E-Cat Fusion: Energy’s Future or Flimflam?
Practical nuclear fusion promises to be one of the most disruptive technologies ever created. Cheap, nearly-limitless and non-polluting, it would have an impact on nearly every facet of modern life. However, fusion’s promise has remained elusive. Now, one man in Italy claims to have cracked its secret, but his results remain contested.
Italian businessman Andrea Rossi, with assistance from the University of Bologna emeritus physics professor Sergio Focardi, has claimed to have developed and demonstrated a low-energy nuclear reaction (LENR) device known as the E-Cat, short for energy catalyzer. LENR, also unglamorously known as cold fusion, has had a checkered history ever since Stanly Pons and Martin Fleishmann claimed to have detected room-temperature fusion in the late 80s.
However, what makes the E-Cat story interesting is that there have been several demonstrations of his device. On October 28th Rossi and his team activated a one-megawatt plant that was inspected and then sold to a still unknown American company for $2 million. The plant, while rated for one megawatt, was limited to 479 kilowatts due to a technical glitch. However, the company still happily paid for the plant, which had been constructed inside of a shipping container for easy transport. Rossi has stated that since then he has sold several more. E-Cats will be built in Italy and the US.
Associated Press science reporter Peter Svensson was present at the October test. As yet, no story has been filed. In response to a question via Svensson’s twitter account as to when a story would be released, he simply said “stay tuned.”
According to Rossi’s company, Leonardo Corporation, the E-Cat uses a special form of nickel powder mixed with a secret catalyzer that, when combined with some input heat and pressurized hydrogen gas, produces thermal energy via nuclear fusion. In the process, the nickel is transmuted into copper. The system also uses a series of radio frequency (RF) generators to regulate the reaction. A few grams of cheap nickel can power an E-Cat core for several months, according to technical information on Leonardo’s site.
Rossi has been tight-lipped on the details but Leonardo Corp. has published its international E-Cat patent on its web site. The patent includes a theory as to how the reaction takes place.
So, what is to be made of all this? As Carl Sagan once said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Rossi has been criticized for not allowing outside review of his device. However, many scientists who have been present at his various demonstrations have left impressed. NyTeknik, a Swedish science magazine, had a scientist present at one demonstration to perform an analysis that gave credence to Rossi’s claims. On the other hand, other groups have been more skeptical due to the closed nature of Rossi’s tests, including PhysOrg.
While the mysteries remain, Rossi does not appear to be the usual fraudster. He reportedly sold his own home to fund his research and has not been asking for down payments or other types of unsecured investments. In addition, his tests have not included any dramatic moments typical of scams.
Last week, Leonardo Corp. contracted with National Instruments, a major manufacturer of monitoring and control equipment. The partnership will include the development of control systems and for future E-Cats.
According to Rossi, the E-Cats currently being produced are only suitable for heating and desalinization. Moving forward, the technology can be modified for power production with some tweaks. Rossi hope to offer E-Cats for under $700 per kilowatt once mass production begins.
So, the question now is: are we headed into a brave new world of cheap, essentially limitless energy or will Rossi and his E-Cat become another blip in the long history of unmet fusion promises? As always, it will ultimately come down to the proof being the pudding.