In February, this column introduced a contentious possible new energy source called low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR) or lattice-assisted nuclear reactions (LANR) – a process that was formerly called ‘cold fusion’. There have been enough developments in this arena over the past half year to warrant an update.
For those who are new to the story, LENR/LANR refers to the production of ‘excess heat’ – that is, more heat than is possible in a normal chemical reaction – when hydrogen atoms are embedded within a nickel or palladium lattice and subjected to an initial electrical stimulation in the presence of a suitable catalyst. The stimulus apparently causes a reaction in which hydrogen atoms decay into helium, releasing potentially large quantities of energy but no dangerous radiation (or greenhouse gases).
This effect has now been demonstrated experimentally by numerous independent and reputable scientists and research institutions.
The VP of the International Society for Condensed Matter Nuclear Science, Francesco Celani, gave an hour-long speech on LENR in March, in which he cited many validated experiments.
In June, the chief scientist at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) Langley Research Center, Denis Bushnell, posted a brief commentary on ‘Low-energy nuclear reactions: the realism and the outlook’ on Nasa’s website. According to Bushnell, we now have “over two decades of hundreds of experiments worldwide indicating heat and transmutations with minimal radiation and low energy input”.
Yet, until recently, most of the scientific world greeted LENR claims with scepticism, as they confounded accepted physical theories and no one had a convincing theoretical expla- nation for how the process might work. That picture has now changed, as there are at least two hypotheses purporting to explain the anomalous heat effect.
One, called the Widom-Larsen Weak Interaction LENR Theory, is based on weak force/condensed matter nuclear physics and is being investigated and tested by Nasa scientists. Bushnell says: “The theory indicates energy densities some several million times [that of] chemical.”
Another hypothesis has been advanced by Robert Godes, an engineer based in California. He says the reaction is not fusion, as happens in the sun or in hydrogen bombs, and prefers the term Controlled Electron Capture Reactions (CECR).
Meanwhile, at least six companies are engaged in ‘Edisonian’ attempts to commercialise LENR/LANR devices that produce cheap, clean heat.
Our earlier column introduced the controversial Italian entrepreneur, Andrea Rossi, and his Energy Catalyser (ECAT) technology. The latest update on the official ECAT website claims that “one ECAT 1 MW plant has been delivered and is working in a military facility” in the US, while another was set to be delivered to a European customer.
A second company, Brillouin Energy Corporation, was established by Godes to commercialise his CECR process.
Until a few months ago, the various LENR devices were said by their developers to be capable of producing relatively low-temperature energy (up to about 150 ºC) suitable for water heating and a limited selection of industrial processes. But there may be much better devel- opments under way.
Rossi asserts that his revised ECAT plant design “is now stable at very high temperatures”, which “allows for a vast number of electricity solutions”.
Brillouin Energy claims to be developing a ‘hot tube’ boiler (HTB) that will be able to gene- rate heat at between 400 ºC and 5 000 ºC. Godes sees the most immediate application for the HTB as a replacement for coal-fired boilers in thermal power stations. Financially, this represents low-hanging fruit as most of the infrastructure is already in place – and many coal-fired power stations in the US have been idled owing to environmental regulations and low natural gas prices. This would also have the maximum initial impact on reducing carbon emissions, since coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel.
Cheap and abundant heat energy of this sort would also allow for affordable desalination of water in dry regions.
Bushnell, together with LENR scientist Joseph Zawodny, in a newly released Nasa video, makes even bolder suggestions about the potential of LENR to ultimately support personal flying vehicles and space travel. Bushnell says: “There are estimates using just the performance of some of the devices under study that 1% of the nickel mined on the planet each year could produce the world’s energy requirements at the order of 25% the cost of coal.”
So, the evidence seems to be accumulating – and the supporting theories slowly catching up – that human society may, over the coming years, undergo an energy revolution on the scale of the fossil fuel revolution or the discovery and use of electricity.
Given the complex web of energy, water, climate and geopolitical crises now confronting humanity, such a revolution is desperately needed. But abundant energy would need to be managed carefully – unlike what we have witnessed historically with fossil fuels – so that it does not lead to an accelerated destruction of the biosphere.