National Commentary

The Great Energy Transition: Cold Fusion Strikes Back!

It has been nearly 30 years since two chemists at the University of Utah announced, somewhat prematurely, that they had discovered a reaction producing so much excess heat it could only be coming from some form of nuclear fusion. For a short period, the announcement was headline news, and many rushed to repeat the experiment. Unfortunately, reproducing the reaction turned out to be far more difficult than it seemed and only a few experimenters could detect what came to be known as “anomalous heat” from their experiments. A government panel quickly produced a report saying that fusion reactions at low temperature were scientifically impossible and the excitement was over. The discoverers of the reaction, Martin Fleischman and Stanley Pons, were driven from the country in disgrace, denounced as incompetents or charlatans and the concept of “cold fusion” quickly became synonymous with junk science.

However, a handful of scientists kept experimenting with the technology and in a decade or so understood the conditions needed to repeat the reaction. Ten years ago, a handful experimenters were displaying devices that could reproduce small amounts of heat on demand, but it would take another decade of experiments and engineering before practical energy producing devices based on the energy in hydrogen came onto the horizon. Among the experimenters was an Italian inventor, Andrea Rossi, who back in 2001 displayed a device to the media that could produce steam. As conventional wisdom said no such thing was possible, for the most part, the media ignored the announcement or speculated about how the parlor trick was accomplished.

Last week, and eight years after his first announcement that he was making progress, Andrea Rossi streamed a presentation showing a working cold fusion (now called Low Energy Nuclear Reaction) device on a customer’s premises. He announced that he is now ready to take orders to lease the device in the United States, Sweden and Japan. As was to be expected from the secretive Rossi, the customer was not named, and many details of the device and its capabilities have yet to be revealed. While the heat-producing device will be installed on a customer’s premises, it will be sealed and controlled remotely by Rossi’s company. The customer will pay only the installation costs and for the heat consumed. The policy of retaining ownership of the device and only selling the energy seems to be the way energy from this type of device will be marketed as Rossi’s major competitors have announced similar plans. Someday, when there are less concerns about intellectual property rights, this policy will change as the devices themselves seem to be rather easy and cheap to produce.

During the recent presentation, Rossi displayed a device about the size of a bedside table that will produce 22 kilowatts of energy while consuming about 380 watts to control and cool the system. He says it will run for at least a year on a fuel load. As the device is controlled over the internet and requires a local source of power for its control and cooling systems, a customer must have a backup available in the event of internet or power failure. In return, the customer receives heat at 20 percent or more (for larger installations) below local rates. Inside the device, there is a cylindrical reactor about four inches in diameter and four inches in length which produces the energy; the rest of the three-foot cabinet is for the control and cooling systems. Input and output pipes circulate the heated fluid to heat exchangers for whatever use a customer has such as space heating, food processing, etc.

If it is confirmed that Rossi’s device works as claimed, it represents the beginning of the next energy age. However, it likely will be at least a year, with reports from satisfied users of the device before we can be assured that it works as advertised and the world starts to take notice of what is happening.

Rossi’s Leonardo Corp is only one of three US firms that say they are close to having a similar energy producing device ready for market. Brillouin Energy of Berkeley, Ca. says it has developed a device with output power of 50 to 60 watts, with a coefficient of power of 2.25. Brillouin was recently awarded a patent for its “Hydrogen Hot Tube” reactor system by the European Union Patent Office. Brillouin’s COP still seems to be well behind that claimed by Rossi; however, we are only at the beginning of the next energy age and these technologies could change rapidly.

Another significant competitor for Rossi is Randell Mills of Brilliant Light Power (BLP) located in Cranbury, NJ. BLP’s technology is based on it discovery of an ultra-low energy state of the hydrogen atom which BLP calls a hydrino. In theory, Mills has a far more powerful technology than does Rossi or Brillouin with energy gains on the order of 200 to 500 times the input power. Two years ago, BLP seemed close to releasing prototypes for outside testing, but ran into problems automating the device. Since then BLP has redirected its immediate goals in order to reduce the costs of production for a heat producing device and to develop a device with a magnetohydrodynamic subsystem to produce electricity efficiently. BLP is no longer making projections as to when they will have a device ready for outside testing but do release quarterly progress reports which suggest they are making good progress.

Heat and electricity are simply commodities. Outside of the ability to be delivered reliably, safely, and in the necessary quantities, the only parameter for heat and electricity that counts is cost. These new technologies have trivial fuel costs and very low capital costs. Brilliant Light for example says that its capital cost estimated will be around $50 per kW versus $3,400 for solar installations and has estimated that operational costs could be as low as $0.10 per kilowatt-hour. If low capital and operating costs are coupled with zero environmental pollution, the likelihood that these technologies will replace existing means of producing energy should be unquestioned.