Economy

Cold is back as hot topic on the non-conventional energy front

M. Ramesh Chennai | Updated on January 03, 2012 Published on January 03, 2012

Italian scientist Andrea Rossi's device E-Cat (short for energy catalyser) cold fusion is gaining attention.





Will an entirely new source of non-conventional energy come into the market this year? It looks likely.

Twenty-three years after experiments made by British scientists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons briefly raised the hopes of the world, ‘cold fusion' – the holy grail of energy science – seems to be coming back.

It is basic physics that nuclei of two atoms could be made to fuse, a process that releases enormous amount of energy. This happens all the time in the Sun, but to replicate that on the ground was regarded as practically impossible, and given up.

Back in 1989, when the two scientists announced that they had produced more energy than they put into in an experiment that involved heavy water and palladium, a wave of excitement rose the world over. But since the experiments suffered from “irreproducibility” they were discarded and the two scientists had to face a lot of flak.

Ever since, the world has been cold towards ‘cold fusion', or nuclear fusion at room temperatures. Last week, Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, in a speech in Chennai — in the context of making a point that science is not infallible, but is self-correcting — described the Fleishmann-Pons fiasco, and this was reported in Business Line.

Another Nobel laureate, Prof Brian Josephson, who received the Nobel in 1973 in Physics, responded to the report in an e-mail to Business Line, saying: “The ‘self-correcting processes of science' ultimately confirmed the initial controversial claims, even though publicists, who were able to get the ear of the scientific community with their rhetoric, claimed on the basis of poorly conducted experiments that failed, that there was no effect.”

Clearly, ‘cold fusion' has its supporters.

e-cat device

In the last few months, an Italian scientist Andrea Rossi has been making news in the Western media, with a fist-sized instrument that produces more energy than it consumes.

He calls the device E-Cat, short for energy catalyser. It works by pushing in hot hydrogen into nickel, transmuting it into copper and, in the process, releasing energy. The reaction happens in the presence of a catalyst, which is Rossi's secret. Such processes are known by the acronym LENR, for Low Energy Nuclear Reaction.

At present, E-Cat only produces heat, but Rossi is working on additions to the device to make it produce electricity. The E-Cat is today being offered for $2,000 a kilowatt, which is pretty costly. However, it is expected that the prices would fall drastically.

But of more immediate importance than the device itself is the scientific breakthrough that it probably heralds.

Rossi has received acres of Press, mostly — but not all — favourable. It did not help matters that Rossi once previously claimed to be able to produce oil from organic waste, but ended up in jail — though not for fraud, but for flouting environment laws and tax evasion.

Rossi has so far not yielded to requests for scientific scrutiny of the E-Cat on the grounds that he has not got a patent as yet. His concern is understandable because even as he began marketing the E-Cat, a Greek company called Defkalion Energy, Rossi's former partner, has launched an identical product.

Despite his background and the natural scepticism associated with the enormity of the scientific significance of the product, the E-Cat cold fusion is gaining attention.

A section of the media has commented that Rossi has shown no sign of being a fraudster — has sought no funding, and is selling his 1 MW scale equipment only to large customers — those who typically enter into a deal with a battery of good lawyers and who will first check out the product before paying. It is said that an arm of the US Government is his first customer, which, if true, will make cold fusion pretty hot in the years to come.

mramesh@thehindu.co.in

Published on January 03, 2012
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