In January 2011 Andrea Rossi demonstrated a device that purported to develop 10 kW of power from a nuclear reaction. This video discusses its credibility, the investigations that have been done on the device, and its future prospects.
In the following, we discuss a number of aspects of this controversial device. With Judith Driscoll and Brian Josephon from the University of Cambridge. Transcript from the video:
[Picture of Rossi and Levi with the reactor]
Dennis M. Bushnell, NASA Chief Scientist, Langley Research Center: “This is capable of, by itself, completely changing geo-economics, geo-politics, and solving climate and energy”.
Judith Driscoll: What’s this Rossi reactor then? Why do you consider it so important?
Brian Josephson: This picture shows Rossi with his device [being shown to Sven Kullander, chairman of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ Energy Committee, and Hanno Essén, associate professor of theoretical physics and member of the board of the Swedish Skeptics Society, who carried out one of the investigations], which he calls the ‘Energy Catalyzer’, or E-cat for short. He says what’s happening is that there’s a nuclear reaction involving nickel and hydrogen. And since nuclear reactions produce so much more energy than ordinary chemical reactions, this means you can get a vast amount of energy with very little consumption of fuel. Furthermore, you won’t get any greenhouse gases produced.
JD: What’s the evidence that a nuclear process is involved?
BJ: Well, there’s some suggestion that copper is produced, that nickel has been transmuted into copper. But clear evidence is in regard to the amount of energy it produces. There’s a maximum amount of energy you can produce in a chemical reaction, so if the device produces vastly more energy than that, there must be something else going on, either a nuclear reaction or some unknown process. It’s been investigated a number of times, teams have come in to investigate it. For example, in February this year a test was carried out that ran for 18 hours. The amount of heat produced during that time was measured at 270 kWh. And that is the amount of energy you’d get from 25 kg of petrol. And since the size of the reaction chamber is only 50 ml, this rather rules out the idea of energy being generated by any conventional source. This appears to be pretty good evidence [various sources are mentioned at this point, repeated in subtitles. The Wikipedia article on the reactor is currently good, but is subject to the whims and prejudices of editors.
However, there are some problems with the idea that it is a nuclear reaction, because first of all conventional theory says that you need extremely high temperatures to get the reaction to go at a measurable rate, so people are skeptical on those grounds. On the other hand, there may be something wrong with the theory, because here we've got something happening in a solid; it's not in a gas with isolated protons going round. It's in a solid, so maybe many protons can cooperate and intensify the effect. So I think that's not such strong grounds for rejecting it.
Another argument people have against this is to say not many gamma rays are produced -- an extremely small amount of gamma rays [relative to what would be expected], and thess fusion processes normally generate gamma rays. But then again we’ve got a very different kind of situation to what happens in thermonuclear processes. You can see what might happen in this slide. Imagine two different situations. One is a rock that is falling in air; it falls with a crash on some surface. The other situation is where it’s falling through water, and when it’s falling through water the energy is just gradually getting transferred to the water, there’s no big crash. That’s just an explanation [in general terms] of why you mightn’t get gamma rays. There’s really very little in the way of theory — actually lots of attempts have been made to explain it [cold fusion] but there isn’t enough evidence to show which is right. I think it’s not impossible that an explanation will be found.
JD: How is the amount of heat measured?
BJ: Well, this is really just school physics. You’re putting cold water in and you’re getting hot water or steam coming out, and if you know how much water’s going through you know how much heat is being produced, that’s all there is to it really.
 In principle, but in practice one has to look carefully into what additional sources of heat there may be. Also, when steam is generated there are complications. The various investigations have attempted to address these issues.
Also, there’s quite a big difference in temperature, in some experiments there’s [at least] a five degrees temperature rise; in other cases the water actually boiled. So you can’t say that errors in measuring the temperature are responsible for it.
JD: Why does energy need to be fed into the reactor to keep it going? Can’t the energy it generates be fed back into the reactor, so it can keep going with no energy input?
BJ: According to Rossi you can do that — he says it can be run in a mode where you aren’t feeding energy in, but you it’s then difficult to stabilise it; … in practical applications you want a reactor that can easily be stabilized. So the devices he’s building have energy being fed in, and you control it by altering how much current is being fed into the device.
JD: You say no greenhouse gases are involved, but what about radioactivity?
BJ: Well, Rossi says there are no radioactive residues. It’s not like ordinary reactors where you have radioactive residues that go on emitting radiation and heat as well for a very long time. And also he says should there be something like, say, and earthquake, then the hydrogen would escape and the reaction would stop. So he claims, at any rate, that it’s all very safe.
JD: Is it possible that Rossi’s just fooling people, he’s made it seem as if the reactor is heating up water, but he’s just trying to persuade people to invest in it, or to buy it, but it actually doesn’t really work.
BJ: Various people think that this is all a scam, but it’s not that plausible an idea because he allows people to investigate it; they can decide what to measure, how to measure it, they can also look inside, peer inside; the only thing they can’t look at is the reactor that contains his secret catalyst. But it doesn’t matter if you can’t look inside as what you’re trying to do is to see if it can produce this vast amount of heat which has been measured, and no matter what ordinary process it is you can’t produce more than a certain amount of energy in that amount of volume. So it doesn’t really matter if you can’t look inside. The reason he doesn’t want people to look inside is that they might discover how he does it and obviously, since it’s a commercial enterprise he doesn’t want other people to be able to make it so that he would lose what he gets back by selling the devices.
JD: Can’t he protect the invention by patenting the ideas?
BJ: Well, the trouble is, patenting is a rather tricky process if you really want to protect [your invention]. He has got some patents but it’s not fully protected.
JD: If this is as important as you believe it is, how is it we haven’t heard about it?
BJ: Well, that’s a very interesting question. One wonders about this. What isn’t Nature [Journal], say, writing this up, I mean, [this information] is available, but Nature doesn’t seem to be interested. However, if you were in Sweden you would know about it because there’s a Swedish technology journal called Ny Teknik, and someone there called Mats Lewan has been following it — somebody told him about it — and he at any rate was interested, he’s been following it and in fact he was responsible for [arranging] some of the setups. He’s written a great number of articles over that time.
It’s funny that people aren’t interested, but it has its historical precedents. One thing that was pretty similar was when the Wright brothers — they got their first flying machine and people had seen it, and you’d have thought this would be of tremendous interest, but very little was published. The publisher of the local journal [the Dayton Daily News] said, when he was asked about it later, “Frankly, we didn’t believe it.” And then there’s a typical account with skepticism was a newspaper which said “The Wrights have flown or they have not flown. They possess a machine or they do not possess one. They are in fact either fliers or liars. It is difficult to fly. It’s easy to say, ‘We have flown’”. So this shows … the skeptical mind at work, dismissing something in that way. So, in the case of the Rossi reactor, people are saying “it is easy to overlook something”. But the question is, what has been overlooked. It is such a simple measurement that it is not clear what could have been overlooked [by people who have looked carefully at the device].
But of course, part of the problem is the history of cold fusion. Pons and Fleischmann brought out their original spectacular claims in a press conference they were rather pushed into and there was a lot of skepticism, they were attacked. … People tried to reproduce the experiment … they thought it was a very easy experiment — you just [feed in] an electric current and lo and behold the reaction would go, but it wasn’t actually that simple. So the result was, a lot of people failed to get anything out and they denounced Pons and Fleischmann, and said ‘this is all incompetence’, and somehow their voice was heard more loudly than the other people, who were successful. The skeptics got in first. And so, the skepticism bandwagon rolled, and somebody invented the phrase ‘fiasco of the century’ to describe it, and it had become the ‘well-established fact’ that cold fusion was a delusion. So Rossi had to fight against that general viewpoint.
But he’s really not so bothered about what the scientists think. In fact he wasn’t that keen on having scientists investigate it. His original plan had been simply to make a big reactor, producing so much power that people couldn’t say ‘nothing’s happening’. So that’s how it went.
JD: Is the reactor claim really so unbelievable?
BJ: Well, it looks unbelievable at first sight, but always in physics there are things you haven’t thought about, and I think here one possibility is that you’re getting energy concentrated into a point, as I said before. A familiar example of getting energy into a point is just hammering in a nail. The energy you have wouldn’t be able to get you into wood or whatever, but because it all gets concentrated into a point that forces its way in [SLIDE]. And so something like this may be happening, you may be pushing the hydrogen into nickel and there’s some obstruction or bottleneck, the [enhanced] flow of energy is produced at that point.
That’s one possibility. Another thing which is really quite similar, which people haven’t thought of in this context: someone called Seth Putterman — he and his colleagues got a device to work which actually produced nuclear reactions in a table-top experiment, and the way he did this was something called pyroelecticity. You heat up a substance and an electric field is produced. And that electric field he focussed on to a point, and there was a very strong electric field at that point. He had his crystal in deuterium gas, and that ionized the deuterium, and the electric field imparted so much energy to it that there were nuclear reactions and neutrons were produced. So … it shouldn’t really be thought so impossible. Fleischmann’s original idea was having a material where hydrogen was pushed in with high density with an electric current to see if anything happened, and lo and behold it did happen.
So, it’s been a gradual development. Rossi’s advance would appear to be to discover his secret catalyst, which makes the reaction go much faster, and make it a practical source of energy.
JD: So what do you think is going to happen?
BJ: Well, as I see it, there are two different worlds, there’s the world of the academic, and the world of the practical person. The academic is mired in theory, and wanting absolute proof, and says ‘this is nonsense’ — at least that’s the general view. Meanwhile Rossi is going ahead in the practical sphere, … he’s building these reactors and people will — one hopes — see that they’re producing lots of energy. His first reactor is due to be produced in October, and he has a buyer for it. People, by the way, don’t have to pay until they’re convinced it is working, which is not what fraudsters do. So I think gradually it will take off.
The unfortunate thing is there’s been a delay; there will be a delay in it getting going because the journals, and the media who follow the scientists, are refusing to publish anything. That delay will have consequences. It really does matter, from that point of view, that the scientists and the media are looking away