National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: E=mc2

There have been some interesting developments in the cold fusion, or the now-preferred name Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR), story in the last couple of weeks that are worth noting. For the last 20 years a small band of ill-funded scientists have been laboring away at combining either palladium or nickel with hydrogen in an effort to produce heat. After hundreds of experiments, each varying some parameter or other, a number of scientists say they can produce heat in reproducible experiments. Because of the bad name acquired 20 years ago after many labs were unable to reproduce the effects seen in the Utah “cold fusion” experiments, developments in the field have been slow and gone largely unreported except in highly technical circles.

At last count, however, there were approximately 200 technical papers either published or given at conferences reporting that anomalous amounts of heat were developed during efforts to fuse palladium or nickel with hydrogen or deuterium. The lack of publicity in recent years has been that while heat can now be reliably produced at will, no one has yet come up with an agreed-upon theory as to just what is happening at the atomic level. Without such a theory, mainstream science remains locked into the position that there is something wrong with the experiments. It is held that either the experimenters are not making their measurements of excess heat properly or the claims are fraudulent.

One of the better-known researchers in the field, Mike McKubre of SRI, reports that after 20 years and hundreds of experiments he now knows that getting palladium and deuterium to react is rather difficult to do. Six experimental parameters must be met exactly before a heat-producing reaction occurs. This, or course, explains why the investigators back in 1989 were unable to reproduce anything that looked like a nuclear reaction and therefore pronounced the phenomenon as a fraud.

For 20 years the matter rested with slow progress and no accepted theory as to just what phenomenon was producing the anomalous heat and more importantly no theoretical basis for scaling-up laboratory experiments into a useful technology. Earlier this year, however, an entrepreneur in Italy reported that after several years of experiments, which in turn were based on earlier experiments by Italian scientists, he was now able to produce commercial quantities of heat by reacting nickel and hydrogen.

Now this was all very nice, accept that at first few believed his claim. Andrea Rossi is a businessman, not an academic – he wants to make some money from his purported discovery as did Thomas Edison from the light bulb. Moreover, as he was been unable to adequately patent his device, for the time being he says he is not about to share the details of his discovery with the world. He maintained, and still does, that so long as large amounts of heat are being produced from a chamber the size of a flashlight battery, with no ill-effects on the environment, the inner workings of the device do not matter for now. The shouts of “fraud” were deafening and to this day still ricochet across the Internet as most of the mainstream media are afraid to get involved in the dispute.

The current status of the story is that despite a considerable amount of circumstantial evidence that under the proper conditions nickel and hydrogen in the presence of a catalyst will react to produce heat, there is still no definitive proof verified by reliable outside experimenters that the phenomenon is for real. A month ago Rossi sold the first of his reactors to what he hints is a component of the US Defense Department. If these hints are true, and given the mounting concern within DoD that there may not be adequate fuel for its planes, ships and vehicles in coming decades, it is difficult not to imagine that right now the best U.S. scientists that money can buy are working day and night to determine the science behind reacting nickel with hydrogen.

Given what we currently understand about the phenomenon, many close observers do not believe that LENR is nuclear fusion in the traditional sense but is some new and as yet ill-understood reaction. Much of the barrage of criticism from ill-informed scientists focusses on the fact that Rossi and other experimenters are not observing large quantities of deadly gamma radiation coming from their experiments nor are they observing the residual isotopes one would expect from a fusion reaction.

He maintained, and still does, that so long as large amounts of heat are being produced from a chamber the size of a flashlight battery, with no ill-effects on the environment, the inner workings of the device do not matter for now.

For now those knowledgeable of the LENR phenomenon are looking at it as source of heat that might allow small, inexpensive reactors to warm and provide electricity for buildings. Some are suggesting that LENR reactors would make a good substitute for coal, gas and nuclear fission reactors in electric power plants. Last week, however, NASA, under the pressure of an FOIA request, released the power points from an internal presentation in which three of its senior scientists discussed the nature of LENR and its impacts on space and air travel. It should be remembered that these NASA scientists are not outsiders, but have been funding LENR research in the US and have had continuing discussions with Rossi and other scientists working in the field for many years.

Skipping over the complex theoretical concepts behind LENR, NASA’s Joseph Zawodny concludes that LENR is indeed a form of nuclear power, but not what is commonly thought of as “cold fusion.” Zawodny believes that the transformation of one element into another is consistent with neutron absorption as other scientists claim. He goes on to point out that under one theory of what is happening, decay products of the reaction are turned into heat and gamma rays are screened out. In comparing the energy output of LENR to fission, conventional fusion, and chemical reactions, Zawodny notes that LENR is theoretically capable of producing 8 million times as much energy as a comparable chemical reaction. This of course explains why a very slow reaction can produce a lot of heat while consuming only minimal amounts of hydrogen and nickel.

The ramifications that NASA foresees for this technology can best be termed breathtaking. It is seen as eventually being scalable from cell phones to space ships. It has no radiation or greenhouse gas problems. It is cheap and is seen as a “total replacement for fossil fuels” except that being used as feed stocks for synthetic organic chemistry. The technology is seen as a “singular solution to peak oil, climate change, fresh water, and associated geopolitical instabilities.” Perhaps the most far reaching conclusion is that LENR will help us get off this “rock.” Now we know that NASA’s hidden agenda of taking us to the stars could be made possible by LENR. That is something to think about.




Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.