That ace was a retired physics professor from the University of Bologna named Sergio Focardi, Rossi’s paid consultant and part-time photo prop. Focardi was often seen at Rossi’s early press conferences, an owlish man in thick eyeglasses posing stiffly with Rossi’s arm around his shoulders. In the 1990s, Focardi had teamed up with Francesco Piantelli, a biophysicist from the University of Siena in Italy who pioneered experiments on nickel-hydrogen LENR systems—the same type of system that powered Rossi’s E-Cat. This legitimacy pyramid scheme, which started with Piantelli, compensated for Rossi’s tarnished credentials.
During another break, I struck up a conversation with Larry Forsley, president of the firm JWK International and a member of a research team at the Space & Naval Warfare Systems (SPAWAR) lab in San Diego. I’d heard Forsley laugh derisively when Rossi’s name popped up in a panel discussion. I expected him to elaborate on why Rossi was a fraud, but he declined. “Rossi is an idiot,” Forsley said. And yet: “It’s entirely possible—I think it’s highly improbable—that he actually managed to scale up Piantelli’s work,” Forsley said. “It’s possible.”
Over lunch I asked Robert Duncan, vice chancellor of research at the University of Missouri, for his opinion. Duncan acknowledged that Rossi didn’t have the right credentials, but said that hundreds of LENR experiments undeniably produced excess heat. “He might be on to something that’s empirical,” Duncan said.
On the last day of the conference, Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at Langley Research Center, summed up the state of LENR research. Guys like Rossi play a crucial role, for better or for worse. “This will go directly from the garage, the Edisonian experiments, to market, bypassing the science and the rigorous engineering research,” Bushnell said. “And there are major investors ready to move on this—an amazing number—given a credible third-party seal of approval. I mean, this can move fast. If we ever get a credible assessment in the kilowatt range”—one kilowatt will power ten 100-watt lightbulbs—“the world changes overnight.” Bushnell paused and took a sip of water. “We have so screwed up this planet,” he said, raising his voice. “This is one of the few things I know of that’s capable for atoning for our sins.”
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. The more I learned, the more confused I became. Could Rossi actually have something real? The only way to know for sure was to go to Italy.
When I returned home from the conference, I sent Rossi an e-mail using the address listed on his blog, which goes by the beguiling title Journal of Nuclear Physics. Last year, Rossi sandbagged himself behind his blog’s comments section. From there he drops hints about new factories, responds to fans, and fires back at the “snakes,” as he often calls his critics. He responded the same day, inviting me to a private demonstration of the E-Cat at his “factory” in Bologna.
When I got off the plane in Italy, the weather was brutally hot. Driving to my hotel, air-conditioning cranked up, I thought about the carbon my car was pumping into the atmosphere, my small contribution to a repeat of the Permian extinction that Dennis Bushnell warned about. When I got to my hotel, I fired up my laptop and checked my e-mail. There was a terse message from Rossi canceling our interview. No explanation. Given what I’d heard about Rossi’s capricious temper, I suspected something like this might happen, but not before I’d unpacked my suitcase. I dashed off a bewildered reply and got a response within the hour:
I REPEAT THAT I WILL NOT RELEASE ANY INTERVIEW. I HAVE TO WORK AND I HAVE NOT TIME AT ALL TO POLEMIZE WITH ENEMIES, COMPETITORS, ETC. THE RESULTS OF MY WORK WILL BE JUDGED BY THE CUSTOMERS, NOT BY THE CHATTERS.
I wrote back explaining that I’d come all the way to Bologna because I’d been told he might have something real and I wanted to see it for myself. Then I Googled the address of his Italian company, EFA, and drove into the medieval maze of central Bologna. I found Rossi’s office in an old three-story building on a narrow cobblestone street. It didn’t look like a place of business. I walked up to a counter in the lobby and spoke to a woman who scribbled my name on a slip of paper and took it into an adjacent room. She came back to tell me that Mr. Rossi was unavailable and would be leaving soon. I parked near the building’s garage entrance and sat there for three hours, swigging water. Rossi never materialized.
When I returned to the hotel, I had a new e-mail from Rossi. Apparently he’d rediscovered the caps lock key—a good sign. An informant had tipped him off that I was meeting with a “gang” of character assassins paid to slander him. (This was partly true. I’d arranged a meeting with a few LENR skeptics from nearby universities.) He also accused me of trying to pit him against his “enemies” in order to concoct a “thrilling” story line. We exchanged e-mails long into the night, but the result was the same—no interview.
The next morning, I received a brief e-mail from Rossi. “You have convinced me about your honesty,” he proclaimed. As my reward, he would grant me an interview. He scheduled it for the same day and hour I was supposed to meet with the skeptics.
Rossi’s factory is in a warehouse on the outskirts of Bologna, among a tidy cluster of low concrete buildings. He greeted me at the entrance, hand extended, his thinning hair swept back as if he’d spent the day cruising in a speedboat off Miami Beach. A pair of prescription glasses dangled around the collar of his bright red polo shirt.
“Excuse me if I made some problem yesterday,” Rossi said, pressing his palms together. “I had the persons very, very, very hostile, you know? And that’s why I was—let’s just forget it.”
He ushered me to the back of the warehouse, where a 10-kilowatt (kW) E-Cat module—about the size of a footstool and sheathed in aluminum foil—sat on a test bench. Rossi explained that it contained three stainless-steel reaction chambers, each about the size of a D-cell battery. Each chamber holds 100 grams of nickel powder, a small amount of hydrogen gas, and Rossi’s “secret catalyst.”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.