Thursday, January 27, 2011

Is Cold Fusion real this time?

Almost twenty two years ago Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons excited the scientific world with the promise of Cold Fusion. They claimed to have achieved fusion at room temperatures producing a positive amount of energy. If true this could have lead to cheaper power. As more scientists tried to replicate the Fleischmann-Pons experiement the general consensus was Cold Fusion was not happening.

I remember one of the jokes being passed around at the time:

Cold Fusion: Looney Theory of the Week

"Hey Mike?"

"Yeah, Gabe?"

"We got a problem down on Earth. In Utah."

"I thought you fixed that last century!"

"No, no, not that. Someone's found a loophole in the physics program. They're getting energy out of nowhere."

"Blessit! Lemme check..."<>

"Hey, I thought I fixed that! All right, let me find my terminal." <>

"There, that ought to patch it."

The joke was that for a little while Cold Fusion did work, until someone fixed the Earth's operating system. (To really appreciate this you probably have to be a nerd.)

Well Cold Fusion is back in the news. This time Italian scientists claim to have demonstrated cold fusion:

Despite the intense skepticism, a small community of scientists is still investigating near-room-temperature fusion reactions. The latest news occurred last week, when Italian scientists Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi of the University of Bologna announced that they developed a cold fusion device capable of producing 12,400 W of heat power with an input of just 400 W. Last Friday, the scientists held a private invitation press conference in Bologna, attended by about 50 people, where they demonstrated what they claim is a nickel-hydrogen fusion reactor. Further, the scientists say that the reactor is well beyond the research phase; they plan to start shipping commercial devices within the next three months and start mass production by the end of 2011.

Rossi and Focardi say that, when the atomic nuclei of nickel and hydrogen are fused in their reactor, the reaction produces copper and a large amount of energy. The reactor uses less than 1 gram of hydrogen and starts with about 1,000 W of electricity, which is reduced to 400 W after a few minutes. Every minute, the reaction can convert 292 grams of 20°C water into dry steam at about 101°C. Since raising the temperature of water by 80°C and converting it to steam requires about 12,400 W of power, the experiment provides a power gain of 12,400/400 = 31. As for costs, the scientists estimate that electricity can be generated at a cost of less than 1 cent/kWh, which is significantly less than coal or natural gas plants.

This would be cool if it turns out to be true. We'll have to wait and see. (Maybe someone needs to patch Earth's Operating System again.)

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