The world faces a grim future if we do not immediately rein in consumption of fossil fuels. Risks include rising sea levels, more frequent extreme temperatures, flooding, drought and conflicts among human societies. An eventual sea level rise of 6 meters now seems pretty much assured. Additionally, July 2015 is now officially the hottest single month in recorded history.
In spite of these truly sobering developments, some are seeing rays of hope. Prices of solar photovoltaic panels have dropped considerably. Observers predicted in 2000 that wind-generated power worldwide would reach 30 GWatts by 2010; it exceeded 200 GWatts, and by 2014 it was 370 GWatts. These developments have led some, such as former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, to be cautiously optimistic.
Nonetheless, there is still an enormous gap between current carbon consumption and where we need to be (some argue that we must zero out carbon emissions altogether, and soon). While solar photovoltaic and wind systems are a great boon for green energy, nonetheless they still are reliant on the whims of weather and geography. And as for battery systems, in spite of advances such as those reported by Elon Musk, they are far from being a practical means for utility-scale storage of electrical energy.
Against this backdrop, some have been taking another look at fusion energy, the energy that powers the sun. Fusion, unlike fission reactions used in conventional nuclear reactors, need not emit dangerous radiation, nor do they produce radioactive byproducts.
Scientists have been feverishly working for decades to develop a practical way to contain this energy, which traditionally is thought to mean that we must confine some hydrogen (or deuterium) fuel, either in a "magnetic bottle" or by inertial confinement, then heat it to millions of degrees Celsius. Despite the expenditure, over sixty years, of billions of dollars and euros by large government-funded laboratories, this goal has proved highly elusive.
Yet lately a few research teams at universities, national laboratories and private corporations are reporting notable progress, as we briefly reported in two earlier HuffPost articles (#1 and #2). Here is an update on these projects, plus another report that just appeared in the last few days.
The U.S. aerospace firm Lockheed Martin plans to build a 100-megawatt nuclear fusion reactor only about 2 meters by 3 meters (seven feet by 10 feet) in size, i.e., small enough to fit on the back of a large truck. They claim that the first reactors of this design could be ready for commercial use in just ten years. Sadly, no technical details are yet available, and so the scientific community has no way of assessing the merits of their approach.
The "new kid on the block" is Tri Alpha Energy, which has been pursuing a hot fusion reactor at a secretive facility in California. They have now reported constructing a prototype machine that can heat a plasma of hydrogen fuel to 10 million degrees Celsius, then confine it for 5 milliseconds. They employ what they call a "field-reversed configuration," which has been known since the 1960s, but until now has never been able to confine the plasma more than a fraction of a millisecond. Another firm pursuing hot fusion is Energy/Matter Conversion Corporation in San Diego, California.
Low Energy Nuclear Reaction (LENR) projects
Most scientists believe that "cold fusion" died in 1989, when researchers were unable to reproduce the claims of Fleischmann and Pons of the University of Utah. At least one observer referred to cold fusion as the scientific fiasco of the [20th] century. Yet in spite of this criticism, a few researchers have pressed forward, and in the past year or two have attracted significant positive attention, referring to their work as "Low Energy Nuclear Reaction" (LENR) technology.
One private firm in the area is Brillouin Energy Corp. of Berkeley, California, where researchers are developing what they term a controlled electron capture reaction (CECR) process. In their experiments, ordinary hydrogen is loaded into a nickel lattice, and then an electronic pulse is passed through the system, using a proprietary control system. They claim that their device converts H-1 (ordinary hydrogen) to H-2 (deuterium), then to H-3 (tritium) and H-4 (quatrium), which then decays to He-4 and releases energy. They report that they have confirmed H-3 production in their process.
Additional technical details are given at the Brillouin Energy website, and in a patent application. Their patent application reads, in part, "Embodiments generate thermal energy by neutron generation, neutron capture, and subsequent transport of excess binding energy as useful heat for any application."
Rossi and Industrial Heat, LLC
Perhaps the most startling (and most controversial) report is by an Italian-American engineer-entrepreneur named Andrea Rossi. Rossi claims that he has developed a tabletop reactor that produces heat by an as-yet-not-fully-understood LENR process.
Rossi has gone well beyond laboratory demonstration; he claims that he and the private firm Industrial Heat, LLC of Raleigh, North Carolina, USA, have actually installed a working system at an (undisclosed) commercial customer's site.
According to Rossi and a handful of others who have observed the system in operation, it is producing 1 MWatt continuous net output power, in the form of heat, from a few grams of "fuel" in each of a set of modest-sized reactors in a network. The system has now been operating for approximately six months, as part of a one-year acceptance test. Rossi and IH LLC are in talks with Chinese firms for large-scale commercial manufacture.
Several "reliable sources" have visited Rossi's commercial site, and have verified that the system is working as claimed, as evidenced, for example, by the customer's significantly reduced electric bills.
On the downside, from a scientific point view, Rossi's work leaves much to be desired, to say the least. Rossi remains tight-lipped as to technical details, preferring to protect his company's intellectual property through silence.
However, a few details have now come to light. For example, Rossi was just granted a patent by the U.S. Patent Office. The patent includes some heretofore unknown details, such as the contents of the "fuel" in Rossi's reactors: it is a powder of 50% nickel, 20% lithium and 30% lithium aluminum hydride.
Replications of Rossi's work
Given that Rossi has been unwilling to divulge many details, several other research teams have been working largely independently with similar experimental designs.
In October 2014, a team of Italian and Swedish researchers released a paper entitled Observation of abundant heat production from a reactor device and of isotopic changes in the fuel. This paper claimed substantial power output, with a "coefficient of performance" (ratio of output heat to input power) of up to 3.6. The experiment was performed at an independent laboratory in Lugano, Switzerland.
The most intriguing results in the 2014 Lugano paper are the before-and-after analyses of the "fuel," which found an "isotopic shift" had occurred in this material. In particular, the team found that lithium-7 had changed into lithium-6, and that nickel-58 and nickel-60 had changed to nickel-62. This is based on two different types of mass spectrometry measurements, using state-of-the-art equipment.
These changes can only be due to nuclear reactions of some sort -- not conventional chemistry. The Lugano team is reportedly working on a new experiment, independent of Rossi, but as yet no details are known.
Another research team performing Rossi-type experiments is headed by the Russian physicist Alexander Parkhomov. He and others working with him report observing excess heat with a Rossi-type reactor running at 1347 degrees Celsius, with a coefficient of performance of 3.0. They also report observing excess heat in at least ten other experiments of this type to date.
The present authors are as perplexed as anyone by these developments. As we observed in an earlier HuffPost article, Rossi's work in particular leaves us with three stark choices: (a) Rossi and those working with him or independently have made some fundamental and far-reaching blunder in their experimental work; (b) Rossi is leading a conspiracy of sorts to cover dishonest scientific behavior; or (c) Rossi has made an important discovery with sweeping potential impact.
With each passing month, and with more researchers finding similar results, (a) and (b) look less likely. On the other hand, skepticism is certainly still in order until Rossi comes forward with more details on the designs and control techniques used in his system.
Needless to say, the stakes are very high, for any or all of these projects. Among the potential impacts are:
- An environmental windfall -- enabling a dramatic and rapid conversion of existing coal- and gas-burning electric power plants to a "green" source with minimal fuel costs.
- Potential applications even in transportation, water purification, small businesses and homes.
- Most likely, a further dramatic drop in oil prices worldwide.
- Financial repercussions; according to a new recent report, at least one-half trillion dollars of bonds are at risk if oil prices drop further.
- Political repercussions; already Saudi Arabia is having great difficulty keeping its economy afloat with the current drop in oil prices and its own longer term goals.
One way or the other, whether these effects are confirmed (and large commercial enterprises engage) or refuted, the next few months promise to make a very interesting chapter in the history of science. Hold on to your hats!