Most areas of physics are pretty much open to wild and woolly exploration. A few areas that aren't include perpetual motion machines that violate the Laws of Thermodynamics, specious claims of achieving room-temperature superconductivity and the touchy subject of cold fusion nuclear reaction.
Cold fusion, a state of atomic reaction in a room-temperature environment, fell onto hard times back in the 1980s when Utah researchers Stanley Pons and Martin Fleishmann jumped the gun in their belief that they'd created cold fusion in their labs and then went on to broadcast it to the world.
Screaming headlines erupted across the globe. But the two physicists' short-lived fame turned into abject ignominy when legions of scientists in other labs in other parts of the world were unable to duplicate the results.
Cold fusion is a dream that yet might be achieved—if a way can be found to bring together two small nuclei joined to create one larger nucleus at room temperatures that would release copious amounts of energy.
It's the green technologist's ultimate nirvana—virtually unlimited, pollution-free energy at a next-to-nothing cost.
Because of the brouhaha following the Pons and Fleishmann debacle, orthodox physicists tend to frown on new claims of cold fusion breakthroughs. This attitude has been hardened on the heels of several notorious incidents involving outright fraudulent claims of cold fusion advances and studies conducted over the past few decades indicating that cold fusion itself is theoretically unlikely.
Despite the cold fusion well having been effectively poisoned, a cadre of researchers continues to stubbornly return to the well to drink. These are the believers, the physicists who are convinced that the answer lies out there somewhere and cold fusion is attainable (not to mention a nice Nobel Prize).
Enter two Italian scientists—Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi of the University of Bologna—who still drink deep from the cold fusion well. During the middle of January 2011, they announced to skeptical colleagues that they successfully developed a new cold fusion process. They claimed the ability to create 12,400 watts of thermal power with just 400 watts input.
At a small press conference held in Bologna, Italy the two shared a demonstration with about 50 attendees designed to prove they have a working nickel-hydrogen fusion reactor. Claiming that their discovery is so viable it's ready to be commercially marketed, the scientists have announced plans to start making their cold fusion reactor available within three months. They also revealed during the press conference they intend to start having the device mass produced before the end of 2011.
Written material that accompanied the demonstration of the cold fusion reactor claims that “The magnitude of this result suggests that there is a viable energy technology that uses commonly available materials, that does not produce carbon dioxide, and that does not produce radioactive waste and will be economical to build."
The method of achieving this breakthrough involves a process described in detail by the science news site physorg.com: "…when the atomic nuclei of nickel and hydrogen are fused in their reactor, the reaction produces copper and a large amount of energy. The reactor uses less than 1 gram of hydrogen and starts with about 1,000 W of electricity, which is reduced to 400 W after a few minutes. Every minute, the reaction can convert 292 grams of 20°C water into dry steam at about 101°C. Since raising the temperature of water by 80°C and converting it to steam requires about 12,400 W of power, the experiment provides a power gain of 12,400/400 = 31. As for costs, the scientists estimate that electricity can be generated at a cost of less than 1 cent/kWh, which is significantly less than coal or natural gas plants."
Simply switch the device on and it starts providing power. A set of instructions to follow will accompany each unit. Units can be combined to achieve higher power output. Although self-sustaining, the cold fusion reactors would need refueling about twice a year.
A skeptical scientific community awaits hard data
After the press conference Rossi and Focardi took questions over the Internet. They were bombarded by scientists asking tough questions. No one pulled punches. Technical questions dominated and the demand for real data was universal.
The credibility problem the two Italian scientists face is growing. Their scientific paper lacks details and supporting evidence and it was rejected outright by all the recognized peer-reviewed journals.
The two admit that although their cold fusion reactor works, they just do not understand all the scientific reasons making it work. Why it's triggered or what physical principles are at play they haven't a clue. "…the presence of copper and the release of energy are witnesses,” they argue back.
Arrival of a "white knight"
A respected nuclear physicist from the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics, Dr. Giuseppe Levi, assisted the Bologna demonstration of the cold fusion reactor. According to physorg.com "Levi confirmed that the reactor produced about 12 kW and noted that the energy was not of chemical origin since there was no measurable hydrogen consumption. Levi and other scientists have produced a technical report on the design and execution of their evaluation of the reactor." A synopsis of the reactor by Marianne Macy, University of Bologna, January 14, 2011 is available here.
What's fascinating about all this is the fact that both Italian physicists are not hoaxers. Nor do they relish the attacks they have received from some quarters of their profession. Both truly believe they have managed a cold fusion breakthrough and are the first to admit they don't understand exactly why it works.
Rossi has written: “We have passed already the phase to convince somebody. We are arrived to a product that is ready for the market. Our judge is the market. In this field the phase of the competition in the field of theories, hypothesis, conjectures etc., etc., is over. The competition is in the market. If somebody has a valid technology, he has not to convince people by chattering, he has to make a reactor that work and go to sell it, as we are doing.”
As a final thought, one of the greatest scientists and inventors of the 20th Century was Nikola Tesla—a man who made many of the most cutting edge discoveries in the first half of that century work. Among his investigations into electricity he discovered—and patented—many things that worked, and then spent some years afterward investigating exactly why they worked.
Sometimes science is moved ahead by chance or intuition. Indeed many of sciences greatest triumphs fall into one—or both—categories.
Einstein himself had a leap of intuition when he discovered the concept of relativity, and then went back to fill in all the details to see if the concept was really true.
It's just possible that Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi have made a significant discovery with their cold fusion reactor. If their claim is eventually found to be valid, they will undoubtedly join the ranks of such luminaries as Tesla, Edison and Einstein.
And then their critics will be hustling to catch up.