Events move quickly these days. Two weeks ago we were watching Bologna, Italy where an entrepreneur and a retired physics professor claimed to have discovered the Holy Grail of energy – cold fusion or as it is now known: Low Energy Nuclear Reactions. At the time, there was (and still is) widespread concern that the various demonstrations of an energy-producing devices were a scam as the developers, for commercial reasons, refused to give outsiders access to their inner workings.
If you are coming late to this story, the Italians’ “energy catalyzer” is a table-top-sized device containing powdered nickel known as the “reactor.” When hydrogen is introduced into the container and heat is applied, the device gets hotter and hotter so that the output of heat exceeds the input by so much that no known chemical reaction can be responsible for generating the heart. This leads to the conclusion that the hydrogen is fusing with the nickel producing energy similar to that coming from the sun or from the detonation of a hydrogen bomb.
Now so much energy coming from such a small and inexpensive device, in violation of what are thought to be the principles of physics, seems too good to be true. As this phenomenon had not been independently repeated and verified by other laboratories, many pronounced it a fraud, a few the greatest breakthrough of the age, and the rest of us remained agnostic while awaiting further developments.
They were not long in coming. Last week it was learned that George Miley, a Professor Emeritus of nuclear engineering at the University of Illinois who has been conducting experiments similar to those in Italy for many years, has been observing anomalous amounts of heat emanating from test equipment similar to that being used in Bologna. Miley has been experimenting with palladium-zirconium alloys, but says his experiments are producing so much heat that could only be coming from fusion of atomic nuclei. Unlike the Italian experiments which are aimed at developing a proprietary commercial product, the Illinois experiments are being conducting under the auspices of a state university with details of the experiments being made known as soon as possible. At a university the aim of scientific research is to win a Nobel Prize, or at least academic prestige, not to make money.
While a second report does not adequately confirm that heat-producing, low-energy nuclear reactions are a real phenomenon, it is does seem to reduce the likelihood of fraud on the part of a single man or organization. Furthermore it increases the possibility that we could be witnessing the early stages of what could be one of the greatest scientific discoveries in human history – production of unlimited amounts of cheap, pollution-free energy.
We could be witnessing the early stages of one of the greatest scientific discoveries in human history.
Let’s suspend our disbelief for a few moments that anything too-good-to-be-true ever happens anymore, and pretend that these reports really do portend the age of low energy nuclear fusion; that within decades energy shortages will be a thing of the past; and every person on earth could, and I say could advisedly, be blessed with unlimited amounts of cheap energy.
The problem for now, of course, is getting from here to there. Most of you likely have noticed that the world is beset with an abnormal amount of trouble at the minute – the EU financial system is coming unstuck; many think that the fabled “double-dip” recession (depression?) is only weeks away; governance of the US is in near gridlock; global warming’s droughts and floods have many hungry, dying of thirst, or standing in water up to their armpits; world oil production is on course to starting dropping within the next few years; and there are now seven billion of us running around with the UN projecting we could number 15 billion by the end of the century.
For now all we have are some promising laboratory experiments and a handful of prototypes. It is starting to look as if there could be many ways of making heat by getting hydrogen to fuse with metal at low temperatures. Sorting out which method would be best, even one to get started with, is likely to take some time. Then somebody needs to tell the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that we would like to install some 100 million or so nuclear reactors, albeit small ones, in our buildings.
Then there are the rice bowls that would have to be broken. Somebody will have to tell OPEC, Exxon, the power companies, coal mines, and gas well frackers that we won’t be needing their services anymore and that they should get into some other line of work. This, of course, raises the possibility that the Congress, under pressure from lobbyists, chambers, and unemployed constituents, outlaws fusion reactors under one pretext or another – no matter how well and cheaply they might work. The point of all this is to say that there could be considerable resistance to the advent of cheap, clean energy that will inevitably upset many apple carts even if it promises to save mankind from extinction by an ever-warming climate.
There is another side of this story however. Much of the world is desperate (or soon will be) for affordable energy. Japan and the EU have little or no indigenous supplies of fossil fuels remaining and are backing away from conventional nuclear power as too dangerous. Even the Chinese are catching on that too much carbon in the air can be hazardous to your economic well-being. Europe, Japan, Korea, India, and China are not incompetent in technological matters. Nor are they as susceptible to pressures from the old order seeking to preserve its ways of making money.
If the current experiments are repeatable and the technology is viable, cold fusion is likely to go viral very quickly with thousands of laboratories and corporations around the world rushing for a piece of the next Internet. The next year or so could tell us a lot about the course of civilization in coming decades.
Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.