It’s actually here: the world’s first fusion power plant that is capable of generated a single megawatt of power and is available for pre-order. It’s known as the E-Cat 1MW Plant, which comes in a standard shipping container and uses low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR) – a process, often known as cold fusion, that fuses nickel and hydrogen into copper – to produce energy 100,000 times more efficiently than combustion.
E-Cat, or Energy Catalyzer, is a technology (and company of the same name) developed by Andrea Rossi – an Italian scientist who claims he’s finally harnessed cold fusion. For just $1.5 million, people can pre-order an E-Cat and expect delivery by early 2014. With this news, many are wondering if the age of cold fusion, where clean, abundant energy is readily available, is finally upon us.
Cold fusion, as the name implies, is like normal fusion, but instead of producing fast neutrons and ionizing radiation that decimates everything in its path, cold fusion’s Low-Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) produce very slow, safe neutrons. Where normal fusion requires massive, expensive containment systems, it sounds like E-Cat’s cold fusion can be safely contained inside a simple, pressurized vessel.
And while normal fusion power is generated by fusing hydrogen atoms, cold fusion fuses nickel and hydrogen into copper, by way of some kind of special catalyst. Despite the rudimentary setup, though, cold fusion still has the massive power and energy density intrinsic to atomic fusion. In short, it produces far more energy than conventional chemical reactions – such as burning fossil fuels. The only challenge is, the massive amounts of power that are usually required to initiate the reaction.
According to E-Cat, each of its cold fusion reactors measures 20x20x1 centimeters (7.8×7.8×0.39 inches) and you stack these individual reactors together in parallel to create a thermal plant. The E-Cat 1MW Plant consists of 106 of these units rammed into a standard shipping container. Based on the specs provided by Rossi, the fuel costs works out to be $1 per megawatt-hour, which is utterly insane. Coal power is around $100 per megawatt-hour.
But before anyone gets too excited about the commercialization of cold fusion, it should be noted that Rossi is still being incredibly opaque about how his cold fusion tech actually works. The data sheet for the 1MW Plant shares one interesting tidbit: Despite producing 1MW of power, the plant requires a constant 200 kilowatts of input power — presumably to sustain the reaction.
The spec sheet also says that the fuel (specially treated nickel and hydrogen gas) needs to be recharged every two years. One of the science community’ biggest sticking points about Rossi’s cold fusion devices is that he hasn’t proven that his LENR is self-sustaining. Despite a huge amount of output energy, the device still needs to be connected to the mains.
What’s more, due to a lack of published papers, and thus peer review, and a dearth of protective patents, the scientific community in general remains very wary of Rossi’s claims. And of course, we should all remember that this is not the first time that researchers have proclaimed victory in the race to make cold fusion happen. Whenever the words “cold fusion” are raised in conjunction, the case of the Fleischmann–Pons experiment immediately springs to mind.
For those who remember, this case involved an experiment made in 1989 where two researchers claimed to have achieved cold fusion using palladium rods and heavy water. Initially, the scientific community treated the news with exciteent and interest, but after numerous labs were unable to reproduce their experiment, and a number of false positives were reported, their claims were officially debunked and they relocated their lab to avoid any further controversy.
At the same time, however, one must remember that some significant changes have happened in the past three decades. For one, NASA’s LENR facility has been working on producing cold fusion reactions for some time using an oscillating nickel lattice and hydrogen atoms. Then there was the recent milestone produced by the National Ignition Facility in California, which produced the first fusion reaction using lasers that produced more energy than it required.
Who’s to say if this is the real deal? All that is known is that between this most recent claim, and ongoing experiments conducted by NASA and other research organizations to make LENR cold fusion happen, a revolution in clean energy is set to happen, and will most likely happen within our lifetimes.
Addendum: Just been informed by WordPress that this is my 1400th post! Woot-woot!
Sources: extremetech.com, ecat.com