Cold fusion: This time for real?

Cold comfort farm Scientists working on the E-Cat

Andrea Rossi's invention could be the energy game changer, but a commercial dispute blocks the way, writes M Ramesh

Dirt-cheap, clean energy that can be produced from distributed sources — the holy grail of energy managers — may be just round the bend, but an inventor-investor fracas is holding it up.

The invention is an energy box and its description reads like magic. You put in nickel and a compound of lithium and hydrogen – and the machine produces heat. It is on the cusp of being commercialised, and could demolish the existing global energy systems. When Andrea Rossi invented the energy machine about eight years ago, an incredulous scientific community promptly branded the Italian engineer a fraud. The reason was that the machine, which Rossi christened ‘E-Cat’, seemed to be working on the principle of nuclear fusion – conventional wisdom has it that no fusion reaction is possible except at extremely high temperatures, such as the Sun’s.

However, a few independent tests, such as the one conducted by a group of scientists at Lugano, Switzerland, and a Russian scientist, Dr Alexander Parkhimov, confirmed the results, though they said they could not scientifically explain how the E-Cat worked.

In the meantime, Rossi moved to Miami, Florida, and developed an upscaled version of the E-Cat (short for ‘energy catalyser’). An American company called Industrial Heat agreed to fund Rossi’s company, Leonardo Corporation, $ 100 million, for E-Cat marketing rights, but only if the 1 MW E-Cat could be shown to be working fine for about a year. Industrial Heat paid $ 11 million upfront and was to pay the rest upon the successful conclusion of the one year test.

Rossi ran the 1 MW E-Cat for 350 days and then called in an expert, Dr Fabio Penon, to validate the results. Dr Penon had been agreed upon by both Rossi and Industrial Heat as the ‘expert responsible for validation’ or ERV.

The ERV report has not been made public but Rossi blogged that he was very pleased with the report—indicating that the validation was positive. But just as the world was waiting for the announcement to commercialise the device, on April 5 Rossi sued Industrial Heat, accusing the company of breach of agreement (for non payment of the $ 89 million,) and of stealing his secrets.

In his complaint, Rossi has said that the machine produced 50-60 times as much energy as it consumed, while Industrial Heat was supposed to pay up, if it consistently hit six times.

One side of the story is the commercial dispute between Rossi and Industrial Heat. The other (and the more important) side is the machine itself. If the E-Cat can produce 50 times as much energy as it consumes, it is just the wow gift the world needs today. Rossi has said with Industrial Heat out of the way, E-Cat’s commercialisation would only be faster.

The big question is, is this for real?

Some nuclear experts who have been following the E-Cat developments closely point out that Rossi has "something", for it is hard to believe that the inventor is so naive as to think he could sell a total dud for $ 100 million.

But even scientists are not clear about how it works. The broad theory is that when you push hot hydrogen into nickel in the presence of a catalyst, the nickel mutates into copper, releasing heat in the process. The nuclear transmutation involves fusing of two nuclei – at earthy temperatures, hence ‘cold fusion’, (or ‘low energy nuclear reactions’.) Ever since 1989, when two scientists, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, announced ‘cold fusion’ in their laboratory but had to turn red in the face when the experiment could not be replicated, the scientific community has been wary of claims of cold fusion. Yet, E-Cat works. Ironically, a Martin Fleischmann Memorial Project, has also tested it positive. After the Lugano test in early 2014, the group of scientists said in their report that it was “most unsatisfying” that the results had no proper explanation. But they stressed that the results were “too conspicuous not to be followed-up in detail.”

Now, the ERV, Dr Penon, also seems to have given a thumbs-up. Clearly, something epochal is happening in the cold fusion world but just when the world could have all the details, this $ 89 million commercial dispute has come in the way.

However, many believe that the dispute is a hitch that cannot hold-up commercial roll-out of LENR technology for long. After all, while Rossi is ahead, he is not the only one. Apart from Lugano scientists, Martin Fleischmann Memorial Project and Dr Parkhimov, the China Institute of Atomic Energy is reported to have tested a LENR device in May last year, and tasted success.

For decades, many companies, such as Lockheed Martin, have been pumping billions into nuclear fusion, though not ‘cold’. As more and more positive news come out of LENR these companies will presumably turn their attention to it.

For the hundreds of conventional energy companies of the world, LENR is the elephant in the room.

India takes notice

India’s BARC has been keeping in touch with these developments since 2008, but there is some action on the ground now.

On March 19, a group of institutions met at the National Institute for Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.

They included BARC, four Indian Institutes of Technology, five private universities — including Amity University, Delhi — the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Chennai and NTPC, which organised the meeting.

Dr Baldev Raj, Director, NIAS, told BusinessLine that the meeting discussed what kind of experiments should Indians do and who could do what.

“More and more labs in the world have been getting positive results,” observes Dr Raj.

“We do not want to miss an opportunity to get cheap, clean energy.”

Published on April 12, 2016

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