Many LENR researchers now agree that the mystery reaction is not, in fact, a true fusion reaction. This is a reasonable conclusion. Nuclear fusion is the mechanism that endows the hydrogen bomb with such terrifying explosive power. If Fleischmann and Pons had achieved nuclear fusion on a tabletop, radiation would have probably killed everyone in the room. More recent theories, such as one proposed in 2005 by Allan Widom, a physicist at Northeastern University, and Lewis Larsen, CEO of the LENR startup Lattice Energy, suggest that, through a complex interaction of hydrogen and a host metal (palladium, nickel), low-energy neutrons are captured by nearby nuclei, releasing heat without creating dangerous radioactive by-products.
Whatever the eventual explanation, a few LENR researchers have put aside theory to focus on commercializing their results right now. That’s certainly true of Andrea Rossi. Scientific understanding can wait until he starts shipping E-Cats to Home Depot.
Rossi isn’t the best ambassador for a field with credibility problems, though. In the ’80s, he invented a machine that magically transformed household garbage and industrial waste into oil—only it didn’t create a drop. Leaky storage tanks at Rossi’s “poison factory,” as one Italian newspaper called it, contained 77,000 tons of toxic sludge that cost $50 million to clean up. While under investigation for environmental crimes, Rossi was also charged with gold trafficking; he went to jail for six months and was later acquitted. As it happens, his engineering degree is from Kensington University, a notorious diploma mill shut down in 1996 by the state of California.
The cold-fusion faithful knew about Rossi’s checkered history when he unveiled the E-Cat, but they were still willing to buy in, for a while. Mahadeva Srinivasan, a nuclear physicist and member of the team that created India’s first nuclear bomb, invited Rossi to speak at an international conference, even though Rossi’s name has never appeared on a single peer-reviewed scientific paper. An eminent Swedish physics professor who attended one of Rossi’s demonstrations publicly stated that what was happening inside the E-Cat had to be a nuclear process. NASA offered to test Rossi’s E-Cat (for a fee). The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and DARPA each arranged private demonstrations. Nobel Prize–winning physicist Brian Josephson uploaded a video to YouTube arguing that the E-Cat “may well be the most important technological advance of the century.”
But Rossi soon began to raise suspicion. Since a public E-Cat demonstration in October 2011—his most recent, and probably his last—he has issued a steady stream of contradictory statements and unfulfilled promises. He claims to operate a state-of-the-art E-Cat factory in Florida, but the only property he owns there is a condo in Miami located a few blocks from the beach. He has no verifiable customers or investors. He has severed ties with business partners and reneged on every agreement to test the E-Cat. Josephson recently put a disclaimer on his YouTube video saying he doesn’t endorse Rossi’s E-Cat. Some of Rossi’s most steadfast supporters—mostly starry-eyed bloggers on the alternative energy beat—have stopped astroturfing for him online.
As late as this summer, when Rossi’s story seemed thoroughly debunked, he continued to make outlandish claims about his E-Cat. He looked like a con man clinging to his story to the bitter end. Maybe he’d even conned himself.
When I first heard the story of Andrea Rossi, I found it baffling that anybody took him seriously. Everything about him—his patently phony website, his clumsy demonstrations, his history as a convicted scam artist—screamed fraud. I wanted to know: How could someone with no real credentials and a history of deceit fool a small army of researchers?
So I decided to take a trip to a LENR conference at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Around 50 people attended, including some of the field’s top experimentalists and a contingent from NASA. The atmosphere was congenial, like a class reunion of a small high school.
On the first day, I sat near the front of a large conference room overlooking a football field where players practiced in wilting heat. I tried to glean some understanding from presentations on arcane LENR theories and experiments. During a break, I ran into John Martin, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center. I asked about Rossi, whose career Martin had been following closely. Why was Rossi so convincing? “He’s pretty good at selling things, for one,” Martin said. “The other thing is he’s attached himself to one of the respected experimentalists in the field. That was his ace in the deck, connecting with him.”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.