated acolytes to prepare and run the equipment which, to date, has completely failed to generate more power than is put into it, which is the goal (called "over unity").
Cold fusion, on the other hand, is theoretically, fusion that can occur at "normal" temperatures (i.e. room temperature ... although I guess where you set your thermostat makes that a little vague) and "normal" pressures.
The concept of cold fusion goes back to the 1920s, but the general public really only became aware of the idea in the late 1980s when two respected electrochemists, Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton and Stanley Pons of the University of Utah, announced they had detected "anomalous heat production" in a laboratory setup orders of magnitude simpler than the equipment used by today's hot fusion researchers.
Alas, the results of Fleischmann and Pons (left in photo) experiment proved very difficult to replicate and the entire cold fusion field fell into disrepute. Moreover, those who gave the concept of cold fusion any credence after the discrediting of Fleischmann and Pons, were ridiculed and ostracized. Even being interested in cold fusion could potentially end an academic science career.
So, for the last two decades, research into cold fusion has been the province of a handful of maverick researchers.
And thus we come to last year's Backspin column on cold fusion. At that time, an Italian inventor by the name of Andrea Rossi had been slowly gathering attention for a device he called the "E-Cat" (short for Energy Catalyzer). How the E-Cat works has never been revealed and, despite the involvement of several respected scientists, the question of whether the E-Cat really functions as claimed has yet to be resolved.
On Oct. 28 last year Rossi held a demonstration in Bologna, Italy, of a 1 megawatt plant, but due to unexplained problems, the power output was only half that, and the fact that a running half-megawatt generator was connected to the E-Cat setup for the entire time and that no one was allowed to inspect the setup made the entire event totally inconclusive.
Since then Rossi has made numerous announcements about significant technological advances and pricing of commercial products, but it's all still "jam tomorrow" (an expression for a never-fulfilled promise from Lewis Carroll's Through the looking glass.
Rossi now has as many critics as he does believers and has been repeatedly accused of being a fraud and a con man. Even so, despite this negative press, he still claims to be moving forward. He recently held a meeting of his worldwide licensees in Zurich, Switzerland, which indicated that his company, Leonardo Corporation, has, in fact, developed a surprising level of commercial credibility without a demonstrably provable product.
Over this same period a number of other companies have announced plans to build and sell commercial cold fusion products but, to date, there's nothing you can buy from Rossi or anyone else. In fact, no cold fusion system has been proven to work at a level that could be called practical or even verifiably over unity.
One of the more encouraging tests of a cold fusion solution was recently conducted by Defkalion, a Greek company. The test was witnessed by a respected scientist, Michael A. Nelson, and seemed to show that excess heat was being produced, albeit with the caveat that a lot of additional testing would be required to confirm the results.
So, the big question is still whether there is such a thing as cold fusion that generates more power than is input, or whether it is due to some other more conventional chemical process. This has become a matter of huge and often heated debate.
A recent paper, unpublished until now, by Dr. Kirk L. Shanahan, of the Savannah River National Laboratory, titled "A Realistic Examination of Cold Fusion Claims 24 Years Later," is heavy reading but well worth it for its highly critical and detailed analysis of the reality of cold fusion.
Dr. Shanahan's conclusion is not in favor of cold fusion: "The case for cold fusion (or 'LENR') stands as unproven today. That fact will remain for all time. If tomorrow, someone discovers the reproducible formula for generating low energy nuclear reactions ... that fact will not change. The failure of some scientists to obtain [cold fusion] does not prove [cold fusion] does not occur, because their work can always be criticized as being inadequate. Thus, the possibility that cold fusion exists will always be open. The only thing that science can do is show how to reproducibly get an effect. Therefore, it is likely that claims to have discovered the way to get LENRs will persist for a long time. However, there is a big difference between claiming (or asserting) something, and proving it."
That really underlines what the difference is between cold fusion fan boys and completely believe in its existence, and those who remain skeptical and demand proof in the form of useful technology, by which I mean a technology that delivers real, valuable commercial results. This is something that no one -- not Rossi's Leonardo Corporation, not Defkalion, nor any of the other players in the market -- has yet managed to do.
So, whether something that might or might not be cold fusion exists and is useful in practical terms isn't yet a dead issue, but as of now, a year later, it's all still jam tomorrow.
Gibbs is waiting in Ventura, Calif. Tell firstname.lastname@example.org just how patient you are and follow him on Twitter and App.net (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).
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