Clean Tech

Not snake oil anymore

M Ramesh | Updated on January 12, 2018

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With a number of experiments like 'hydrino' and cold fusion forging ahead, a future with clean and cheap energy may just be possible, says M Ramesh

Within this year and the next, Dr Randell L Mills, the strange Harvard-trained medical doctor who gave up his practice for his physics hobby, will either become as famous as Einstein or be proven to be what the scientists have been calling him for three decades — a fraud.

Since 1991, he has been working on an invention based on an odd theory of his — that an electron in a hydrogen atom can be nudged closer to the proton, and release energy in the process.

Work this into a device, and what have you? A source of infinite, clean, cheap energy.

A regular hydrogen atom has one electron whizzing around the nucleus that contains one proton. Mills says when you bring the electron closer to the nucleus, it is a different form of hydrogen.

He calls this form of hydrogen ‘hydrino’; scientists call this bovine excrement. If there were ‘hydrinos’ wouldn’t they have known?

It’s like saying an English professor can’t tell noun from verb.

Scientists were aghast, but none of the derision and scorn poured on Mills by the pundits of physics deterred him from the pursuit of this clean energy source or securing a hundred millions of dollars of funding. But, he pulled a rabbit out of the hat—came up with a machine that makes energy.

Putting it to test

Since the middle of last year, Mills has been demonstrating his invention, which he calls ‘SunCell’. His New Jersey based company, Brilliant Light Power, is now being taken more seriously. In January this year, CNN found the SunCell worthy of a short documentary.

A July 2016 press release of Brilliant Light Power gives validating quotes by Bucknel University professor, Dr Peter Mark Jansson, and Dr K V Ramanujachary, Rowan University.

The device works by shooting very high amount of current (12,000 amperes) in two streams of molten silver through hydrogen gas, produced right there from water, in an oxide catalyst. The reaction induced by the current creates plasma (a cloud of electrons, protons and neutrons prised loose from their atoms) which bakes hydrogen atoms into ‘hydrinos’. The energy released heats up a shield (called ‘blackbody radiator’) to incandescent temperatures of 3,000 degrees C. The light the radiator throws off is captured by photo-voltaic cells to let out a stream of electricity.

Brilliant Light Power is working towards commercialisation in 2018, leasing SunCells of 150 kW capacity at prices that will enable the user to have electricity at 2.5 cents (₹1.67) a kWhr.

On the other coast of the United States, another company, called Brillouin Energy Corp., has been labouring over cheap, clean, non-conventional energy.

Its efforts have been in the direction of ‘cold fusion’, or nuclear fusion at near-room temperatures, or technically, ‘low energy nuclear reactions’, or LENR.

The e-cat experiment

Now, LENR might ring a bell. The public has gotten somewhat familiar with LENR ever since a maverick Italian engineer called Andrea Rossi announced a few years ago his invention of a cold-fusion based energy device, the ‘E-cat’, which works with passing current through a smattering of hydrogen and nickel and lithium compound.

What happens inside the E-cat is deep science, but basically, things get reorganised at the sub-atomic level, resulting in the hydrogen turn into helium, releasing energy on the way.

The E-cat has become the subject of a legal battle with Rossi and an American company called Industrial Heat.

Rossi claims Industrial Heat has failed to cough up $ 89 million as contractually due after his successful one-year demonstration of the e-cat, while Industrial Heat disputes the ‘success’ part of it—the matter is in the US courts (see ‘Cold Fusion: This time for Real?’ Business Line, April 12, 2016) but it has helped mainstream cold fusion.

Brillouin reactor

Brillouin Energy, incidentally funded by the same investors as Industrial Heat, said in early January that it had got its device checked out by an independent body, SRI International, California. SRI, without going into the merits of Brillouin’s reactor, said that the device works in the sense that it produces more energy than it consumes.

Like Rossi’s e-cat, Brillouin uses nickel and hydrogen, but converts hydrogen into helium using electromagnetic pulses, releasing energy. In Brillouin’s device, the output energy is only slightly higher than input, 1.2 to 1.4 times (compared with Rossi’s claim of over 50), but the company is satisfied with this milestone and expects to develop it further. “We still have much work to do,” said David Firshein, Brillouin’s Chief Financial Officer and spokesman, in an email to BusinessLine, adding that “our goal is obviously to commercialize from here.”

In the meantime, Rossi has been furiously trying to develop a prototype of a commercial version of his e-cat, which he calls QuarkX. He said in December last year that he is testing it with the help of a US military engineer and has hinted that he is aiming at a public demonstration of the device in February.

Meanwhile, Rossi’s estranged commercial partner, Industrial Heat, is going after other cold fusion intellectual properties. Of these there are many. Several entities – individual or groups of scientists, educational institutions, companies (like Brillouin) – are researching into LENR or validating other’s efforts so much that it looks like movement today.

The memorial project

For instance, in 2014 a group of scientists did tests on an e-cat-like device at a place called Lugano in Switzerland and brought out a report that essentially said ‘it works but we don’t know how’.

Later, a Russian scientist, Alexander Parkhimov, performed the tests and again, confirmed higher energy output. There is a Martin Fleishman Memorial Project, in the name of Martin Fleishman who (along with Stanley Pons) announced success in cold fusion in 1989 but was shamed when the public demonstration failed. Scientists such as Robert Duncan of the University of Missouri and Michael McKubre of SRI International have been at this science for long.

Then there are a few companies such as Jet Energy in the US and Nichenergy in Italy. Research divisions of companies no less than Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Airbus (which has filed patents) are taking keen interest in cold fusion.

The message is this: something very real, very disruptive is happening in the area of clean energy and is perched on the edge of commercialisation. India ought not to miss out.

Dr Mahadeva Srinivasan, a nuclear scientist and formerly an Associate Director at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, has been watching these developments with keen interest.

“It is high time India got involved in LENR more seriously because it has a huge potential to provide clean, cheap energy,” says Dr Srinivasan.

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Published on February 14, 2017
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