Four months ago, Andrea Rossi demonstrated what he claims was a one-megawatt "Energy Catalyser" -- or E-Cat -- which produces power by cold fusion. This technology, also known as Low Energy Nuclear Reaction (LENR), had been consigned to the deepest cellar of fringe science.
Now it's hammering on the cellar door, and Nasa, MIT, Darpa and Cern are among those peering through the keyhole, wondering if it should be allowed back in with respectable science. As part of Wired.co.uk's continued coverage of progress in this controversial field, we have investigated recent developments.
Nasa has started giving very mixed signals on cold fusion. After years of silence on the issue, a piece appeared on its website stating that LENR tests carried out at Nasa's Glenn Research Centre "consistently show evidence of anomalous heat," indicating that cold fusion was taking place. There is also a link to a paper given at an LENR Workshop held at Glenn in September 2011. However, when questioned, a Nasa spokesman stated out that there was no Nasa cold fusion project, and no budget for it. The work appears to be carried out on the side by interested Nasa scientists.
Even more dramatically, on 16 January a video appeared on Nasa's Technology Gateway site, essentially a marketplace for commercialising technology developed at Nasa. This featured Dr Joseph Zawodny talking about his "Method for Enhancement of Surface Plasmon Polaritons to Initiate & Sustain LENR." In this Dr Zawodny says the technology has the potential to provide home heating and electricity, cleanly and without nuclear waste.
The video release was quickly followed by a long post on Dr Zawodny's blog explaining that he was expressing his own views on LENR and not those of Nasa. In response to the clamour from Rossi's fans, he stressed that he was not yet convinced the E-Cat works: "I am unaware of any clear and convincing demonstrations of any viable commercial device producing useful amounts of net energy."
Steven Krivit of New Energy Times used the Freedom of Information Act to get details of more Nasa LENR presentations and clearly there's quite a fan club there.
Meanwhile Cern is holding a colloquium on LENR, scheduled for 22 March. This will be available live via webcast, and will be given by Francesco Celani from the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics.
Cern is of course a major bastion of mainstream science; a search of Cern's site shows just eight papers on cold fusion compared to over 8,000 on conventional hot fusion. The colloquium seems like inviting a heretic to preach in a cathedral. A recent presentation shows that Celani is a strong advocate for LENR, suggesting that the challenge now is understanding exactly how it works. (He also states that Rossi's claims, though not impossible, need independent verification)
MIT, which played a key role in discrediting the original cold fusion studies in 1989, might also be shifting its position a little. This January for the first time there was a short course called "Cold Fusion 101." This was taught by Peter Hagelstein, who has been working on LENR for many years. According to a report in Cold Fusion Times, the course included a working demonstration of LENR showing measurable excess of heat.
Darpa, the Pentagon's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, has been quietly pursuing LENR for some years. Its budget plans for next year, released earlier this month, listed some significant achievements: "Continued quantification of material parameters that control degree of increase in excess heat generation and life expectancy of power cells in collaboration with the Italian Department of Energy. Established ability to extend active heat generation time from minutes to 2.5 days for pressure-activated power cells."
However, when contacted Darpa were unable to comment on this work.
But what of Andrea Rossi and Defkalion?
In the meantime, Andrea Rossi has been playing the tightrope walker, always appearing to be a whisker from tumbling into the abyss. The University of Bologna terminated an agreement to explore the E-Cat after he failed to make a progress payment; but a later statement indicated it was still keen to work with him.
As New Energy Times noted, the original one-megawatt device which was supposedly sold to a mystery customer months ago has not moved. When he has free heating, why is his Bologna factory so cold that Rossi needs an overcoat in one video? Rossi responded in terms of the size of the space and the available E-Cats.
More digging by New Energy Times suggested that Rossi was not in fact working in partnership with National Instruments as he has claimed. However, a later statement by the company confirmed that Rossi's account was substantially correct, even if he was not an actual customer.
If Rossi has not produced anything tangible in the last few months, he has certainly come up with plenty of vapourware. The entire E-Cat design has been revamped and upgraded. Instead of costing thousands, the price of a ten-kilowatt domestic E-Cat will now be between 500-700 Euros. It will be the size of a desktop PC and able to directly replace existing boilers, and will be refuelled by changing a simple cartridge every six months. In a year or two's time, Rossi says it will also be possible to generate electricity from an E-Cat.
Rossi claims that almost 100,000 people have signed up to express interest in ordering an E-Cat: "You will be put in the waiting list and in Autumn you will receive a precise offer: at that point you will be free to cancel the order or confirm it. The deliveries could start within one year (could, not will)."
Rossi also claims that he will have a completely robotised production line which will churn out a million E-Cats in the first year alone. However, the very existence of the factory remains unproven, along with his mystery customer, mystery business partners, mystery suppliers and the mystery investors who now apparently control his company, Leonardo Corp.
Perhaps Rossi's "precise offer" might ask customers to make a deposit. It would take a very trusting soul to hand over cash without the sort of evidence that Zawodny and Celani seek.
While Rossi has declined to give any further public or scientific demonstrations, saying that he wants to leave it to the market, his rival Defkalion Green technologies has seemingly taken a much bolder approach. It has invited independent testers to carry out trials on its Hyperion LENR reactor.
We know that seven independent test groups will be involved, but there things get a bit murky. Non-disclosure agreements are in place, and it is not certain what information will be released or when: if the Very Big Oil Corporation finds the Hyperion works, it might prefer to talk to Defkalion itself rather than publicising it. (And big oil might just be interested -- the indefatigable Steven Krivit found that Royal Dutch Shell has started looking for opportunities to work with LENR experts.)
What we do know is that according to the test protocol, one live and one inert Hyperion will be tested side by side for 48 hours, with the inert machine acting as a control. Then the active component will be removed from the live and placed in the inert one, and the test will be run again, so the complete test will take a minimum of four days.
Defkalion has confirmed that the tests will start on 24 February. According to Sterling Allan of Peswiki, who visited Defkalion a couple of weeks ago, the first round of tests will be carried out by a Greek government organisation. Defkalion has not released anything about the identity of the testers.
So perhaps the Greek government will soon announce a fantastic new energy source, one that will solve the country's economic problems at a stroke and provide the world with unlimited cheap energy. No doubt they would love to do that… and the rest of us will also await test results with interest.