On January 14, 2011, a 61-year-old Italian inventor named Andrea Rossi staged a spectacular demonstration.
In a warehouse in Bologna, he switched on a strange contraption that looked like a leg of lamb wrapped in aluminum foil. He called it the “E-Cat,” short for “energy catalyzer.” It contained a pinch of powdered nickel, a puff of hydrogen gas, and a dash of a secret catalyst. When the mixture was heated with an electrical current, a mysterious reaction occurred, generating large amounts of excess heat—far more than any known chemical reaction could produce. The heat boiled water into steam. The steam could be used to spin a turbine to make electricity.
Here, Rossi claimed, was a machine that harnessed a previously unknown type of nuclear reaction—a machine that could produce nearly infinite energy cheaply and with no radioactive by-products. It would put the oil companies out of business. It would enable humanity to explore space on the cheap. It would change the world overnight.
A handpicked audience of 40 journalists and scientists watched Rossi’s E-Cat gurgle steam for an hour. Physicist Francesco Celani, who had traveled to Bologna from Rome, brought along a spectrometer to measure spikes in gamma radiation, which could provide evidence that nuclear reactions did indeed power Rossi’s machine; Rossi demanded that Celani turn it off, lest he divine his secrets.
Despite the rebuff, three weeks later Celani presented observations of Rossi’s “black box,” as he called it, at a special session of the 16th International Conference on Cold Fusion. He also circulated an e-mail in which he estimated that Rossi’s E-Cat produced 15 to 20 times more energy than it consumed.
If it were true, Rossi’s invention would be a miracle—the boundless energy source that physicists have been pursuing since the dawn of the nuclear age. But could it be true? Could a solo inventor working out of a warehouse in Bologna really have built a fusion device that could power the planet?
Scientists have been captivated by the promise of commercial fusion power for more than half a century. During nuclear fusion, light atoms combine to form heavier elements; in the process, a small fraction of mass is converted into energy. Lots of energy. Fusion is one of the most powerful processes known to physics. “Hot” fusion, in which hydrogen atoms combine to form helium and tritium at temperatures of tens of millions of degrees, lights the sun. Re-creating the 200-million-degree plasma soup necessary for nuclear fusion to take place on Earth requires vast amounts of energy, far more than scientists have been able to squeeze out of multibillion-dollar machines, making hot fusion little more than an expensive lab experiment.
Yet in 1989, Martin Fleischmann, an electrochemist at the University of Southampton in England, and Stanley Pons, a professor at the University of Utah, held a press conference to announce that they had fused nuclei of deuterium (a heavy isotope of hydrogen) in an inexpensive tabletop apparatus—not at millions of degrees, but at room temperature. Their experiment was deceptively simple: Attach electrodes to strips of palladium and platinum. Place the metal in a jar of heavy water (water in which the hydrogen atoms are replaced by deuterium). Run an electrical current through it. The force of electrolysis, Fleischmann and Pons claimed, packed deuterium nuclei into the palladium’s atomic-scale lattice structure closely enough for them to overcome their natural repulsion and fuse into helium. In went a modest amount of electricity; out came a thousand times more heat than any known chemical reaction could produce—enough heat, Fleischmann and Pons said, that its source had to be nuclear.
Researchers the world over scrambled to replicate their results. While a few claimed success, most of them failed. They said that Fleischmann and Pons measured heat incorrectly. They said they didn’t stir the heavy water in their cell. As the negative reports poured in, Fleischmann and Pons were pilloried in the press and denounced by their peers. Months later, a scathing Department of Energy report recommended that cold-fusion research should receive no public funding. Since then, it has been all but banished from mainstream science.
Nevertheless, a community of a few hundred researchers continues to pursue the energy source that Fleischmann and Pons claimed to have discovered back in 1989. Some of them work in government labs, others in private facilities. A few conduct experiments in their homes. But they don’t call it cold fusion anymore. The field has more aliases than P. Diddy: condensed matter nuclear science, lattice-assisted nuclear reaction, chemically assisted nuclear reaction. The current term of art is low-energy nuclear reaction (LENR).
The identity crisis stems from the simple fact that cold-fusion researchers don’t understand how these reactions work. All they know is that their experiments produce excess heat, along with neutron fluxes, alpha particles, transmutations, and other signatures of nuclear activity. Sometimes. Some experiments emit a hint of gamma rays; most don’t. Some show evidence of transmutation products (one element turning into another, requiring an exchange of protons and neutrons); many don’t. One might produce a single watt of anomalous heat; another might pump out 200 watts. There’s a lot of evidence that something is going on. What that is, not even the true believers can say for sure.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.