“Between cold fusion and respectable science there is virtually no communication at all. …because the Cold-Fusioners see themselves as a community under siege, there is little internal criticism. Experiments and theories tend to be accepted at face value, for fear of providing even more fuel for external critics, if anyone outside the group was bothering to listen. In these circumstances, crackpots flourish, making matters worse for those who believe that there is serious science going on here.” -David Goodstein
I’m going to tell you a story that starts back in 1770, before not only the idea of nuclear fusion, but before atomic nuclei or even the modern theory of atoms existed. Instead, our story starts with the very first chess-playing automaton, Wolfgang von Kempelen‘s Turk.
Nearly two centuries before the invention of the modern computer, the Turk was able to play a very strong game of chess, winning most of its games and defeating all but the world’s very top players at the time. Immediately, of course, it was believed to be a hoax, but many exhibitions of the machine seemed to prove it genuine, and the machine seemed to display not only remarkable chess skill, but also the ability to detect false moves. As one (defeated) opponent observed, his attempt at cheating,
“by giving the Queen the move of a Knight, but my mechanic opponent was not to be so imposed upon; he took up my Queen and replaced her in the square from which I had moved her.”
The Turk — which would have been the ultimate steampunk invention — required cranking, and would cause a machine-cranking sound inside. In addition to the lower drawers, which contained a chessboard and pieces, there were six doors, three on the front and three on the back. Behind the left door, as shown above, was a set of interlocking metal gears, which turned after being wound. Behind the right two was a red cushion and open space, so that all doors could be opened and one could see clearly through the Turk.
After defeating all but the strongest regional competition, the Turk was taken around Europe, where it played in a great many exhibitions, including one against the strongest player of the day, Andre Philidor, who — although victorious — called it “his most fatiguing game of chess ever!”
But the gears on the left and the drawers on the bottom were false; they only extended a third of the way back, allowing the operator — who was hidden inside — to slip to an unseen position when the rightmost two doors were opened. The Turk was, in fact, not an automaton, but a very well-designed machine, driven by a human operator inside.
But it was not until the 1820s that the fraud was uncovered, and it would literally not be for 200 years after the Turk’s first match that a truly automated program could play chess at the level of the Turk. Keep this story in the back of your mind, now, as we switch gears to a much more modern puzzle.
Much more pressing, today, is the problem of needing a clean, safe, and affordable source of energy. Of all the options available, the most ideal (and the one with perhaps the most potential) is nuclear fusion.
The primary source of energy in the Sun, nuclear fusion is the release of energy that happens when the atomic nuclei of lighter elements fuse together into heavier ones. Nuclear fusion, unlike our current terrestrial source of nuclear power — nuclear fission — involves no radioactive waste and no threat of a meltdown.
Couple that with the incredible efficiency of nuclear power, and it’s no wonder that it’s viewed as the holy grail of energy. The principle behind nuclear fusion is incredibly simple.
The most stable element in the periodic table is Iron-56. If you have an element that’s significantly more massive than Iron-56, you can generally cleave it apart, producing lighter, more stable elements, and releasing energy: that’s nuclear fission. (For some elements, that process is so energetically favorable that it occurs spontaneously: that’s radioactivity!) Fusion is just the opposite: taking lighter elements and joining them together, creating more stable elements and releasing energy. We should note that the Sun takes protons and — in a chain reaction — builds them up into Helium-4, which converts about 0.7% of its mass into energy via E = mc2. While this isn’t all that much for a single atom’s reaction, when you realize that 1038 protons do this in the Sun every second, it adds up to a tremendous release of energy.
So how do we make it happen — in a controlled fashion (not like this) — on Earth? There are three approaches generally taken towards this goal.
One is to take a frozen pellet of isotopes of hydrogen — deuterium and tritium — and compress (and heat) them by bombarding them with ultra-energetic particles or lasers. If the bombardment is sufficiently energetic, you can produce temperatures and energies sufficient for nuclear fusion; this method is known as inertial confinement fusion.
The second, instead, uses magnetic confinement of very hot plasmas, in donut-shaped reactors like the one shown above. At the intense temperatures achieved inside, controlled nuclear fusion can be achieved, just as it can for inertial confinement.
The problem with both of these methods is that both of them require a larger energy input to make the fusion happen in the first place than they give off through the fusion reaction. Until the energy out exceeds the energy you put into it — but not by so much that it blows your reactor apart — it isn’t a useful machine. Throughout the past three decades, these two methods have inched ever closer to the break-even point, with magnetic confinement currently (slightly) in the lead.
And most recently, there’s a new method that combines both of these two methods: Magnetized Target Fusion, which I once wrote a bit about here. Again, it hasn’t reached the break-even point, but it’s got quite a bit of potential.
But all throughout the news, if you’ve been paying attention over the past year, there have been reports that cold fusion has been achieved, and may be the ultimate solution to the energy crisis.
Those of you who know your history may remember back in 1989 that a team of scientists — Fleischmann and Pons — claimed to have achieved nuclear fusion at room temperatures through an electro-chemical process: cold fusion. This would be fantastic, of course, because it would mean that huge energy outputs (on the nuclear scale) could be achieved with only small energy inputs (on the electro-chemical scale, which is about 100,000 times lower), a clearly revolutionary discovery!
Unfortunately, their results were hugely flawed, and their experiments were not reproducible, and cold fusion is now synonymous with ideas like perpetual motion machines: very appealing promises of virtually limitless energy, but that are unfortunately physically impossible.
Now, that’s not necessarily fair. While perpetual motion machines would violate known physical phenomena — like the conservation of energy — cold fusion is, in principle possible. If we go back to the Sun, where nuclear fusion definitely occurs, it isn’t like the temperatures there are sufficient to cause the individual nuclei to overcome their mutual electric repulsion and fuse together. Instead, something else remarkable happens to the two nuclei that are about to fuse.
Remember that instead of being solid particles, these nuclei are quantum mechanical objects, meaning they act both as particles and waves. The quantum mechanical wavefunctions of these nuclei — in the Sun, at any rate — wind up overlapping, so that there’s a small but finite (and important) probability that two of them will find themselves in a more energetically favorable state! When that happens, they can tunnel into that energetically favorable state, and fusion can occur!
Now, this has never been observed at cold temperatures, but from a theoretical physics standpoint, it may be possible. (In other words, don’t be so quick to dismiss the idea out of hand.) So, with all this in mind, what does one make of the recent headlines?
With reports coming in from all over the web, including Wired, MSNBC, Sweden’s NYTeknik, Bloomberg TV, Wired (again), and many other sources, inventor Andrea Rossi’s cold fusion device — known as the e-cat, or energy catalyzer — has been exhibited at a few semi-public demonstrations, and has been observed to put out nuclear-scale energies with only electro-chemical-scale energy inputs. In particular, he claims that enriched nickel is being fused with hydrogen nuclei to create copper, and release large amounts of energy. If true, that would, in fact, be nuclear fusion! And a confirmed, controlled test of this would be spectacular, and an incredible cause for celebration.
Rossi has been awfully secretive about the e-cat, and all of the “demonstrations” performed are awfully suspicious to me. What do I mean? Just a sampling:
- Rossi has never published a peer-reviewed paper on how his device works, either theoretically or experimentally.
- There are only very rough schematics publicly available, and they are all from the Journal of Nuclear Physics, which is Andrea Rossi’s own private journal. But doesn’t Journal of Nuclear Physics sound reputable? Not quite: it was founded just last year, in 2010. Don’t confuse it with the real journal, which is simply Nuclear Physics.
- Andrea Rossi had a company in the 1980s, Petroldragon, which claimed to turn garbage into oil. Sound too-good-to-be-true? Andrea Rossi went to jail for this scam, although he gives his own version of the events.
- The first reactor, scheduled to be built for Defkalion in Greece, was mysteriously cancelled at the last minute by Rossi. Although initially no explanation was given, he recently made this (perhaps foolhardy) statement:
Talking of Defkalion, Andrea Rossi says that he led the company a false trail. They took the bait, thinking that he would be selling small eCats in October. In doing so, it wrong-footed them and upset their plans to present a fake version of the same.
- No one observing these tests has ever been allowed to “look inside the Turk,” so to speak. In other words, no one — other than Rossi himself — has any idea what the internal design and mechanism that result in the claimed nuclear fusion (and energy production) actually is.
Well, what do you think?
Yeah, me too. Look, if you’re going to make an extraordinary claim, like that you’ve discovered cold fusion, then you’ve got to provide extraordinary evidence, not this half-hearted, half-powered demonstration coupled with a long track record of swindles and lies.
I would love for this to be real, but everything about it screams “hoax” to me, and it’s only the overwhelming number of requests for a post on this that have led me to write this at all. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, remember? There’s a reason we do science out in the public sphere, open it up to peer review, and require a high level of scrutiny and cross-checking: to avoid frauds and hoaxes, which this has written all over it, despite the impressive control it exerts over google searches.
But you can’t fool all the people all the time.
So yes, I think cold fusion is possible. And no, I don’t see any reason to believe that it’s real. Take away the smoke and mirrors, and show me the physics, and then we’ll have a story. Because that’s what scientists — real scientists — do. They don’t play games, they don’t hide behind “black boxes” and billion-dollar claims of free energy, they prove it. They put their results out there for everyone to see, scrutinize, reproduce, and test. That’s how science works. Pons and Fleischmann may not have been very good scientists, but at least they were scientists.
Until Rossi proves otherwise, all we’ve got here is a known con artist perpetrating a long con. And — pardon the native New Yorker inside me — I ain’t buyin’ it.