The Future is Fusion: Surpassing the “Break-Even” Point

JET_fusionreactorFor decades, scientists have dreamed of the day when cold fusion – and the clean, infinite energy it promises – could be made possible. And in recent years, many positive strides have been taken in that direction, to the point where scientists are now able to “break-even”. What this means is, it has become the norm for research labs to be able to produce as much energy from a cold fusion reaction as it takes in triggering that reaction in the first place.

And now, the world’s best fusion reactor – located in Oxfordshire, Engand – will become the first fusion power experiment to attempt to surpass it. This experiment, known as the Joint European Torus (JET), has held the world record for fusion reactor efficiency since 1997. If JET can reach break-even point, there’s a very good chance that the massive International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) currently being built in France will be able to finally achieve the dream of self-sustaining fusion. 


Originally built in 1983, the JET project was conceived by the European Community (precursor to the EU) as a means of making fusion power a reality. After being unveiled the following year at a former Royal Navy airfield near Culham in Oxfordshire, with Queen Elizabeth II herself in attendance, experiments began on triggering a cold fusion reaction. By 1997, 16 megawatts of fusion power were produced from an input power of 24 megawatts, for a fusion energy gain factor of around 0.7.

Since that time, no one else has come close. The National Ignition Facility – the only other “large gain” fusion experiment on the planet, located in California – recently claimed to have broken the break-even point with their  laser-powered process. However, these claims are apparently mitigated by the fact that their 500 terrawat process (that’s 500 trillion watts!) is highly inefficient when compared to what is being used in Europe.

NIF Livermore July 2008Currently, there are two competing approaches for the artificial creation of nuclear fusion. Whereas the NIF uses “inertial confinement” – which uses lasers to create enough heat and pressure to trigger nuclear fusion – the JET project uses a process known as “magnetic confinement”. This process, where deuterium and tritium fuel are fused within a doughnut-shaped device (a tokamak) and the resulting thermal and electrical energy that is released provides power.

Of the two, magnetic confinement is usually considered a better prospect for the limitless production of clean energy, and this is the process the 500-megawatt ITER fusion reactor once its up and running. And while JET itself is a fairly low-power experiment (38 megawatts), it’s still very exciting because it’s essentially a small-scale prototype of the larger ITER. For instance, JET has been upgraded in the past few years with features that are part of the ITER design.

fusion_energyThese include a wall of solid beryllium that can withstand being bombarded by ultra-high-energy neutrons and temperatures in excess of 200 million degrees. This is a key part of achieving a sustained fusion reaction, which requires that a wall is in place to bounce all the hot neutrons created by the fusion of deuterium and tritium back into the reaction, rather than letting them escape. With this new wall in place, the scientists at JET are preparing to pump up the reaction and pray that more energy is created.

Here’s hoping they are successful! As it stands, there are still many who feel that fusion is a pipe-dream, and not just because previous experiments that claimed success turned out to be hoaxes. With so much riding on humanity’s ability to find a clean, alternative energy source, the prospects of a breakthrough do seem like the stuff of dreams. I sincerely hope those dreams become a reality within my own lifetime…

Sources:, (2)

The Future of Energy: Cold Fusion for US and China

NASA_coldfusionThe science behind cold fusion has been a source of constant controversy for decades. Not only has this pursuit turned up its share of phony claims, the fact that it also promises to yield clean, abundant energy on the cheap has led to no shortage of romantic endorsements and vocal detractors. But if it could be made to work, there is no doubt that our energy problems would be solved, and in a way that is not harmful to our environment.

Last February, NASA made waves by announcing that they were working towards cold fusion through low-energy nuclear reaction (LENR) technology. Then in September, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California announced a major milestone when they managed to produce a controlled reaction that provided more energy that was required to start it.

e-cat1But all of that seemed to pale in comparison to the announcement by Andrea Rossi’s that he managed to create a fusion power plant that was reportedly capable of generated a single megawatt of power. Known as the E-Cat 1MW Plant (short for Energy-Catalyser), Rossi announced its creation back in November, and indicated that he and his company were taking pre-orders and that they would start deliveries by 2014.

Today, the big news is that a large US investment company has acquired the rights to the cold fusion LENR technology. That investment company is Cherokee Investment Partners, and they appear to be interested in deploying the cold fusion tech commercially in both China and the US to meet both countries existing and projected energy needs.

fusion_energyRelying on the same process as other LENR technology, the E-Cat generates cold fusion by taking nickel and hydrogen and fusing them into copper – a process that has 10,000 times the energy density of gasoline, and 1,000 times the power density. Rossi says he’s found a special catalyst that makes the process work, but many scientists remain unconvinced.

Regardless of whether or it not it can deliver, it now seems that Rossi’s previously allusions to an American partner are true after all. Much like everything surrounding Rossi, he chose to be nebulous about the identity of the company that was supporting him. However, with this latest deal, Cherokee and its CEO Thomas Darden, a man who has a history of investing in clean energy, is a believer in the design.

e-cat3In addition to preparing the patents through a Limited Liability Company – known as Industrial Heat – there are also reports that Darden recently visited China to showcase the E-Cat to Chinese officials and businesspeople. China is reportedly looking at using the E-Cat to significantly reduce its carbon footprint and meet its the energy needs of its growing cities in a way that won’t generate more air pollution.

Needless to say, this deal has bolstered Rossi’s and the E-Cat’s credibility, but the technology remains unproven. Rossi says that he has a team of international scientists that are planning to do another round of tests on the E-Cat which are slated to end in March, with a peer-reviewed report to follow sometime after that. Fingers crossed, those rounds of test will provide conclusive proof.

Then, we can all get to work dreaming about a bright, clean future, and the thousands of applications such plants will have!


The Future of Fusion: 1-MW Cold Fusion Plant Now Available!

fusion_energyIt’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.

E.Cat1Cold 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.

e.cat2According 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.

E.Cat5_-1030x858The 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.

NASA_coldfusionFor 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!


The Future of Fusion: Milestone Hit Amidst Funding Fears

fusion_reactorThe National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermoore, California has made quite a bit of headlines lately. But when you’re goal is to harness fusion power – a clean, unlimited and cheap source of energy – that is abound to happen. For decades, the challenge of harnessing fusion has been to create a process that produces more energy than it consumes; a goal which has remained elusive.

However, a recent breakthrough at NIF has brought us all one step closer to viability. Apparently, the breakthrough happened in late September, where the amount of energy released through the latest controlled fusion reaction exceeded the amount of energy being absorbed by the fuel. This was the first time this had been achieved at any fusion facility anywhere in the world.

fusion_energyNIF, based at Livermore in California, uses 192 beams from the world’s most powerful laser to heat and compress a small pellet of hydrogen fuel to the point where nuclear fusion reactions take place. Viability, in this case, meant producing more energy from a fusion reaction than was consumed by the lasers themselves and any inefficiencies that cost power along the way.

As already noted, this breakthrough has been decades in the making. After nearly 50 years of experimentation and failure, the NIF announced in 2009 that its aim was to demonstrate nuclear fusion producing net energy by 30 September 2012. But unexpected technical problems ensured the deadline came and went; the fusion output was less than had originally been predicted by mathematical models.

NIF Livermore July 2008Soon after, the $3.5 billion facility shifted focus, cutting the amount of time spent on fusion versus nuclear weapons research – which was part of the lab’s original mission. However, the latest experiments showed that net energy  output is possible, which in turn will provide a welcome boost to ignition research at NIF as well as encouraging fusion research in general.

Despite this breakthrough, there are worries that the research will not be able to continue. Thanks to the government shutdown, federal funding for major research labs like the NIF is threatened. A suspension in funding can be just as harmful as it being cut off altogether, as delays at a crucial juncture can mean all progress will be lost.

NASA_coldfusionLuckily, the NIF is just one of several projects around the world aimed at harnessing fusion. They include the multi-billion-euro ITER facility, currently under construction in Cadarache, France. However, ITER will take a different approach to the laser-driven fusion, using magnetic fields to contain the hot fusion fuel – a concept known as magnetic confinement.

What’s more, NASA’s own research into cold fusion that relies on weak nuclear forces – as opposed to strong ones – is likely to continue, regardless of whether it meets the requirements for emergency exemption. And given that the prize of this research is a future where all our energy needs are provider for using a cheap, abundant, clean alternative, there is no way we’re stopping now!


NASA’s Cold Fusion Technology

cold_fusionIn 1989, two scientific researchers – Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons – announced the achievement of cold fusion. In a press release that garnered massive amounts of publicity, they stating that their experiment, involving a electrified palladium rod placed in a solution of heavy water, had succeeded in absorbing hydrogen and compressing it within the rod to the point that individual atoms began to fuse and helium was formed.

Naturally, other labs began to test their method and found that the same did not happen for them. With time, the experiment was revealed to be the result of a false positive as more and more labs claimed they unable to replicate the results. In the end, their announcement appeared premature and their claims unscientific. Still, the men never retracted their claim and moved their labs overseas.

NASA_coldfusionAnd interestingly enough, the declaration that they had achieved the dream of clean, abundant, cheap energy fueled the public’s imagination. Henceforth, the concept of cold fusion, as they had preached it, was featured in numerous movies and stories, even though it was now believed to be something of a pipe dream. And for some, the idea of the technology never died. Cold fusion remained a scientific dream similar to a Grand Unifying Theory or the elusive Higgs Boson.

One such organization is NASA, who continues work on this science through the development of their low-energy nuclear reaction (LENR) technology. It is their hope that one day the technology will be sophisticated enough to become commercially viable, making cold fusion reactors that could power everything  – from homes, to cars, to planes – a reality.

lner-nickel-hydrogen-latticeAnd unlike previous attempts that sought to harness basic fusion, the technology behind the LENR is really quite revolutionary. Rather than rely on strong nuclear forces to meld atoms and produce energy, LENR harnesses the power of weak nuclear force.

This is done by using an oscillating nickel lattice that takes in hydrogen atoms and then exchanges electrons with them. This has the effect of forming slow-moving neutrons which are absorbed, making the nickel unstable. To regain its stability, the nickel strips a neutron of its electron so that it becomes a proton — a reaction that turns the nickel into copper and creates a lot of energy in the process.

The big upside to this process is the fact that it produces zero ionizing radiation and zero radioactive waste, making it the safest and cleanest nuclear process to date. In addition, NASA claims that relying on reactors like these, it would only take 1% of the world’s nickle production to meet the world’s current energy needs, and at a quarter of the cost of dirtier fuels like coal. On top of that, they’ve also indicated that the same process can be done using a carbon lattice instead of nickel, making it even more versatile.

???????????????????????????????So the question remains, why isn’t every household running on a LENR reactor already? Well, two problems. For one, the amount of energy needed to get the ball rolling is quite high. Initially, the LENR requires a 5-30THz frequency burst of energy to make the nickel lattice begin oscillating, which is difficult to efficiently produce.

Second, other labs have experienced a few… uh, accidents… trying to reproduce the process, which included a few explosions and some melted windows. No deaths were reported, mind you, but it does demonstrate that the process can generate a LOT of power if not properly controlled.

Still, other means of generating electricity, such as nuclear fission, have experienced some bumps along the way (i.e. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island) and we still rely on them. And oil and coal are what we’ve come to think of as “dirty means” of generating power, meaning they cause tremendous amounts of pollution or can lead to environmental debacles, such as oil spills. And natural gas can only last so long. So realistically, there may be hope for LENR and cold fusion yet.

Fingers so very crossed! And be sure to check out NASA’s video explaining the process:


NASA Designing World’s First FTL

alcubierre-warp-drive-overviewA few months ago, physicist Harold White shocked and stunned the world when he announced that he and his team at NASA were beginning work on the world’s first faster-than-light warp drive. Naturally, this produced a whole slew of questions, not the least of which was what model his team would be considering. After all, there have been countless theories put forth over the years as to how humanity could one day break the “light barrier”. Which theory White and his team would pursue was naturally the first on everybody’s mind.

Apparently, White’s proposed design will be a re-imagining of the Alcubierre Drive, a concept which has already been extensively popularized in science fiction and pop culture. Proposed by Miguel Alcubierre in 1994 in his seminal paper: “The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity,” Alcubierre suggested a mechanism by which space-time could be “warped” both in front of and behind a spacecraft. After going over the equations in detail, White believed he found a way to make the theory work.

All of this began in October of last year, where White was preparing for a talk he was to give as part of the kickoff of the 100 Year Starship project in Orlando, Florida. While putting together his presentation on warp, he began toying with Alcubierre’s field equations, mainly out of curiosity. After making some adjustments, he came to the conclusion that something truly workable was there, and presented his findings this past October in Atlanta, where the 100 Year Starship project was meeting once again.

alcubierre-warp-drive-overviewThe equations and theory postulates that since space-time can be contracted and expanded, empty space behind a starship could be made to expand rapidly, pushing the craft in a forward direction. Passengers would perceive it as movement despite the complete lack of acceleration, and vast distances (i.e. light years) could be passed in a matter of days and weeks instead of decades. What’s more, this “warp drive” would allow for FTL while at the same time remaining consistent with Einstein’s theory of Relativity.

This has been a major hurdle for physicists looking for ways around the speed of light, since all previous theories required a cosmic model where Relativity – fundamental to our understanding of the universe – would not apply. At the same time, the physics described in the Alcubierre process sound like something directly out of Star Trek, something all sci-fi geeks are sure to notice! It begins with a spheroid object being placed between two regions of space-time (one expanding and one contracting), which in turn generates a “warp bubble” that moves space-time around the object, effectively repositioning it.

The end result is faster-than-light travel without the spheroid having to move with respect to its local frame of reference. In short, those aboard the object would notice the repositioning of their spacecraft, but would experience no “time dilation”, where their perception of time differs greatly from those in a different frame of reference. Or to put it another way, the Alcubierre drive could transport people from Earth to Mars and back again, and for all concerned (the passengers and people Earthside) there would be little difference in the amount of time experienced. None of this, “I’m a year older, but everybody I knew is dead!” stuff. You have to admit, that’s a real perk!

But of course, there are a lot of challenges ahead for White and his team. For example, in an interview with IO9, White said: “Remember, nothing locally exceeds the speed of light, but space can expand and contract at any speed. However, space-time is really stiff, so to create the expansion and contraction effect in a useful manner in order for us to reach interstellar destinations in reasonable time periods would require a lot of energy.” Luckily, his reworking of the equations has brought that requirement done somewhat, but the amounts required mean that a great deal of research and development is still needed.

Perhaps if we can find a way to work cold fusion in the mix, or build an anti-matter reactor. Maybe some hydrogen ramscoops and a Heisenberg compensator, then we’d be in business! Might we need some dilithium crystals too? I’ll call Jordie LaForge and tell him to get on it! 😉