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Will quantum fusion save the day?

The Astrophysicist, when he has time, will have something to say about his reading of the physics of the material Tom Whipple sums up.

This situation however seems to be changing following a lengthy interview with a fellow out in Berkeley, California by the name of Robert Godes of Brillouin Energy. He has been working in this field for the last ten years and says that he not only has a reliable heat-producing device, but also understands the physics behind it - which he calls the Quantum Fusion Hypothesis. He says that this theory of just how low-energy nuclear reactions work has allowed the development of a device which produces heat immediately and reliably. Most interestingly, Godes says he has shared his insights with scientists at the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratories and SRI International, one of the leading US laboratories investigating the phenomenon. He says that both have verified that his theory does indeed work and that they can now produce heat from hydrogen every time they try.

Godes' hypothesis is interesting for those with even a smattering of physics in their background. First of all, he holds that the heat which is coming from infusing hydrogen into nickel or palladium is not coming from "cold fusion" in the classic sense of the term. It is not a deuterium fusing with deuterium reaction as takes place in the sun or H-bombs and which requires extremely high energies.

What seems to be happening in this new kind of fusion is that when hydrogen is "loaded" into nickel or palladium and subjected to the proper kind of an electromagnetic pulse, the hydrogen nucleus which is a positively charged proton acquires an electron which turns it into a low energy free neutron. Now a low energy free neutron is something very nice to have for it quickly combines with other protons to form deuterium, tritium and finally quadrium. The quadrium only lasts for an instant before undergoing a process called beta decay turning it into helium. This is where Einstein and E = MC2 comes in. The beta decay of quadrium results in a loss of mass which is turned into heat. If all this pans out as claimed, it could be one of the most important secrets of nature that has ever been discovered, for our energy problems are over.

Without the flow caliormetry, it is pretty hard to say whether there's anything under the smoke and mirrors - and who knows, there may be. At this particular juncture, as I personally understand it (not that my understanding is worth much), atomic mass remains constant when the conditions for changing protons to neutrons exists and decay energy is always smaller, but I'm certainly not the person to evaluate these results.

That said I'm inclined to skepticism - hang around energy issues long enough and you find lots of people saying they can contravene the laws of physics, or invent new ones. What makes this even worthy of consideration is that it comes from Tom Whipple, who is incredibly smart and knows energy issues really well. Still, Whipple seems to be going out of his way to overstate things, perhaps anticipating skepticism.

Eric's rather dry comment in his first reaction to Whipple's mention that it is "not yet a theory" was "Ummm...yes, you could say it is definitely not yet a theory." In fact, it isn't even in the ballpark of a theory - it is one person's hypothesis with data that has not been released, no peer reviewed papers on the subject whatsoever, in an application where he is attempting to find commercial funding. No, definitely not a scientific theory, or even in that ballpark. Which doesn't mean it won't become one someday.

I admit, though, I find myself thinking of Richard Feynman's comments on perpetual motion machines. This is not the same thing, of course, but it is a useful cautionary tale to remember:

Mr. Papp talked about how the motor worked, using vague and complicated phrases about radiation, atoms, different levels of energy, quanta, and this and that, all of which made no sense whatsoever, and would never work.

But the rest of what he said was important, for every fraud has to have the right characteristics: Mr. Papp explained that he had tried to sell his engine to the big automobile companies, but they wouldn't buy it because they were afraid it would put all the big oil companies out of business.

So there was obviously a conspiracy working against Mr. Papp's marvelous new engine. Then there was a reference to the magazine articles, and an announcement that in a few days the engine was going to be sent to the Stanford Research Laboratory for validation. This proved, of course, that the engine was real. There was also an invitation to prospective investors to get in on this great opportunity to make large amounts of money, because it was very powerful. And there was a certain danger!

There were quite a few wires running from the engine down to where Mr. Papp and the spectators were standing, into a set of instruments used for measurement; these included a variac, a variable transformer with a dial which could put out different voltages. The instruments were, in turn, connected by a cord to an electrical outlet in the side of the building. So it was pretty obvious where the power supply was.

The engine started to go around, and there was a bit of disappointment: the propeller of the fan went around quietly without the noise of an ordinary engine with powerful explosions in the cylinders, and everything- it looked very much like an electric motor.

Mr. Papp pulled the plug from the wall, and the fan propeller continued to turn. 'You see, this cord has nothing to do with the engine; it's only supplying power to the instruments,' he said. Well, that was easy. He's got a storage battery inside the engine. 'Do you mind if I hold the plug?' I asked? 'Not at all,' replied Mr. Papp, and he handed it to me.

It wasn't very long before he asked me to give me back the plug. 'I'd like to hold it a little longer,' I said, figuring that if I stalled around enough, the damn thing would stop.

Pretty soon Mr. Papp was frantic, so I (Richard Feynman) gave him back the plug and he plugged it back into the wall. A few moments later there was a big explosion:

I'm not claiming this is a scam at all, or that if it is, it is an intentional scam like the one above. What I would say is that there is a reason why most devices that seem unlikely are, and skepticism is the appropriate human response. We have yet to see a high-EROEI device that didn't come with significant unintended consequences - if this was one, it would be the VERY FIRST in human history.

While I'm going to wait for the astrophysicist to comment on the physics, I do think I might add something is with the hyperbolic bits of this essay, such as when Whipple says "our energy problems are over!" Because even if this were true, the above statement represents a non-sequitur in its most literal sense - something that does not follow from the previous statement. I don't blame Whipple for going there, but because so many people do, I think it is worth unpacking why this is not necessarily true.

So let us imagine that in fact, such a limitless source of energy does exist. Does it actually solve all our energy problems? Because this is a real and interesting and important question - and one many people believe to be the case. In fact, I would argue that the reason we need to talk about this is that the assumption that something being possible solves the problem is incredibly pervasive even among well educated people who ought to know better.

Last year I had the pleasure of spending an hour talking with (some might say grilling ;-)) my Congressman, Paul Tonko, about energy and fuel issues. At one point in our rather lively discussion, Tonko talked about ethanol and its returns. I argued that he was overstating the returns - and realized shortly that he was conflating cellulosic and algae ethanol with corn ethanol production - and speaking about AS THOUGH those latter two things were already real and widely available. When I called him on that, Tonko agreed that neither one of those were ready for prime time, but rejected the idea we should speak only about the technology as it stands now, because, of course, the fact that we know we can make ethanol on a very small scale from these things means it will inevitably become a near-term factor. In fact, it is nothing of the sort - neither one is fully ready for prime time or at all cost competetive, so when we speak about ethanol as an energy source RIGHT NOW we are talking almost entirely about food (Corn, mostly in the US) going to produce gas, and that's so far neither scalable or without consequences.

I mention this not to pick on Paul Tonko who I think is awfully smart and an extremely congressman, but to point out how universally we believe that technology IN AND OF ITSELF is right there to save us simply by existing. That is, because things exist, we tend to assume that economic, social and technological barriers will magically be overcome. And yet, that's not true - we've known, for example, how to use hydrogen as an energy storage mechanism for a very, very long time, and yet the once much-touted "hydrogen economy" has never become even remotely real, because of technical and economic issues. Technical feasibility, despite our desires and assumptions, does not translate into "make it so." We often assume it does, but that isn't factually correct, as I wrote in this essay:

One of the hardest concepts for many Americans to absorb is this - that technical feasibility rests on a complex bed of other feasibilities and never stands alone. Thus, simply observing that it is technically possible to, say, create zero impact cities or to run our cars on corn waste does not usefully tell us whether we are going to do so or not. This historical reality stands in stark contrast to the perceptions that many of us have, which is that technology operates as a kind of vending machine into which one puts quarters and gets inevitable results.

For example, it has been technically possible to eliminate most causes of death in childhood for the world's poor for thirty to forty years, and periodically the UN and other agencies explain how this might technically come about. But without other base elements of feasibility - a real commitment to saving impoverished children worldwide - it turns out that it is technically infeasible.

The same, of course, is true of addressing climate change and peak energy - it was wholly technically feasible for us to begin transitioning to a renewable energy economy in the 1970s, and had we done so, both issues would be vastly more manageable and comparatively minor concerns. It is still technically feasible, although enormously difficult, that we could drop industrial emissions dramatically or reduce our fossil fuel consumption. It is not, however, economically or politically feasible that we do so, as evidenced by the fact that we're not, despite emergent consequences.

We are in the habit of forgetting the basis of will, energy and money that technical capacities rest on - we assume that because an outcome is desirable, it is therefore likely. But low infant mortality is eminently desirable, something I suspect most of us can agree on - and there are no major technical barriers.

I'm willing to concede that if this does work as described, we are probably looking at an incredibly high EROEI. If it turns out as claimed that heat and water are the only outputs (and not any of those neutrons or beta radiation), that the casing materials are not consumed and it turns out to be fairly easy to build them, the research gets published, verified and duplicated rapidly and production gets started on multiple fronts, and we have time and resources to get the kinks out, find the funding, run the demo plants, see how the long term unintended consequences if any shake out, the retrofit our entire society, I can totally hang up my hat on peak oil and turn to writing about other stuff - I'm assuming I'll write cute stories about my kids and post pictures of cats like most folks on the web. And hey, that'll give me loads more time for my garden.

By any chance did you notice the chain of things that are necessary to getting from an article about a hypothesis on which we have no data to "hey, I'm going to put some shrimp on the quantum fusion-powered barbie tonight!" There were quite a few of them, weren't there? Now it is taken as a given in our larger culture that those are trivialities can be erased by something we call "innovation" and "market forces" - which we really translate as "our ability to make all this stuff happen." Unfortunately, when we look back at the history of technology, what we find is that innovation alone, market forces alone don't work all that well in many cases. Sometimes they do - the amazing cases are pretty easy to spot. But neither is it that difficult to spot examples of things that we could technically do, that would have been an awesomely great idea, but that didn't happen, despite ingenuity and resources.

Even if all of the ducks that need to be in a row to make this happen are there, we need to remember two other things. The first one is that solving our energy problems may not solve our other fundamental problems. I know Tom Whipple understands the distinction, but it would be an easy mistake for a reader to translate "energy problems" to mean "problems." For example, if climate is as sensitive as some scientists suggest, the time frame for development of this technology may not be sufficient to have it come online before we've crossed critical climate tipping points.

Now having all the energy we want and no limits on its use would certainly help us mitigate an extreme climate disaster, but there's really no evidence that it would be ENOUGH.

It would be great if, for example, we could run air-conditioners 24/7 without worrying for billions of people as the planet heat up, or afford to medivac in people with free electric emergency vehicles, but a planet eating up 1/5 or more of its economic resources annually in disaster mitigation is still going to be a planet in crisis. The same is true with our agricultural and other ecological crises - more energy can help in some measure. But it would be a huge mistake to believe that energy alone is sufficient. Add in a considerable time frame to get from 0-60, and it behooves us to be cautious even if we think this would work. Collapsed societies historically have a hard time bringing major new technologies on line - this resource would have to come into play at the right moment - and the last possible moment to do so get closer all the time.

In fact, most collapsed societies have collapsed WITH the means to avoid collapse within their technical grasp, as Jared Diamond so eloquently describes in _Collapse_ - most of them could have planted more trees, or not drawn down their resources so rapidly. They had all the tools in place to prevent a disaster - and didn't. One can easily make a compelling case that we too have needed no technologies that we did not have at any point in this process - had we started shifting to renewable energies earlier in the game, as was proposed in the 1970s, we too could avoid crisis. Technologies themselves are not saviors. This is hard to remember, but critical - technology is great, but it always has unintended consequences, and in the end, usually doesn't make or break societies.

It would be wise to remember this bit from the 30 year Update of The Limits to Growth:

"The most common criticisms of the original World3 model were that it underestimated the power of technology and that it did not represent adequately the adaptive resilience of the free market. It is true that we did not include in the original World3 model technological progress at rates that would automatically solve all problems associated with exponential growth in the human ecological footprint....[But] in several scenarios we test accelerated technological advance and possible future technical leaps beyond these 'normal' improvements. What if materials are almost entirely recycled? What if land yield doubles again and yet again? What if emissions are reduced at 4% per year over the coming century?

Even with such assumptions, the model world tends to overshoot its limits. Even with the most effective technologies and the greatest economic resilience that we believe is possible, if these are the only changes, the model tends to generate scenarios of collapse." (TLTG:TTYU p. 204-5)

Whether this discovery turns out to be true or false, the question of whether it or anything else can "save" us in the sense most people would like to be saved - let us go on as we have been - is dependent on a number of variables that go beyond "can we build it." At a minimum, it seems wise not to put too many eggs in any basket, for it is perfectly possible to imagine us with a solution at our fingertips that is still out of our functional reach.


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