Remember when, not so long ago, “cold fusion” was a general term of derision, and those scientists who still worked on it were ostracized and condemned as quacks by the scientific community?
I looked into cold fusion seriously four years ago (see  From Cold Fusion to Condensed Matter Nuclear Science and other articles in the series, SiS 36), and became convinced that nuclear fusion reactions can be made to happen in desk top devices at well below thermonuclear temperatures (millions of degrees Centigrade).
Cold fusion works, and in many different forms  (How Cold Fusion Works, SiS 36), all dependent on the collective quantum properties of condensed matter that conventional quantum physics has yet to take into proper account. So it is appropriate to rename the study of cold fusion “condensed matter nuclear science”, and perhaps to refer to cold fusion as “condensed matter nuclear reactions”, instead of “low energy nuclear reactions” as generally done. There was no question that cold fusion could replace coal and other fossil fuels, and is an infinitely better alternative to nuclear power; it is inherently much safer, affordable, and sustainable. Furthermore, it could be exploited for decommissioning nuclear reactors and cleaning up spent nuclear fuels to make them safe  LENRs for Nuclear Waste Disposal (SiS 41). And, the technology is potentially suitable for distributed generation for local use, even for powering airplanes  Portable and Distributed Power Generation from LENRs, SiS 41). We have indeed recommended governments to support research and development into cold fusion while phasing out all nuclear power (see  Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050, ISIS 2009 energy report], particularly in view of the  Fukushima Nuclear Crisis (SiS 50).
However, the biggest hurdle to exploiting cold fusion is to get the reaction(s) under control and producing energy reliably and safely, i.e., to get a steady rate of heat production once the reactor is turned on, without overheating suddenly and blowing up, and to be able to turn off when not required.
Italian inventor Andrea Rossi claims to have done just that . His table top device, Energy Catalyzer, is ready for commercial production, and he says, cold fusion will be producing energy by the end of 2011. The first units will be used to build a 1 MW plant in Greece to power a factory that will produce 300 000 ten-kilowatt units of the cold fusion device a year. This would be the world’s first commercially-ready cold fusion device. Licensees and contracts already exist for USA and Europe. Mass production should escalate in 2-3 years.
Rossi says that they are now manufacturing the 1 MW plant by putting hundreds of modular devises together in series and in parallel. These modules will begin to be shipped by the end of October. On 31 January, Rossi wrote that the cost to produce the Energy Catalyzer is 1 cent per MWh generated and the life expectancy of the device is 20 years. It is about 1/2 000 the cost of coal power, the cheapest energy option .
The Energy Catalyzer works by putting nanometre to micron sized nickel (Ni) powder in a reactor along with pressurized hydrogen gas and special undisclosed (proprietary) catalysts. When the contents of the reactor are heated to about 400 to 500 ºC, nuclear reactions start. The reaction rate can be controlled by varying the pressure of the hydrogen in the reactor. The output energy can be up to 400 times the input energy. Importantly, no precious metals or radioactive substances are used. After the reactor is turned off, it can be opened and no radioactivity can be detected. In the process, nickel is transmuted into copper and other elements such as zinc.
Energy Catalyzer patented
Rossi built the Energy Catalyzer with support from his scientific consultant physicist and emeritus professor Sergio Focardi at Bologna University, whose research team had previously described a similar system for cold fusion that yielded considerably less power . According to Focardi, the hydrogen is heated with a simple resistor. “When the ignition temperature is reached, the energy production process starts, the hydrogen atoms penetrate into the nickel and transform it into copper.”
An application in 2008 to patent the device received an unfavourable preliminary report from the European Patent Office, citing serious deficiencies in both the description of the device and in the evidence provided to support its feasibility. But on 6 April 2011, a patent was granted by the Italian Office of Patents and Trademarks.
Rossi’s nuclear fusion process
The only description available on Rossi’s nuclear fusion process is a paper published in the Journal of Nuclear Physics  on Rossi’s blog, co-authored by Focardi and Rossi. It describes a process, though not in detail “as it is protected by patent in 90 countries”, whose heat output is up to a hundred times the electric energy input. It consists of Ni in an atmosphere of H, and in the presence of additives placed in a sealed container, and heated by a current passing through a resister.
The container is in thermal contact with an external tank full of water and thermally insulated. Three methods were used to estimate the output power. In method A, the water was allowed to boil and the steam pressure set not to exceed a limit of about 3-6 bar before a valve opens. When the valve opens, new water, measured by a meter, enters the supply.
In method B, warm water was forced through radiators connected in series with the device, and the energy produced was evaluated by measuring the power needed to obtain the same radiator temperature with a normal heating system.
In method C, water is pumped through a closed circuit that includes the device. Two thermocouples placed before and after the device enable the temperatures to be registered continuously on a computer, and the heat transferred from the device to the water can be calculated from the temperature difference.
The output energies in a series of 7 experiments performed between 28 May 2008 and 20 October 2009 were typically hundreds of times the input energies measured by all three methods, thereby ruling out any conventional chemical reactions. One experiment ran continuously from 5 March to 26 April 2009 and produced a total of 3768 kWh with an input of 18.54 kWh, the output/input ratio was 203.
Similar results were obtained in the factory of energy company EON in Bondeno (Ferrara, Italy) 25 June 2009, and another series of tests carried out in Bedford, New Hampshire USA, with the assistance of the Department of Energy 19 November 2009, and the Department of Defence 20 November 2009.
Focardi and Rossi proposed that the process involves proton capture by Ni nuclei to produce Cu. Proton, p, is the atomic nucleus of hydrogen.
XNi + p → X+1Cu (1)
X is the atomic mass of the original Ni, which exists in several isotopes, and X+1 the atomic mass of Cu after proton capture, which also exists in several isotopes. (For a primer on atoms and nuclei, see  or .) The copper nuclei - with the exception of 63Cu and 65Cu, which are stable - decay with the emission of positron e+ and neutrino n.
X+1Cu → X+1Ni + e+ + n (2)
Subsequently, the positron annihilates with an electron to produce two gamma-ray photons:
e+ + e- → g + g (3)
An alternative to reaction (2) is electron capture, in which a nucleus captures an orbital electron resulting in a neutron plus an antineutrino n*.
X+1Cu → X+1Ni + n* (4)
The two decay processes (positron emission and electron capture) are alternatives; their relative frequencies for the copper isotopes are largely unknown except for 64Cu, which decays by electron capture about twice as frequently as by positron emission.
In practice, starting from 58Ni , the most abundant isotope, all the Cu isotopes can be generated by successive proton capture, up to 63Cu, which is stable, so the chain should stop at 62Ni (but see below).
Taking into the account the natural abundances of the isotopes, and the reactions involved, the average theoretical energy yield per Ni nucleus is 35 MeV. For comparison, the theoretical yield per nucleus of 235U in a conventional nuclear reactor is 200 MeV, and in the not yet existing hot fusion reactor for deuterium and tritium, 18 MeV.
The tiny reactor (a 4.7 kW reactor demonstrated in public measured 3 cubic inch ) was lead shielded, and monitors for radioactivity were placed close to it: a gamma ray detector, three neutron bubble detectors, one of which for thermal neutrons (neutrons with very low energy, about 0.025 eV). No radiation was observed at levels greater than the natural background. Furthermore, no radioactivity has been found in the residue after the process (in the spent fuel). This was verified by the Health Physics Unit at Bologna University. The water drawn from the device was no more radioactive than tap water.
Two different samples of the spent fuel were analysed at Padua University. In the sample that ran for close to two months, there were three peaks corresponding to 63Cu, 64Ni and 64Zn. The ratio of 63Cu/65Cu in the sample was 1.6, quite different from the value 2.24 in natural samples of copper. 64Ni and 64Zn both came from 64Cu decay, and requires the existence of 63Ni, which is absent in nature (and not predicted as part of the sequence of proton capture), and could only have been created by a cold fusion reaction, such as neutron capture that the authors have not considered. Focardi and Rossi promised more details on the analysis in a subsequent paper.
For the theoretical interpretation, they favour electron screening in the nickel lattice which overcomes the strong electrostatic repulsion between the positively charged Ni nuclei and the protons. When the hydrogen atoms come in contact with the metal, they deposit their electrons in the delocalized conductive electron cloud of the metal, which is distributed in energy bands, and free to move throughout the metal lattice. Being very small, the protons can slip into defects of the nickel lattice as well as the tetrahedral or octahedral spaces of the crystal lattice. As heat is supplied, the crystal lattice vibrates, which may then bring the Ni nuclei and protons close enough together to fuse, with the delocalized electron cloud shielding out the electrostatic repulsion. A variant of this mechanism has been proposed for the fusion of deuterons into Helium-4  and (see ). The possibility of neutron capture should also be considered (see  Widom-Larsen Theory Explains Low Energy Nuclear Reactions & Why They Are Safe and Green, SiS 41).
Public demonstrations to gain acceptance
To promote his device and gain acceptance among other scientists, Andrea Rossi staged a series of public demonstrations, and also invited other scientists to carry out their own experiments with the device, and measure the input and output power for themselves .
The first demonstration held in Bologna 14 January 2011, was monitored by independent scientific representatives of Bologna University, including a researcher in physics Giuseppe Levi.
Ny Teknik, a Swedish technology magazine, reported: “for about an hour it produced approximately 10 kW of net power, loaded with one gram of nickel powder pressurized with hydrogen.” A poll carried out on their readers returned the result that “two-thirds do not believe in it.”
Levi said it was “impressive”, and that the Energy Catalyzer might be working as a new type of energy source. In an interview with Ny Teknik, Levi said what sets the work apart from everything he’s ever seen is that “we have 10 kW of measured energy output, and this output is completely repeatable. But what I want to do now is an experiment with continuous operation for at least one or more days.” He also ruled out chemical reaction as the energy source.
Discovery Channel analyst Benjamin Radford cited a Physor.com column: “If this all sounds fishy to you, it should,” and, “In many ways cold fusion is similar to perpetual motion machines. The principles defy the laws of physics, but that doesn’t stop people from periodically claiming to have invented or discovered one.”
The second test, lasting 18 hours, was carried out in Bologna on 10-11 February 2011 by Levi and Rossi, and was not public. Levi reported that the process was ignited by 1 250 W for five to ten minutes, and power was then reduced to 80 watts for controlling the electronics. Cooling was supplied by tap water and flow volume was monitored.
As reported by Ny Teknik, the temperature of inflow water was 7 ºC and for a while, the outlet temperature was 40 ºC. At the flow rate of about one litre per second, the peak power output was 130 kW. The power output was later stabilized at 15-20 kW. Levi calculated the consumption of hydrogen at 0.4 gram. “In my opinion, all chemical sources are now excluded,” he said.
On 29 March 2011, Hanno Essen, associate professor of theoretical physics and lecturer at the Swedish Royal institute of Technology and former chairman of the Swedish Skeptics Society, and Sven Kullander, professor emeritus at Uppsala university and also chairman of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science Energy Committee, participated as observers in a test of a smaller version of the Energy Catalyzer. According to Ny Teknik, the test ran for six hours, with a power output of 4.4 kW, and total energy output of about 25 kWh. The Swedish physicists reported: “Any chemical process should be ruled out for producing 25 kWh from whatever is in a 50 cubic centimetre container. The only alternative explanation is that there is some kind of a nuclear process that gives rise to the measured energy production.”
On 19 and 28 April 2011, two more demonstrations were held. The first was covered by the Italian 24-h all news state-owned television channel Rai News. A Ny Teknik author attended and tested for some previously noted possibilities of fraud. He calibrated the ammeter (that measures electric current), measured the water flow by weighing and calibrated the temperature sensor probe to confirm that all water is converted to steam. The measurements showed a net power of between 2.3 and 2.6 kW, while the input power was 300 W.
Not everyone convinced but commercial contracts secured
Rossi has not convinced everyone; far from it. Chief among the difficulty is that few details about the reactions and none about the catalysts have been revealed, and no paper has yet been published in a peer reviewed journal, apart from the one by Focardi and Rossi in Rossi’s self-published blog, Journal of Nuclear Physics (see Box), and related work published by Focardi in 1998.
Peter Ekström, lecturer of nuclear physics at Lund University in Sweden told Ny Teknik: “I am convinced that the whole story is one big scam, and that it will be revealed in less than one year.”
Kjell Aleklett, professor of physics at Uppsala University in Sweden,
summarized in his blog: “I myself have nothing against revealing a scam, or joining in and verifying something that no one could imagine. Both extremes belong to that which makes life as a researcher incredibly interesting.”
Ny Teknik also reports that, apart from the Greek project, Rossi has reached an agreement with Ampenergo, a US company, to receive royalties on sales of licenses and products built on the Energy Catalyzer in the Americas. Three of the founders knew Rossi since 1996 through Leonardo Technologies, Inc., which Rossi co-found, and sold his interest in the late 1990s, and which has been working on US government contracts. One of the founders is Robert Gentile, former Assistant Secretary of Energy for Fossil energy at the US Department of Energy.
I would put my money on it too. If Rossi does not succeed, others will. Governments in both developed and developing world should abandon nuclear and coal power, and seriously invest taxpayer’s money in cold fusion instead. It is much more affordable and especially appropriate for distributed local off-grid generation in developing countries  (see Lighting Africa, SiS 50). It would provide a safe, reliable, and extremely low-carbon steady power supply to complement already successful renewable options such as solar, wind, and anaerobic digestion .