The Promise of Controlled Nuclear Fusion – Part III

Part II concluded on a rather pessimistic note for Andrea Rossi’s Energy Catalyser – E-Cat – that it cannot be producing the reported net energy gains by any process yet known to Physics. However, there may be a degree of “wriggle-room” in the whole concept to sustain our hopes of it yet being a turning point in world history. Make no mistake – it would literally save the world! Greenhouse gas emissions from coal and oil burning would wind down and Global Warming would stop increasing. Oil would continue to be needed for lubrication, petrochemicals and aviation but would otherwise cease to be the hidden cause of many conflicts.

One fundamental point should be made at the outset: that it is perfectly valid to report observations and measurements which do not seemingly conform with current scientific theory. In fact, it is a vital part of the Scientific Method. Without it, the world would still believe that heavy objects fall faster in a vacuum than light ones, that the earth is flat, that the universe rotates around it and literally thousand of other false ideas which observation and experiment have refuted. Modern science only began when people finally decided to test and measure things rather than take the word of an ancient Greek philosopher, such as Aristotle. The first man to do this and get noticed doing so was, of course, Galileo. While he probably didn’t drop a heavy and a light cannonball from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, he might as well have because it would have captured the whole essence of testing an existing hypothesis and finding it wanting.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century, where some scientists are again sounding far too much like Aristotle – they refuse to accept any observation that seemingly violates the current laws of Physics! Now let’s be clear: It is perfectly fair to be skeptical about any such reported observations. Skepticism is one of the essential tools in the Scientist’s toolbox. At its core are Rudyard Kipling’s Six Honest Serving Men: What, Why, When, How, Where and Who. All observations and experiments must be subjected to questions which boil down to the above six. However, what is not remotely fair is to reject contrary evidence out of hand. This is apparently what all “respectable” scientific journals to date have done with Rossi’s and others’ reports and also what the US Patent Office has done. They are effectively saying that they don’t even intend to evaluate the evidence because it contradicts the so called “Laws of Physics” as of 2011! They apparently haven’t noticed that modern Physics is at the crossroads and to see that you only need to ask what  Dark Matter and Dark Energy really are, whether the Higgs Boson exists and whether neutrinos can exceed the speed of light or not.

So, having conceded that rigorous observations and measurements have a “right to exist”, whether they conform to the latest scientific fashion or not, let us re-visit Cold Fusion. Remember that Martin Fleischmann, and Stanley Pons were focused on deuterium-deuterium reactions by means of electrochemical loading of deuterons into palladium. One of Fleischmann’s best students was Michael McKubre. Almost a Ronin after the “slaying” of his master, McKubre and others set to work restoring Fleischmann’s honour and advancing his and Pons’ work. Recently, McKubre gave an hour long public lecture at Café Scientifique Silicon Valley which presented an overview of all their findings. What Happened to Cold Fusion is an absolute “must-see”! It appears in 9 portions on You Tube, starting here.

As you’ll see from the videos, McKubre and co have certainly done some excellent work. That work has been peer reviewed and published many times over. As McKubre says a number of times in the video – the problem is not that there is no theory of cold fusion but that there are far too many! McKubre makes only passing mention of Andrea Rossi towards the end of his lecture and sounds much the same cautionary note that many others have about his rather chequered past and the much greater energy gains that the E-Cat claims.

Rossi’s approach differs significantly from McKubre’s in that it uses pressurised hydrogen gas on fine nickel powder in the presence of a secret catalyst. As McKubre rather wistfully notes, this is a much simpler, more direct method – if it is sound! If McKubre’s approach resembles a long game of chess, with each move carefully researched and explored beforehand, Rossi is playing high stakes poker! Does he have a winning hand or will the likes of Defkalion, his former colleagues,  reveal an equal or better one? Then again, is Rossi simply bluffing?

To help us discount the latter possibility, one of the leading theories of cold fusion cited above is that of Widom and Larsen. At the core of their approach is the fact that, while a proton would, indeed, need to climb the Coulomb barrier, a neutron – having no electrical charge – would not. Neutrons have a “free pass” into the nuclei of most atoms and are a popular choice for bombarding particle in low energy nuclear scattering experiments for that reason.

The Widom-Larsen Theory nonetheless requires us to make further leaps of faith – that neutrons can be easily created by an as yet unproven surface effect, that they are immediately all absorbed by the nickel and that no gamma rays or harmful particles result from the reaction or, at least, can escape from the chamber. Not surprisingly, physicists question all these assumptions and again ask for the supporting evidence.

The Rossi faithful would also like to see a peer-reviewed theoretical basis for the E-Cat but their bottom line is that anyone in the world can now order an E-Cat – or at least go on the waiting list on Rossi’s new, official website. Equally devout cynics continue to maintain that the whole thing is scam, partly because Rossi says he is not ready for a full academic investigation of his technology because he doesn’t yet have full patent protection. However, as the Dean of Science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Robert Tamarin, said: “That’s consistent with it not working, but it’s also consistent with it working very well”.

Something tells me that 2012 will be a very pivotal year!

P. W. Power

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