Faced with the converging crises of fossil fuel depletion and climate change, humanity is in desperate need of an abundant, cheap and clean source of energy.
For decades, fusion has been the holy grail of nuclear energy researchers. ‘Hot’ fusion – the process that creates energy in the sun and hydrogen bombs – involves the fusing of hydrogen or deuterium atoms into helium. After decades of research, scientists have yet to crack the problem of managing the extreme temperatures involved. ‘Cold fusion’, which, in theory, would create useable energy at room temperatures, has for a long time been a similarly elusive dream.
In 1989, two scientists at the University of Utah, Pons and Fleischmann, claimed to have demonstrated a cold fusion reaction that produced excess energy, that is, more energy than would be yielded by a normal chemical reaction.
However, other researchers had great difficulty in replicating the Pons-Fleischmann experiments, and the whole notion of cold fusion became discredited as ‘junk science’.
Nonetheless, some scientists scattered around the globe have continued this line of research and, in the past few years, there has been a renewed explosion of interest in the subject.
The term ‘cold fusion’ has fallen out of favour, to be replaced by the more accurate label of low-energy nuclear reactions, or LENRs.
Scientists working in several labo- ratories have claimed to have produced excess heat energy when mixing hydrogen gas with nickel or palladium under certain conditions. Remarkably, the reactions produce no greenhouse gases or radioactive waste.
Last year, an Italian engineer and entrepreneur named Andrea Rossi catapulted himself to fame – or possibly infamy – by claiming to have invented a device – called the energy catalyser, or E-Cat – that produces commercially viable quantities of LENR energy using a special catalyst.
In October, Rossi performed a demonstration of a 1 MW E-Cat to a handful of scientists and a potential buyer at the University of Bologna. Subsequently, Rossi said he sold his device to an unnamed American buyer, which some people have speculated could be a branch of the US Department of Defense.
With Swedish company Hydro Fusion acting as the agent, the website ECAT.com is advertising 1 MW units for sale at $1.5-million each – a 25% price cut after two months, resulting from a “close and successful colla- boration with the first (still undisclosed) customer” and “new favourable and scalable production processes”. That price would equate to about R47-billion for capacity equal to the Medupi power station, which has a price tag of upwards of R120-billion. The fuel and maintenance costs are said to be a negligible $1/MWh each, while the estimated life span of a device is 30 years. ECAT.com claims that 10 kWh household units will be available for purchase by next year.
Rossi’s claims triggered a storm of debate, with many critics saying it was a scam, as his device defied the known laws of physics. Rossi has yet to allow independent scientific validation of his device, arguing that he wants to secure a patent first.
In recent months various competitors have emerged with similar assertions.
Greek company Defkalion Green Technologies issued a press release in November stating that it will begin selling an LENR device dubbed Hyperion this year. Another statement, released on January 23, invited inde- pendent third parties to test the reactors.
In mid-January, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) released a short video in which a Dr Joseph Zawodny says that the LENR process “has the demonstrated ability to produce excess amounts of energy cleanly, without ionising radiation, without producing nasty waste”. He says this heat could be used on a household scale for space and water heating and converted into electricity generation, on an industrial scale for power generation and, ultimately, for transportation.
On his blog, Zawodny subsequently stated: “When considered in aggregate, I believe excess power has been demonstrated. I did not say, reliable, useful, commercially viable, or controllable.” Nevertheless, he says the video was released as part of a patent application filed by Nasa for an LENR device.
Most recently, several blogs are reporting that scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology held a short course on cold fusion in the last week of January, where a successful LENR demonstration was apparently conducted.
If commercial energy from LENR proves to be viable and cheap, it could completely revolutionise the world’s energy systems, rendering fossil fuels and conventional nuclear fission reactors obsolete and making fresh- water through desalination affordable. But a widespread transition to LENR energy would likely take a decade or two.
It is still too early to tell whether commercial LENR is imminent or will turn out to be a red herring. But this story is definitely one to watch.
Published in Engineering News, 17 February 2012