Foreword: I gave Ric Werme permission to do this essay. I don’t have any doubt that the original Cold Fusion research was seriously flawed. That said, this recent new development using a different process is getting some interest, so let’s approach it skeptically to see what merit it has, if any. – Anthony
Cold fusion isn’t usual fare for WUWT, at best it’s not a focus here, at worst it’s sorry science, and we talk about that enough already. However, it never has died, and this week there’s news about it going commercial. Well, it won’t be available for a couple years or so, but the excitement comes from a device that takes 400 watts of electrical power in and produces 12,000 watts of heat out.
Most people regard cold fusion as a black eye on science. It’s credited with the advent of science by press release and its extraordinary claims were hard to reproduce. Yet, unlike the polywater fiasco of the 1970s, cold fusion has never been explained away and several experiments have been successfully reproduced. Neutrons, tritium, and other products kept some researchers working long after others had given up. Even muons (from Svensmark’s Chilling Stars) have been suggested as a catalyst. Everyone agrees that theoretical help would provide a lot of guidance, but for something that flies in the face of accepted theory, little help has come from that.
Grandiose claims of changing the world have been lowered to “show me something that replaces my water heater.” Attempts at scaling up the experiments that could be reproduced all failed. Even had they worked, a lot of systems used palladium. There’s not enough of that to change the world.
As media attention waned, the field stayed alive and new avenues explored. Some people active in the early days of Pons & Fleishman’s press conference are still tracking research, and research has continued around the world. There are publications and journals, and conferences and research by the US Navy. And controversy about a decision to not publish the proceedings of a recent conference.
The term “Cold Fusion” has been deprecated, as focus remains on generating heat, and heat to run a steam turbine efficiently is definitely not cold. Nor is it the 30 million degrees that “Hot Fusion” needs. The preferred terms now are LENR (Low Energy Nuclear Reactions) and CANR (Chemically Assisted Nuclear Reactions). I’ll call it cold fusion.
I keep a Google alert for news, and check in from time to time, and last week came across notice of a press conference about a cold fusion system that is going commercial. The reports beforehand and the reports afterward said little useful, but some details are making it out. Whatever is going on is interesting enough to pay attention to, and since WUWT has developed a good record for breaking news, it’s worth a post.
The bottom line is that Italian scientists Sergio Focardi and Andrea Rossi have a unit they claim takes in 400 watts of electricity and, with the assistance of nickel-hydrogen fusion, puts out 12 kilowatts of heat. Okay, that’s interesting and the power amplification doesn’t require some of the extremely careful calorimetry early experiments needed. The elements involved are affordable and if it works, things become interesting. (There are undisclosed “additives” to consider too.) The reactor is going commercial in the next few years, which may or may not mean it’s ready.
Several details have not been disclosed, but there will be a paper out on Monday. Dr. Rossi reports:
Yes, I confirm that Monday Jan 24 the Bologna University Report will be published on the Journal Of Nuclear Physics. I repeat that everybody will be allowed to use it in every kind of publication, online, paper, written, spoken, without need of any permission. It will be not put on it the copyright.
Major caveat – the Journal Of Nuclear Physics is Rossi’s blog. Peer review is:
All the articles published on the Journal Of Nuclear Physics are Peer Reviewed. The Peer Review of every paper is made by at least one University Physics Professor.
So it’s not like they’re getting published in Nature, Scientific American, or even a reputable journal. Still, it ought to be a welcome addition.
The mechanism involved is claimed to be fusion between nickel and hydrogen. This is a bit unusual, as the typical claims are for reactions involving deuterium (proton + one neutron) and tritium (proton + two neutrons) with the gas filtering into a palladium lattice. In this case, it’s reacting with the substrate.
Nickel has several isotopes that naturally occur, the belief is that all participate in the reactions. In http://www.journal-of-nuclear-physics.com/files/Rossi-Focardi_paper.pdf discusses finding copper, which has one more proton than nickel, and various isotopes that do not occur in natural nickel. It also observes that gamma radiation is not observed while the reactor was running. Comments in other articles make suggestions about why that is. Apparently they see a short burst of gamma waves when the apparatus is shutdown.
Rossi leaves several hints in his comments, e.g. instability when the pressure of the hydrogen is increased, including explosions. (The commercial unit is designed to need enough electrical power so it can be shut down reliably.)
The best summary of the calorimetry involved is by Jed Rothwell who has been involved since the early days. He notes:
The test run on January 14 lasted for 1 hour. After the first 30 minutes the outlet flow became dry steam. The outlet temperature reached 101°C. The enthalpy during the last 30 minutes can be computed very simply, based on the heat capacity of water (4.2 kJ/kgK) and heat of vaporization of water (2260 kJ/kg):
Mass of water 8.8 kg
Temperature change 87°C
Energy to bring water to 100°C: 87°C*4.2*8.8 kg = 3,216 kJ
Energy to vaporize 8.8 kg of water: 2260*8.8 = 19,888 kJ
Total: 23,107 kJ
Duration 30 minutes = 1800 seconds
Power 12,837 W, minus auxiliary power ~12 kW
There were two potential ways in which input power might have been measured incorrectly: heater power, and the hydrogen, which might have burned if air had been present in the cell.
The heater power was measured at 400 W. It could not have been much higher that this, because it is plugged into an ordinary wall socket, which cannot supply 12 kW. Even if a wall socket could supply 12 kW, the heater electric wire would burn.
During the test runs less than 0.1 g of hydrogen was consumed. 0.1 g of hydrogen is 0.1 mole, which makes 0.05 mole of water. The heat of formation of water is 286 kJ/mole, so if the hydrogen had been burned it would have produced less than 14.3 kJ.
What should we make of all this? In a skeptical group like this, some healthy skepticism is warranted. On the other hand, the energy release is impressive and very hard to explain chemically or as physical storage in a crystal lattice. It will be interesting to see how things develop.