While waiting to see if Greece leaves the Eurozone, Spain collapses, and the Iranians can get their act together, it is a good time to discuss some of the recent developments on the Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) front. There is still no definitive word on whether commercial scale production of cheap and clean energy will be available in time to save us from unaffordable fossil fuels, global warming, economic collapse and whatever else seems destined to make life on earth rather uncomfortable, but claims of progress and circumstantial evidence that the phenomenon is for real continues to build.
For those of you who came in late, we are talking here about claims from roughly a dozen scientists, entrepreneurs, and small companies around the world that they are measuring heat being released in such quantities that it can only be from nuclear reactions. This occurs when they subject hydrogen loaded into various metals to heat or electromagnetic pulses. There are now so many organizations, some of which are highly reputable, reporting this phenomenon that we now seem to be past the stage of calling all these observations fraudulent or the result of improper measurements. Enough information has been released by the various experimenters to conclude that the effect being reported is not “conventional” nuclear fusion of deuterium atoms such as takes place in the sun or a hydrogen bomb and which requires extremely large amounts of energy to initiate.
The evidence that has been made public suggests that another cheaper, cleaner, and more effective way of converting hydrogen into helium exists, yielding several million times more energy than can be released from the combustion of similar amounts of fossil fuels. This of course is highly significant.
Last week a document was posted on the Internet by Dennis Bushnell, the Chief Scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center entitled “Low Energy Nuclear Reactions, the Realism, and the Outlook.” At the same time, a video was released revealing that among other developments NASA has a contract underway for a very preliminary design of an LENR powered space plane that can take off from a runway, power itself into space, and perhaps one day even fly to the stars. From NASA’s point of view this is the meaning of an energy source with millions of times the energy density than is available from combustion of various fuels. In the meantime, NASA is funding efforts to develop a less ambitious device that will provide the electric power for its spacecraft when they go beyond solar energy from the sun.
The most interesting aspect of Bushnell’s post on NASA’s web site is that it has received almost no attention outside of a small band following LENR developments. The post says flat out that the nuclear physicists were correct 20 years ago when they concluded that what was being called “cold fusion” simply could not happen in the conventional sense of the term. What the physicists missed at the time, and many still do, was that the anomalous heat that was being reported was not coming from some miraculous overcoming of the coulomb barrier in defiance of the laws of physics, but from a heretofore unknown reaction at the atomic scale that did not require large amounts of energy to initiate.
Bushnell reports that NASA is currently attempting to verify a new theory known as Widom-Larsen that may provide the theoretical basis for understanding how heat is produced. NASA is trying to validate (or not) the claims of the groups that say they have working devices that are producing 100s or even 1,000s of watts of energy through LENR. The current efforts of NASA’s Langley Research Center says that not only do their scientists believe the phenomenon is real but that it has the potential to reshape the relationship between man and his environment in much the way the Neolithic and Industrial Revolutions did in former times.
Many who have heard of LENR and the claims about its potential find the whole concept simply too good to be true and therefore believe it isn’t. The science’s very origins, which is one of small groups of researchers plugging away for years with almost laughable amounts of government and corporate support considering what is at stake, is not the way paradigm-shifting technologies are supposed to be invented. Most think of the multi-billion dollar Manhattan Project or the Apollo moon rocket as the way major technical advances take place. A lack of published “peer reviewed” theories bothers many people. It is a good thing Edison, the Wright brothers, and Marconi did not know that their inventions would not work with being reviewed by peers.
As of last week the U.S. Patent Office was still refusing to grant patents for any developments related to LENR on the grounds that the concept was out there somewhere with perpetual motion and unworthy of being blessed by a patent.
What is taking place is called, not always correctly, the Edisonian approach after Thomas Edison who invented the incandescent light bulb after thousands of trial and error experiments without a proper theoretical understanding of the chemistry and physics that make filaments glow. Many of those conducting the experiments say, “hey, it works – we can figure out just why later.” At least two organizations, NASA and Brillouin Energy, believe they have a theoretical insight into the quantum physics that is taking place in the reactions they are observing.
At this point all we can say is the field now has numerous players which will likely grow as the news spreads. As to the original question as to how soon we could see commercial applications that could reduce the use of fossil fuels, it is still too early to give an informed answer. But, from the available evidence, that day is moving closer all the time.
Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.