In 1989, two respected scientists named Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann reported that they believed they caused “cold fusion”, that they had special apparatus that could bring about a nuclear reaction at room temperature.
People were very excited at the time. I was very excited. Cold fusion could have changed the world: cheap abundant clean energy. It was like a dream.
And in fact, it was a dream. No one was ever able to replicate Pons and Fleischmann’s results, and the whole thing was written off as a huge mistake, a hoax, or worse.
And almost 25 years later, the same thing might be happening again. Andrea Rossi, an Italian inventor and entrepreneur, announced that he has invented a reactor, which he called the Energy Catalyzer, or E-Cat for short, transmutes nickel into copper and yields a fair amount of energy. Popular Science wrote:
Here, Rossi claimed, was a machine that harnessed a previously unknown type of nuclear reaction—a machine that could produce nearly infinite energy cheaply and with no radioactive by-products. It would put the oil companies out of business. It would enable humanity to explore space on the cheap. It would change the world overnight.
Rossi, who had once done time for tax fraud, refused to explain how the thing worked or where it was being built. It began to look very much like a hoax in the Pons/Fleischmann mode. One scientist observing Rossi’s farrago of contradictory claims wrote that the E-Cat “will soon fade away in the darkness of pathological science, where it belongs” and it sounded like a sensible prediction.
And then a team of seven scientists from three respected universities (Bologna, Uppsala, and Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology) tested it. Twice.
The sucker worked. For 96 and then for 116 hours, the mysterious stainless steel cylinder glowed cherry red. The E-Cat had to be plugged in, but it drew only 360 watts of electricity and produced the equivalent of 2034 watts in heat.
Now there are only two possibilities here:
One is, this is a very clever scam. Very clever. No amount of chemical trickery alone could have produced this much energy in such a small package. The experimenters all watched each other, so it would take several confederates to jigger the equipment – all of whom would be throwing away their professional careers and opening themselves to criminal liability when the scam is inevitably uncovered.
But it has to be scam, because the other possibility is just too huge. Things this important just cannot happen.
Can they? Let me indulge in the fantasy for a while.
First, there’s just the money. If our current energy economy, mostly petroleum of course, plus hydroelectric, fission (ordinary nuclear), geothermal, and so on, were replaced with working E-Cats, everybody would effectively be 10% richer.
Next: global warming. Forget about it, no longer a problem. The same is true of most air pollution and a lot of water pollution: it comes largely from energy production, including the powering of transportation. All that goes away.
And power blackouts? They cannot happen once every house has its own completely safe, no-radiation nuclear reactor. Ugly electric transmission lines, gas stations, oil slicks, and hydroelectric dams all go the way of polio epidemics and steam locomotives; made obsolete by technologies, they’ll be mostly seen in old movies.
More than any of that, imagine a world largely unconstrained by the availability of power.
Why, for example, don’t you have a flying car or a personal helicopter? The biggest reason: we don’t have engines that are powerful enough yet small enough. E-Cat technology might make feasible an engine that is size of a lunch-box but powerful enough to drive a small aircraft.
Ditto with esoteric things like heavy-cargo aircraft, inexpensive supersonic transport, widespread magnetic levitation. Safe cheap fusion promises a Jetsons-like world of high-tech comfort and wealth.
Assuming, of course, the E-Cat isn’t a scam, which it is certainly is. Probably.
A friend of mine said in reference to the newspaper account about E-Cat, “I sincerely believe it’s false, and I sincerely pray it’s true.” So do I.
Guest Author Michael Lorton is a San Francisco-based programmer and writer. He writes the daily blog Blue Apsara about culture, economics, travel, law, and the occasional giant, carnivorous lizard.
image of an atom in cold fusion nuclear reactions at room temperature via Shutterstock