An Italian inventor claims to have achieved energy production nirvana. So why won’t he let other scientists verify his work?
Andrea Rossi has a somewhat checkered past. While living in Italy in the 1970s, the philosophy graduate claimed to have discovered a way to transform organic garbage into oil. However, the company he founded to exploit the process – PetrolDragon – collapsed amid accusations of illegal toxic dumping and Rossi was subsequently imprisoned for environmental crimes and tax evasion. Ten years later, he was acquitted by the Italian government.
After his release, Rossi moved to the U.S., launched a new venture and, according to Wikipedia, secured a contract from the U.S. Army’s Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) to “evaluate the potential of generating electricity from waste heat by using thermoelectric generators.” However, none of the 27 generators that he eventually supplied to ERDC worked well: 19 produced no electricity at all while 8 produced less than 1 watt each; far less than the 800-1,000 watts Rossi had predicted.
So, that’s the old news; now for the new(ish) news. In 2011, Rossi claimed he had created a device that was able to produce substantially more energy than it consumed. The device supposedly used some form of cold fusion or low-energy nuclear reaction (LENR) to produce heat which, in turn, could be used to create electricity. Rossi called the device – which looked like something somebody hastily cobbled together in their garage rather than a sophisticated nuclear reactor – an Energy Catalyzer, or E-Cat for short.
Now, in case you’re wondering what cold fusion is, it’s a reaction in which elements are fused together, releasing more energy than was required to induce the fusion in the first place – in other words, more energy comes out than goes in. In simple terms, it’s a low-temperature version of the process that makes the sun hot.
The appeal of cold fusion – if it could be made to work – is that, unlike the fission reactions currently used in nuclear power plants, it would produce no radioactive waste material. Further, because the process would use common elements – and produce more energy for a given weight of fuel than any current technology – cold fusion could likely supply us with very low cost energy for an extremely long time.
It’d change the world as we know it. Our energy and environmental problems would be solved almost overnight and there would be massive disruption in global economies and energy markets. Which is why cold fusion has consistently topped the list of scientific holy grails for decades. A cheap, clean and virtually inexhaustible energy source. What’s not to like?
But, of course, this is all completely theoretical as nobody has yet demonstrated that cold fusion is even possible. Or have they?
While Rossi has released no details as to how the E-Cat actually works – except to say it uses a mixture of nickel powder, hydrogen gas, and a “secret catalyst” – and has refused to have the device independently tested, he has demonstrated it on a number of occasions. The demonstrations were attended by both the press and members of the scientific community – and at least some of them went away believing that Rossi was indeed on to something. After a demonstration in January 2011, Hanno Essén, an associate professor of theoretical physics at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology, and Sven Kullander, professor emeritus of High Energy Physics at Uppsala University, claimed the amount of excess energy produced by the E-Cat was too great to have been the result of any chemical reaction and stated, “The only alternative explanation is that there is some kind of a nuclear process that gives rise to the measured energy production.”
And others are also reluctant to dismiss Rossi’s work. Popular Science’s Steve Featherstone visited the International Low Energy Nuclear Reactions Symposium and asked attendees – who, according to Featherstone, included “some of the field’s top experimentalists and a contingent from NASA” – about Rossi’s claims. He was surprised at their responses and wrote, “To my astonishment, after three days of asking every cold-fusion researcher in the house, I couldn’t find a single person willing to call Rossi a con man. The consensus was that he had something, even if he didn’t understand why it worked or how to control it.” (Note that, for reasons I’ll explain later in this post, the lack of criticism for Rossi may not be quite as astonishing as Featherstone thought.)
In January of this year, physicist Brian Josephson, a Nobel Laureate and retired professor at the University of Cambridge, created a video FAQ about Rossi’s machine in response to what he calls “the deafening silence of the scientific and other media, in regard to what may well be the most important technological advance of the century.”
In Josephson’s video, NASA’s Chief Scientist at Langley Research Center, Dennis Bushnell, comments on Rossi’s work stating, “I think this will go forward fairly rapidly now, and if it does this is capable of, by itself, completely changing geo-economics, geo-politics, and solving climate and energy.” Bushnell also commented on Rossi’s work to Featherstone saying, “We have so screwed up this planet. This is one of the few things I know of that’s capable for atoning for our sins.”
But not everybody believes in Rossi or, for that matter, that cold fusion is even possible. Cold fusion has been largely dismissed by the academic community and is now very much a fringe science and only a relatively small number of researchers are active in the field. Little funding is made available by mainstream institutions for cold fusion research and the subject is almost completely ignored by serious scientific journals. As David Goodstein, a professor of physics and applied physics at Caltech, says:
Cold fusion is a pariah field, cast out by the scientific establishment. Between cold fusion and respectable science there is virtually no communication at all. Cold fusion papers are almost never published in refereed scientific journals, with the result that those works don’t receive the normal critical scrutiny that science requires. On the other hand, because the Cold-fusioners see themselves as a community under siege, there is little internal criticism. Experiments and theories tend to be accepted at face value, for fear of providing even more fuel for external critics, if anyone outside the group was bothering to listen. In these circumstances, crackpots flourish, making matters worse for those who believe that there is serious science going on here.
Obviously, this could explain why Featherstone heard little in the way of criticism when he asked about Rossi at the International Low Energy Nuclear Reactions Symposium. Goodstein, by the way, believes “quite firmly the theoretical arguments that say Cold Fusion is impossible.”
Further, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office now refuses patents related to cold fusion technology. The Washington Post explains: “According to Esther Kepplinger, the deputy commissioner of patents, this is for the same reason it wouldn’t give one for a perpetual motion machine: It doesn’t work.”
Earlier this year, Australian entrepreneur Dick Smith offered to pay Rossi $1 million if he could prove the E-Cat worked as claimed. Smith was even willing to have Essén and Kullander – the Swedish physicists who attended the demonstration in January 2011 – act as sole judges. All Rossi needed to do was permit them to check the E-Cat’s wiring and power outputs. Rossi refused. In an email to Forbes’ Mark Gibbs, Smith hinted that his unwillingness to cooperate implied some subterfuge on Rossi’s part saying:
Common sense alone says that if someone had invented such a machine, one of the first things they would do is arrange for a simple scientific test by independent, qualified individuals. They would then seek to have the results of this test published in a reputable scientific journal. Clearly, Rossi has not done this. What could the reason be? Could it be that the device does not work, and Mr Rossi knows it?
There is, of course, another possible explanation for his refusal to take up Smith’s challenge. Because cold fusion technology cannot be patented, it could simply be that Rossi didn’t want to reveal too much about the machine’s inner workings in order to protect his interests. If Rossi’s machine does indeed work, the technology will be worth substantially more than the $1 million offered by Smith – in fact, it would likely make him the richest person in the world.
Whether or not Rossi has actually made a breakthrough is impossible to say. Given that most members of the scientific community believe cold fusion to be impossible, it would seem unlikely. That said, this certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a discovery has been made that defies science’s understanding of physics, and there are some respected academics who think that Rossi’s work should not be quickly dismissed. Until Rossi allows the E-Cat to be independently tested, there is simply no way of knowing what it does or does not do.
What do you think? Could Rossi’s machine be the most important technological advance of the century, or is he simply pulling the wool over a lot of peoples’ eyes?
[Source: Popular Science]