The Miraculous Machine
November 14, 2014
Governments and universities have spent billions trying to create a new source of safe, clean endless energy. Has a lone inventor beat them to it?
This story is not about politics. It’s about a little hand-made machine that is stirring attention – and controversy – in the world of energy physics, and why you’ve never heard of it.
In its most recent iteration, the machine produced enough energy to meet the electric power needs of an average U.S. household for 1-1/2 months, fueled by less than a teaspoonful of metallic powder. It accomplished this without emitting any nuclear radiation and left behind no radioactive waste.
Nobel prize-winning physicist Brian Josephson has said it “may well be the most important technological advance of the century.”
Dennis Bushnell, the highly respected chief scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center, has called it “capable of, by itself, completely changing geo-economics, geo-politics, and solving climate issues.”
So why haven’t you heard of it?
Some background is necessary, but bear with me; it will be worth it.
All of today’s nuclear power plants operate by fission. Fission is the splitting of large atoms into their component parts. Splitting an atom releases the energy which held the atom together. This energy takes the form of heat, which is then directed at boilers to produce steam. The steam then pushes against the vanes of large turbines. The resulting rotation is transferred to electric generators.
Atomic fission creates a self-sustaining chain reaction. An atom’s nucleus is made of protons and neutrons. When neutrons are sent crashing into the nuclei of unstable massive atoms (such as uranium), the nuclei rupture, shooting out more neutrons, which in turn crash into more nuclei. An uncontrolled chain reaction produces an explosion – the atom bomb. But the process is controllable. By inserting movable rods of non-fissionable material (such as boron) into the fissile material, the chain reaction can be slowed or sped up at will.
Nuclear fission power plants have several well-known disadvantages. They produce radioactive waste, which must be stored in a secure and stable location for many years. Accidents, such as the Japanese Fukishima plant explosion, can release large quantities of toxic material into the surrounding environment.
Fusion is the opposite of fission. Very light atoms – hydrogen – are forced together, overcoming the force that normally keeps them apart, and releasing the energy of that force. The Sun (and all stars) are powered by fusion. It takes enormous heat and pressure to overcome the atoms’ resistance to fusing. In stars, that pressure is supplied by gravity. In the hydrogen bomb, heat and pressure is initially supplied by a carefully shaped atom bomb, which sets off a self-sustaining fusion chain reaction within the hydrogen bomb.
Fusion produces much less radioactive waste than fission, and its radioactivity diminishes much more rapidly. The possibility of an accident releasing radioactive substances is virtually nil; if anything goes wrong, the reaction simply shuts down. The amount of fuel is minuscule compared to a fission reactor.
Unlike the fission process, no one has yet found a way to create a controlled fusion chain reaction that produces more energy than it consumes. But if we could, the payoff would be world-changing. A small amount of fuel would produce a huge amount of power, safely.
But fusion requires tremendous heat and pressure – 90 million degrees Celsius. And controlling the fusion process at these temperatures has so far proved elusive, mainly because in order to control it, it must be contained in space; if the fuel touches any part of the reactor, the fusion fails.
The dream of fusion-based power plants has induced governments, universities and consortiums to build huge, expensive machines to test various methods of creating and controlling a sustained fusion reaction. The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore in California cost $4 billion. The K demo reactor in South Korea is budgeted at $941 million. The International Thermonuclear Experiment Reactor (“ITER”) under development in France has been estimated to run at least $21 billion, if, indeed, it is ever completed. These are just a sample of the many test machines constructed over the last fifty years. Not one of them has yet produced sustained “net power” – i.e., more power coming out than is going in.
In the spring of 1989, two chemistry professors, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann held a news conference to announce that they had achieved fusion in a jar of water at room temperature. More heat had come out than had been put in, they claimed. This announcement of “cold fusion” made headlines throughout the world.
But it also set off an immediate controversy in the scientific world, for it violated two principles that are near sacred in that world: new discoveries are normally vetted and announced in peer-reviewed journals, not news conferences. And the key test of the validity of any new scientific discovery is reproducability by other scientists, which had yet to be tried in this case.
The mainstream media was mostly ignorant of these principles and when the two well-credentialed chemists announced that they had created cold fusion, this seemed sufficient to most editors and it became a front page story in major newspapers and the cover story in Time, Newsweek and Business Week magazines.
Meanwhile, scientists rushed to replicate the Pons-Fleischmann results at laboratories around the world. Some of them had more sensitive instruments than Pons and Fleischmann. None of them could replicate the results previously announced by Pons and Fleischmann. In a matter of months, the physics community denounced the two chemists for sloppy measurements and a failed experiment. At a national gathering of physicists, the cold fusion experiment was called the result of “the incompetence and delusion of Pons and Fleischmann.”
The media reacted angrily; they felt conned by Pons and Fleischmann. Almost gleefully, they ran the mainstream physicists’ vehement denunciations of the two chemists and their experiment. “Cold fusion” was soon dead and buried, along with the careers of Pons and Fleischmann.
And it has stayed buried, as far as both the mainstream media and mainstream physicists are concerned, ever since. Nobody interested in researching cold fusion was able to get funding, or to publish in respected scientific journals.
And yet there were a few who persevered. Looking at the data reported by Pons and Fleischmann, they saw at least some evidence that the experiment had succeeded. Why no one had been able to replicate the results was troubling, but no reason to give up.
And so they kept experimenting, often financing their work from private benefactors. By 2004, it was estimated that no more than 200 people in the world were researching cold fusion, in Japan, India, Italy and the United States.
The strange thing was that sometimes they achieved positive results – they saw evidence of a small energy surplus beyond what was input– but more often they failed. Some experimenters even found that one cell was producing net energy while other cells on the same table, and constructed exactly the same way, would not. No one could figure out why.
With the advent of the Internet, they could at least communicate with each other and the world. They began publishing their results on websites and in their own e-journals (non-peer reviewed).
One of these researchers was Andrea Rossi, an Italian inventor/entrepreneur with a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Milan. After much experimentation, Rossi had built a device which he believed was producing large quantities of net energy. He called his device the E-cat, short for Energy Catalyzer.
In 2007, Rossi contacted Bologna University physics Professor Emeritus Sergio Focardi with an intriguing proposition: “I will give you a prize [Rossi has never disclosed the amount] if you can show me that what I have done is wrong and does not work”.
Prof. Focardi accepted the challenge. He put the device through its paces in his own laboratory, carefully measuring the energy going in and the energy coming out. He could find no flaw.
Andrea Rossi had experienced a checkered career. In the ’80s, he had invented a machine he claimed to transform waste into oil, but all it created was a toxic sludge. He was subsequently arrested in Italy for the allegedly false bankruptcy of his company, and apparently spent some time in jail, but was released without a conviction.
There were those who thought Rossi a con man, and this impression was reinforced by his penchant for secrecy. He released only his self-reported results and declined to reveal the internal workings of the E-Cat, thus making any attempt at replication impossible.
Then, in February of 2014, Rossi did something unexpected. He handed over an E-Cat to a group of distinguished scientists* to perform an independent test. The device Rossi delivered was rather unprepossessing; it was a metal tube about eight inches long with a cap on each end, and wires going into the caps. It looked like a pipe bomb.
The team of scientists set up instruments to carefully measure the energy going into the little reactor and the energy coming out of it. They set up monitoring devices to ensure that no one tampered with the E-Cat during the test.
Rossi brought with him a small envelope containing one gram of metallic powder. This was the fuel for the E-Cat. The scientists subjected the fuel to extensive analysis. They found that it consisted mainly of nickel and lithium, with some iron, aluminum and hydrogen compounds.
The test was subject to several conditions, or restrictions. Rossi’s main restriction was that the scientists could not examine the E-Cat’s interior; it was to be operated as a “black box”. Rossi required this because the E-Cat’s design is a trade secret, which has not yet been patented. The scientists’ restrictions were that Rossi would not be permitted to participate in the test, except to insert the fuel, power up the E-Cat, shut it down at the end of the test, and withdraw the spent fuel. For each of these operations he would be under close observation by members of the team.
The little reactor was powered up on February 25 and run continuously for 32 days, monitored at all times by the various instruments, whose readings were recorded. After shutdown the fuel ash was removed and analyzed again.
The results of the test were:
- During its 32 days of operation on one gram of fuel the E-Cat produced 1.5 megawatt-hours watt-hours more energy (“net energy”) than was put into it. This is enough to meet the power needs of an average U.S. household for 1-1/2 months.
- The E-Cat produced no atomic radiation during its operation.
- The E-Cat’s spent fuel was not radioactive; i.e., there was no “atomic waste”.
- The spent fuel was not merely chemically altered from the E-Cat’s operation; it was atomically altered. A significant portion of the nickel and lithium in the fuel was a different isotope** than the nickel and lithium that had been inserted before the operation. This means that the E-Cat’s energy output was powered by a nuclear process.
In their report*** the scientists expressed their astonishment:
“In summary, the performance of the E-Cat reactor is remarkable. We have a device giving heat energy compatible with nuclear transformations, but it operates at low energy and gives neither nuclear radioactive waste nor emits radiation. From basic general knowledge in nuclear physics this should not be possible. Nevertheless we have to relate to the fact that the experimental results from our test show heat production beyond chemical burning, and that the E-Cat fuel undergoes nuclear transformations.”
No one except Rossi and his partners know the E-Cat’s internal construction. Most significantly, no one including Rossi and his partners know what nuclear processes are taking place inside the E-Cat. Outside scientists tend to use the phrase “cold fusion” for whatever is going on inside the E-Cat, but Rossi himself no longer uses it. Some nuclear physicists have expressed skepticism that any nuclear process could release so much energy without spewing dangerous radiation.
Is it a fraud? Well, something produced 1.5 megawatts of energy and something changed the isotopic structure of the nuclei, all while under close and continuous observation.
But to the mainstream media this is just another attempt at “cold fusion”, a discredited “pathological science”, and it appears that this, as well as Rossi’s background, have kept them away from the story.
Which is why you read it here first.
*Bo Höistad, a nuclear physicist and professor at the University of Uppsala; Lars Tegnér
professor at Department of Engineering Sciences, Division of Electricity, University of Uppsala; Roland Pettersson, retired associate professor of chemistry at University of Uppsala; Hanno Essén, associate professor of theoretical physics and a lecturer at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology; Giuseppe Levi, Assistant Professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Bologna University; Torbjörn Hartman, Senior Research Engineer,: The Svedberg Laboratory
**Isotope: Every atom is made of a nucleus surrounded by clouds of electrons. The electrons possess a negative electric charge. The nucleus is made of protons and neutrons. The neutrons are electrically “neutral”, which means they have no electric charge. But the protons have a positive electric charge, which is what binds the electrons into the atom. The number of protons is always the same as the number of electrons, so the electric charges balance. In fact, every element is defined by this number, which is called its “atomic number”.
The situation is different for the neutrons. For any given element most, but not all, of its atoms have the same number of neutrons as the number of protons. However, a very small percentage of atoms have a different number of neutrons than protons. This makes that atom lighter or heavier than its peers, but it is still an atom of the same element. It is regarded as a different “isotope” of that element. Thus, for example, most of the uranium found in nature is isotope 238; meaning there are 238 neutons in its nucleus. But a small portion of uranium has 235 neutons, or isotope 235. One type of atomic bomb is made of this “uranium 235”, which may be separated out of natural uranium by turning the uranium into a gas and spinning it in a centrifuge, so the lighter atoms separate from the heavier ones. That is why the U.S. And Israel sabotaged Iranian centrifuges a few years ago.
*** The report is available at: http://www.sifferkoll.se/sifferkoll/wpcontent/uploads/2014/10/LuganoReportSubmit.pdf
Lawrence M. Glazer is the author of Wounded Warrior, a biography of former governor and Supreme Court justice John Swainson, and winner of theIndependent Publisher gold medal in biography. He is also a retired Ingham County Circuit Court Judge and former legal advisor to Gov. James J. Blanchard. He currently serves on the State Board of Ethics.