Fusion is the physical process in stars which generates energy. Incomprehensible amounts of pressure and heat covert hydrogen into helium. It is the engine which drives the universe, but it does create a fair bit of nasty radiation.
Cold fusion is based on the theory that energy may be created in a more controlled fashion. The goal is to generate a smaller amount of heat without all the dangerous behavior which occurs inside a star. Unfortunately, the field of study was ruined in 1989 by some irresponsible geniuses and a lot of crackpots.
Since then, a small number of respectable scientists at NASA, NRL and the DOE have studied these types of reactions. To avoid crackpots, they have termed their research as Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR). Although they have not discovered any magical formulas, there has been enough progress to justify continued funding.
In early 2011 an Italian physicist, Andrea Rossi, announced that he had created a functioning device. It generates a good deal of heat by converting nickel into copper. This heat may be used directly as a furnace or to generate electricity through steam turbines (the same way coal and nuclear power plants operate). There have been a number of demonstrations for technical audiences and a major trial will be run on October 28th. If Rossi’s Energy Catalyzer (e-cat) device is real, energy will become more-or-less free.
First, it should be stated that there is still a good deal of well-placed skepticism. The last 20 years have been full of amazing claims by various groups. All of them have turned out to be completely false. Additionally, our current model of physics cannot explain the operation of Rossi’s e-cat device.
There have been a number of demonstrations of the e-cat, but none have been completely open. Some very respectable scientists have investigated portions of the device, but they have not been given access to the internal operations. Nevertheless, given the small size of the e-cat, the investigators have concluded that the form of energy production is nuclear, not chemical – assuming it is not an elaborate hoax.
So there are many questions remaining and the inventor has not been rushing to explain himself to critics. His claim is that the most effective proof is simply to put the device into production – which is what we will hopefully see on the 28th.
Because the concept of free energy is so ground breaking, I consider some speculation worthwhile – even if Rosse is a fraud. There are other scientists working on related research and free energy might eventually come to pass.
The idealists say free energy will lead to world revolution, an end to poverty, an end to the recession. There is no question that such an invention would transform certain aspects of society, but I’m skeptical such a technology would end social inequality.
Regardless of human imperfections, I do feel free energy implies certain revisions to everyday life:
- Heating and Cooling are obvious differences. Buildings can be maintained at any desired temperature for very low cost.
- Transportation was estimated to constitute 27.8% of the Unites State’s energy consumption in 2008. Imagine if that dropped to near zero.
- Electrical power was estimated at 40.1% of energy use. This would also drop to zero, of course. Analysts have also suggested that existing power grids might be dismantled, which would significantly reduce our environmental footprint.
- Clean water should be available to all. Distillation and desalinization are both expensive processes, but free heat and free electricity ought to make clean water much easier to obtain and distribute. Although this one is idealistic, the Arab Spring has demonstrated that technological inventions may play a large role in government and society.
- Space travel was one I was hoping for. Simply moving a kilogram of mass from the Earth into orbit requires incredible amounts of fuel. Unfortunately, it appears that fuel costs only half a percent of a launch budget. Perhaps free energy would allow the creation of lower-cost, but more energy-intensive launch vehicles.
- Steampunk creations would become reality. Because the suggested use of the e-cat is steam production, there could be a significant resurgence of steam-powered equipment.
Nothing is certain now, but the possibilities are exciting. The truth will become apparent quite quickly. If it turns out Rossi is a fraud, that will be unfortunate. But I still find the thought experiment worth having.