“Science literacy is a vaccine against the charlatans of the world that would exploit your ignorance.” –Neil deGrasse Tyson
Well, I guess it’s that season again. The charlatan who claims to have invented a cold fusion device — the same device whose flaws were exposed here two years ago — has just held an “independent test” of his device, and there’s now a physics paper out claiming that this device works, and must be powered by some type of nuclear reaction!
Look, let’s get a few things out into the open first. If there is a cold fusion device that actually works, that can harness the power of nuclear fusion to create energy, it would change the world. We would — as I’ve written recently — have a virtually limitless source of clean and cheap energy, and would not only be able to travel to Mars, but to any other world in our Solar System. We could even, literally, reach for the stars!
But it’s not enough to just simply think about how wonderful it would be if it were true, especially because whether cold fusion can even physically happen in our Universe is currently an open scientific question. (The evidence so far says no, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible in principle!)
What we must do, when confronted with a claim that’s this extraordinary — that we have a device, at low-temperature, with neutral atoms, fusing atomic nuclei — is demand evidence that shows this is really true, and that we aren’t falling victim to some elaborate ruse.
What we need, if we want to take this claim seriously, is solid, incontrovertible evidence that what’s being claimed is what’s actually happening. Because one of the most important responsibilities that science has to society is to protect it from frauds, hucksters, shysters and con artists who would defraud you out of your money, time, and trust with their cheap trickery and chicanery.
I’m taking it for granted that the vast majority of you don’t have the required expertise to tell whether this is legitimate, or whether this is an example of someone trying to swindle you (and all of us) into investing in something that’s meritless. But a lot of normally smart people are getting very excited about this, including:
- Sebastian Anthony over at ExtremeTech,
- Francie Diep over at Popular Science,
- Mark Gibbs over at Forbes, and shockingly,
- Tommaso Dorigo of Quantum Diaries.
So we’ve got to ask, is this test the real deal, or is it nothing more than crackpottery, as Lubos Motl says?
Let’s answer the following question: What would it take to convince a reasonable observer that you’ve got a controlled nuclear reaction going on here?
There are a few ways we could do it:
- Allow a thorough examination of the reactants before the reaction takes place, and another of the products after the reaction, and show that nuclear transmutation has in fact taken place.
- Start the device operating by whatever means you want, then disconnect all external power to it, and allow it to run, outputting energy for a sufficiently long time in a self-sustaining mode, until it’s put out a sufficient amount of energy to rule out any conventional (i.e., chemical) energy sources.
- Place a gamma-ray detector around the device. Given the lack of shielding and the energies involved in nuclear reactions, gamma-rays should be copious and easy to detect.
- Accurately monitor the power drawn from all sources to the device at all times, while also monitoring the energy output from the device at all times. If the total energy output is in sufficient excess to the total energy input to rule out any conventional (i.e., chemical) energy sources, that would also be sufficient.
Fair enough? These all sound reasonable to me, and I would accept any independent test of these three methods as enough evidence to pique my interest. Let’s see what the claims are.
So they’re again claiming that this is nickel + hydrogen fusion, which should result in copper. Now, it’s important to know, the last time this was claimed, the nickel that was analyzed was found to contain the isotopic ratios of normal nickel mined on Earth, while the copper (10% of the product) was found to contain the isotopic ratios of copper found naturally on Earth, not the ratio you’d expect to find copper in if nuclear fusion had occurred! (Since only Nickel-62 and Nickel-64 can fuse with hydrogen into copper, it’d be impossible to get a 10% copper product in any case!)
For this test, Rossi disallowed the examination of either the reactants or the products, claiming that it would reveal his secret catalyst. So option 1 wasn’t available.
Rossi also refused to unplug the machine while it was operating! Now, Peter Thieberger (who co-wrote this post with me, and who is a respected nuclear/particle physicist) has demonstrated just how easy it would be to keep power flowing to a device in such a way to fool an ammeter, which is a device for measuring electrical current. In other words, it would show that no current was flowing when one actually was!
So option 2 wasn’t available, either; there could’ve been more power continuously supplied to this setup than was accounted for.
There was also no attempt made to measure gamma-rays, so option 3 didn’t happen. Reading the paper, Rossi left the machine plugged in at all times, and hid a great many details during this independent test. Such as:
“… the E-Cat HT was already running when the test began…”
“…it was not possible to inspect the inside of the control box…”
So, what did this team actually do?
They measured the tube, from a distance, with an infrared camera, to determine its temperature over time. They claim to have set up radiation detectors at a distance to look for high energy photons, but do not include those results. (They say that the results are available upon request. If you get them, please post them in the comments!)
They claim that the input power is well-measured and comes out to an average of 360 Watts, over a timespan of around four days. They provide no data for this, they simply claim it. What can you do; are they telling the truth, are they telling the truth as best as they know it, or something else? Without the data, how can you know?
Well, the short of it is, it got very hot and stayed very hot — about three-to-seven times hotter than you’d expect based on 360 W of continuous power — for the entire time that it ran.
And then, when you get all the way to page 20, you find this red flag:
During the coil ON states, the instantaneous power absorbed by the E-Cat HT2 and the control box together was visible on the PCE-830 LCD display. This value, with some fluctuations in time, remained in any case within a range of 910-930 W. By checking the video image relevant to the PCE-830 LCD display, we were also able to estimate the length of the ON/OFF intervals: with reference to the entire duration of the test, the resistor coils were on for about 35% of the time, and off for the remaining 65%.
So… it wasn’t a continuous 360 Watts, but rather there was a switching between on/off states, where it was drew over 900 W of power for about a third of the time, and then far less for the other two-thirds. They also only approximate, rather than measure (or provide data for) the amount of power drawn.
Then they claim the following:
I’m done pretending that this is science, or that the “data” presented here is scientifically valid. If this were an undergraduate science experiment, I’d give the kids an F, and have them see me. There’s no valid information contained here, just the assumption of success, the reliance on supplied data, and ballpark estimates that appear to be supplied “from the manufacturer.”
This is not a valid way to do science at all. And this is certainly not even close to meeting the criteria required for extraordinary evidence to back up such an extraordinary claim.
I — for once — will also encourage you to read Lubos’ take on this, because he seems to be the only person other than me who recognizes what awful pretend-science this is.
I’m not trying to rain on your parade, I’m not trying to poo-poo things we don’t have a full understanding of, and I’m not even trying to convince you that cold fusion is impossible. I’m trying to get you to recognize that there are standards of evidence you must hold these claims to, and that this crappy, crackpot paper has failed to meet them, and has failed egregiously.
But if you test it scientifically, then we’ll talk. Not before. Until then, you’re just preying on people who don’t know enough physics to see through your ruse, and I’ll be here to speak up against it, and call shenanigans.
Shenanigans, bitches. Now you know.