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You’d Think That This Can’t Be Correct

Well, here’s something to think about over the weekend. I last wrote here in 2011 about the “E-cat”, a supposed alternative energy source being touted/developed by Italian inventor Andrea Rossi. Odd and not all that plausible claims of low-energy fusion reactions of nickel isotopes have been made for the device (see the comments section to that post above for more on this), and the whole thing definitely has been staying in my “Probably not real” file. Just to add one complication, Rossi’s own past does not appear to be above reproach. And his conduct (and that of his coworker Sergio Focardi) would seem to be a bit strange during this whole affair.
But today there is a preprint (PDF) of another outside-opinion test of the device (thanks to Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution on Twitter for the heads-up). It has several Swedish co-authors (three from Uppsala and one from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm), and the language is mostly pretty measured. But what it has to say is quite unusual – if it’s true.
The device itself is no longer surrounded by lead shielding, for one thing. No radiation of any kind appears to be emitted. The test went on for 32 days of continuous operation, and here’s the take-home:

The quantity of heat emitted constantly by the reactor and the length of time during which the reactor was operating rule out, beyond any reasonable doubt, a chemical reaction as underlying its operation. This is emphasized by the fact that we stand considerably more than two order of magnitudes from the region of the Ragone plot occupied by conventional energy sources.
The fuel generating the excessive heat was analyzed with several methods before and after the experimental run. It was found that the Lithium and Nickel content in the fuel had the natural isotopic composition before the run, but after the 32 days run the isotopic composition has changed dramatically both for Lithium and Nickel. Such a change can only take place via nuclear reactions. It is thus clear that nuclear reactions have taken place in the burning process. This is also what can be suspected from the excessive heat being generated in the process.
Although we have good knowledge of the composition of the fuel we presently lack detailed information on the internal components of the reactor, and of the methods by which the reaction is primed. Since we are presently not in possession of this information, we think that any attempt to explain the E-Cat heating process would be too much hampered by the lack of this information, and thus we refrain from such discussions.
In summary, the performance of the E-Cat reactor is remarkable. We have a device giving heat energy compatible with nuclear transformations, but it operates at low energy and gives neither nuclear radioactive waste nor emits radiation. From basic general knowledge in nuclear physics this should not be possible. . .

Told you it was interesting. But I’m waiting for more independent verification. As long as Rossi et al. are so secretive about this device, the smell of fraud will continue to cling to it. I truly am wondering just what’s going on here, though.
Update: Elforsk, the R&D arm of Sweden’s power utility, has said that they want to investigate this further. Several professors from Uppsala reply that the whole thing is likely a scam, and that Elforsk shouldn’t be taken in. Thanks to reader HL in the comments section, who notes that Google Translate does pretty well with Swedish-English.

40 comments on “You’d Think That This Can’t Be Correct”

  1. Becktemba says:

    Whats going on is a revolution in Energy and Science.
    The carbon fuels people will not go out quickly they will resist. Lie, Call it a fraud, character assassinate the inventor, pass laws, threaten, go to war… whatever. In the end greed will win out.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I can verify this: I found the same kind of intense heat generated by the Ni-Li battery in my laptop, indeed without any radiation – incredible!

  3. Sili says:

    Needs more magicians, illusionists and sleight-of-hand artists looking at the device. Noöne is.as.easy to fool as a scientist. We’re far too naïve, trusting and gullible.

  4. opsomath says:

    This makes no sense. Surely if the alleged reaction was supposed to be initiated by heat, once it got going it would be self-accelerating and self-sustaining, right? The report presents the reaction as being set by the amount of power put into the heating wire, which should be negligible once it gets going.

  5. Anonymous says:

    “The report presents the reaction as being set by the amount of power put into the heating wire, which should be negligible once it gets going.”
    Just wait till they get their electricity bill, and all will be revealed. 🙂

  6. John Wayne says:

    If this reactor is legit, there is one reasonable explanation for why they aren’t divulging the secrets of how to set this thing up; it is so simple that a patent will not prevent the invention from being commercialized by others. Holding trade secrets is becoming a better way to protect your inventions every year; security folks cost less than lawyers.

  7. Anonymous says:

    @6: Of course he could keep the invention to himself and just sell the energy that it produces, but then why get someone else to validate it and risk exposing its secrets?

  8. Anonymous says:

    I’m still waiting for my car that runs on water. I mean, the video looked pretty legit to me.

  9. NoDrugsNoJobs says:

    The thermodynamics in the paper is way above my head but the dramatic change in the isotope composition is pretty clear – How to explain this?

  10. Erebus says:

    @9-
    There are two obvious explanations. It either works as-advertised, or we’re looking at an extremely curious case of fraud or deception.
    I will say this: If this invention works as its inventors claim, then their behavior is extremely puzzling. It almost appears as though they’re going out of their way to appear untrustworthy.

  11. ScienceforSciencesSake says:

    A nuclear reaction eh? Certainly an interesting thing to think about anyway.
    All we have left to do now is control our reaction rates by replacing electrons with muons!

  12. Anonymous says:

    @10: Untrustworthy, or untrusting?

  13. a. nonymaus says:

    It is interesting to note that the heating wires in the reactor are described as being made from Inconel, an alloy that contains nickel. Leaving aside any other sleight-of-hand, this may explain the shift in nickel isotopic composition if the wires were fabricated from enriched nickel. I also note that the electric power meters used a 0.5 Hz sampling frequency. It is not clear to me whether or not the meters are sampling the line conditions each 2 seconds or if they are integrating continuously and logging the result. If the former, they are wide open to clever waveforms being applied that deliver un-measured power. The measurement of emitted power is also very imprecise due to the poorly defined convective flow over the reactor. Couldn’t they have just stuck it in a well-insulated duct with a known flow of air through it and measured inlet and outlet temperatures?
    The lack of any detected radiation makes me most suspicious. Can anyone propose a sequence of nuclear reactions that gets you from 58Ni to 62Ni without detectable gamma or neutron emission? Extra points if you can explain a lack of x-ray emission from interaction of energetic nuclei with their surrounding electrons.

  14. DannoH says:

    Pons and Fleishmann Redux!

  15. Shazz says:

    I think the nickel isotope ratio shift is too dramatic (it ends in almost 100% 62-Ni) to be explained by contamination from the inlet wires. The lithium changes in isotopic ratio as well by a rather dramatic amount.
    From what I understand the system isn’t initiated by heat energy. It is the specific nature of the electricity used that does the trick. The closest I have seen to a theory of what might be happening is that the waveform of the current interacts with the condensed phase of the metal to cause localised concentrations at extremely high energy, enough to overcome barriers to nuclear reactions. The exact nature of the nuclear reactions is totally baffling though. What we are seeing is just as upsetting as the data presented by the early days of nuclear chemistry when everyone stuck to the script that matter was always conserved and elements didn’t change.
    One interesting idea- that radiation is produced but somehow absorbed by the system before it can be emitted and detected. Could be tested by seeing if the e-cat can absorb external radiation sources while in operation.

  16. Adam says:

    Whatever’s happening, this is DEFINITELY going to have a movie at the end of it.

  17. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    My take on this is similar to what my thesis adviser said about the Pons and Fleishman cold fusion report. He said about that one, “99.9% chance it won’t pan out, but a 0.01% probability multiplied by the value should it be right is big enough to justify the effort of checking it out!”
    If they have something real, they should welcome and seek thorough scrutiny by as many and as prestigious third parties as possible. If they continue being reluctant to allow such scrutiny then my Bayesian estimate goes from

  18. ralf says:

    On skimming the paper, the following raised an immediate red flag in my mind:
    > Rossi later intervened … in the following
    > subsequent operations on the E-Cat: charge
    > insertion, reactor startup, reactor shutdown
    > and powder charge extraction.
    Combined with the statement on the last page that
    > Besides the analyzed elements it has been
    > found that the fuel also contains rather
    > high concentrations of C, Ca, Cl, Fe, Mg,
    > Mn and these are not found in the ash.
    I’m led to suspect that a switch occurred….

  19. ralf says:

    The second thing that seemed odd to me is that, if the energy source involves the transmutation of 7Li into something else and all of the non-62 Nickel into 62Ni, that the experiment ended almost exactly when the fuel would have run out…. (And that there wasn’t a substantial drop in energy output as the active fuel nuclei became scarce over the last few days of the run.)

  20. tangent says:

    What Sili said. Until some magicians are consulted in the testing, there’s not much point in discussion. Nothing personal, just Bayes. Even with no more than baseline suspicion of anybody involved, the chance of chicanery dominates the chance that it’s a real effect.

  21. Erebus says:

    @12-
    Point taken. But it’s a little bit of both, really. Let’s pretend that this invention is legit, that everything that has been claimed about it is true, and that it can be scaled-up to generate electricity on massive scales. This would make it, unquestionably, the most disruptive invention since the Internet. The logical approach, and the ethical approach, would be to (a) have it tested and verified by as many trustworthy independent sources as possible, (b) to have it patented as strongly as possible, (c) to attempt the production of larger, more optimized systems, with outside collaborators if necessary.
    …To secret it away, to obfuscate what it is and what it actually does, to make progress with glacial sluggishness — these things do not inspire much confidence.

  22. Anonymous says:

    The device was mass manufactured in a factory by the Industrial Heat company and provided to the well known scientists associated with famous universities who tested in a impartial facility owned by a fourth party and measurements verified by fifth parties, and the whole study is sponsored by additional parties including the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences which awards the Nobel Prize. There is almost no chance of fraud.

  23. Andrew Ma says:

    The device tested was mass manufactured in a factory by the Industrial Heat , according to the CEO of the company, and provided to the well known scientists associated with famous universities who tested in a impartial facility owned by a fourth party and measurement equipment verified by fifth parties, and the whole study is sponsored by well known parties including the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences which awards the Nobel Prize. Writing and publication of the report is not controlled by Rossi. This arrangement is extraordinary and is expected for such an extraordinary claim.

  24. a says:

    > Rossi later intervened … in the following
    > subsequent operations on the E-Cat: charge
    > insertion, reactor startup, reactor shutdown
    > and powder charge extraction
    Fraud meter just went up. If this is impartial, why did rossi have to play with the instrument at exactly the moment that a switch could have occurred? How about he gives the instructions on how to operate to someone else?
    .

  25. tdb says:

    Looking at the E-cat website, the thing that immediately struck me was that everything there talks about a reaction involving nickel-62 plus hydrogen being converted to copper (an endothermic process I believe). But the test involved a completely different apparent reaction, which the website never mentions. Not inspiring of trust…..

  26. Sili says:

    I think the nickel isotope ratio shift is too dramatic (it ends in almost 100% 62-Ni) to be explained by contamination from the inlet wires. The lithium changes in isotopic ratio as well by a rather dramatic amount.

    How large were the samples made available for analysis, and what is the cost of Ni-62? I can’t find any suppliers that actually advertise their prices.

  27. HL says:

    There’s a reply to this report from some professors of Uppsala University in Ny Teknik today: http://www.nyteknik.se/asikter/debatt/article3854985.ece (if your Swedish is not good, Google Translate does a pretty good job with the swedish-english translation)
    It seems that the authors from Uppsala are not actually affiliated with the university, but have retired from there.

  28. KevinH says:

    From a business model standpoint, one can have a healthy personal income for years on end as long as you can get speculative investors to keep throwing venture capital at your R&D program. You never actually have to produce a product, just “reports” of “testing”.
    Consider, for instance, BlackLight Power (originally Hydrocatalysis, Inc.). BlackLight is purportedly developing new energy sources based on hypothetical lower-than-ground-state energy levels of the hydrogen atom. The company has provided income and employment for its principals since 1991, despite more than two decades of failing to produce a commercial product, a robust and meaningful patent, or an impactful scientific publication.
    Rossi, with the Energy Catalyzer, presumably hopes to tap the same funding sources.

  29. tyy says:

    What’s going on, is more people getting bamboozled by the Great Magician Andrea Rossi.

  30. no one says:

    > “The quantity of heat emitted constantly by the reactor and the length of time during which the reactor was operating rule out, beyond any reasonable doubt, a chemical reaction as underlying its operation.”
    What it doesn’t rule out is that power cord plugged into the wall outlet, drawing 800-900 watts of electricity, continuously, for a month. (table 7)

  31. Thomas says:

    @28: remember the ‘paper disposable cell phone’ – probably also a plan to attract investors? Because, yes, we all know plastic is expensive and that is why phones were so expensive at the time.
    Crazy “inventions” used to attract investors.

  32. sepisp says:

    I actually read the thing, since I believe it’s not skepticism but denialism if there is no actual criticism (vs. dismissal). I have to admit I’m not very good at this, but here goes.
    The heat production measurement essentially relies on thermography. Unfortunately, the emissivity data is straight from literature. The heat balance is done using only the data from the thermal camera and from calculated convection flow. Balances can be extremely difficult to get watertight. Errors in the input current measurement are not addressed, so extra power could’ve been the cause. The fact that power production is correlated with power consumption hints towards this.
    The “ramp-up” procedure is described only once. That means it could well be an one-off effect. Combustion of something or other chemical reaction inside the reactor would increase its temperature. The LiAlH4 detected later in the paper is a possibility.
    So far, they have tried to prove excess heat production, and haven’t succeeded in even that since there is no true control experiment. For this, there should be a separate resistor inside the dummy reactor that could produce an equivalent amount of heat as is claimed. If the heat balance matches the operating reactor then, only then heat production is demonstrated.
    No true claims of a nuclear reaction are presented. On p. 28 it can be seen that the different isotopic analyses don’t agree with each other at all. If the isotopes were confused, then you could easily get from 7% 6Li to 7.9% 7Li. If the fuel contained LiAlH4 as suggested, then even a true isotope ratio change is possible, since LiAlH4 will decompose into LiAl, and the temperature of 1400 C attained is above the boiling point of lithium. Boron and lithium are so light elements that evaporation can in fact change the isotopic ratios. But, even this hasn’t been proven. I have no idea what went on with the nickel, though. If it’s a magic trick, I must say it’s a neat trick.
    The paper isn’t very good, it has unnecessary figures, is poorly edited (nickel isn’t a proper name) and makes claims that assume first and then explain the data to fit the assumption. This couldn’t get past the professor, let alone editors and reviewers. And this is a preprint, not a paper. Anyone can write a preprint.

  33. A Nonny Mouse says:

    I have been following this since it was first mentioned on this site some years ago.
    The “preprint” was a full version of a 15 page article which is to be submitted to a peer reviewed Physics Journal.
    As for the removal of the ash, this was done by the examiners who chopped off the end with a saw (which may explain some of the final composition). The examiners were then allowed to remove a sample from the ash and the rest was taken back by Rossi, apparently as a condition of the participation (IH’s condition and with video documentation for doubters). The problem with the ash analysis is that different particles gave varying metal analysis, so it is difficult to say what the bulk composition was like.
    There are lots of complaints about the test and the way it was conducted by a chap called “GoatGuy” on various forums. I think that the real proof will come with the MW plant that is currently being installed at a client site. Once that is running it will be possible to see if there really is anything in it.
    Interestingly, one of the Swedish scientists who wrote the rebuttal was invited to take part in the test but declined.

  34. dave w says:

    I’m not convinced cold fusion as such is a hoax or figment (I think it’s more of a real, but “weak-signal”, effect, the conditions for whose occurrence are not well understood)… wasn’t really expecting much out of the Rossi system, though: that whole situation seemed to have a definite “fake it till you make it” air about it!)

  35. Richard H says:

    @Becktemba at 1:
    >Whats going on is a revolution in Energy and Science.
    Oh, sure… But what you conspiracy theorists always overlook is that for new science to replace the old, it has to be consistent with _all previous observations that have ever been made_. That includes all the times when people have done things with heat, hydrogen and nickel and _not_ seen excess heat – possibly because they used a reliable way to measure it, a control experiment that actually matched the power input, and an experimental protocol that didn’t let the owner of the device “intervene” in the experiment.
    >The carbon fuels people will not go out quickly they will resist.
    Why resist, when they could just invest? The people you are thinking of are well aware of the sunk cost fallacy. They are committed to profit, not carbon.
    There’s much discussion in the comments here, too:
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2014/10/12/go-away-cold-fusion/

  36. sepisp says:

    Have to concur with #35. Not everyone is funded by fossil fuel companies. Rather, it makes it extremely difficult to get funding for legitimate and viable renewable energy research when there are thousands of competitors fueled either with their unfounded enthusiasm or outright acting in bad faith.
    If low-energy nuclear reactions like this really existed, they would also be very interesting for isotope research. However, nuclear energy level transitions are orders of magnitude larger, working in gamma rays rather than the chemical valence electron transitions that are usually up to ultraviolet. That and the Coulomb barrier. This is what makes it extremely difficult to any serious scientist to believe in “cold fusion”.

  37. flabdablet says:

    All we need to do now is hook one of these up to a bank of EESUs and we’re all set!

  38. AndrewZ says:

    @dave w at 34:
    “more of a real, but “weak-signal”, effect”
    It’s certainly worth remembering that there are many possibilities between the extremes of “total fraud” and “global energy revolution”.
    Perhaps in the end cold fusion will be to physics what the Northwest Passage was to exploration. Lots of people spent years looking for it because they thought it would be hugely important, and when it was finally proved to exist it turned out to be almost entirely useless.

  39. fajensen says:

    Well – It does not build confidence that the researchers spend about 18 pages on text-book thermal calculations, 2 pages on “Ragone Plotting”, compared with one page on power measurements – including a schematic where the measurement points are not drawn in – and this gem:
    “We also verified that all the harmonics of the waveforms input to the system were amply included in the range measurable by the PCEs (Figure 5).”
    Where we see in Figure 5 is that the instrument shows “OL” (overload) on the picture, besides, if we “verify” something, we must use a different and better instrument/method to begin with!!
    “Better” means:
    Use a proper Oscilloscope with DC-30 Mhz current probes (Textronix makes these), Use a calorimeter instead of futzing with IR camera measurements (which they could not be bothered to calibrate anyway).
    I believe Rossi feeds the experiment with HF or pulsed DC and the researchers helps by “not being able to” measure the heat output accurately (The whole setup could just not be so simple as mucking with the phases so that 3-phase fees is not symmetric and the dum-dum’s measure electrical power really carefully, one phase at the time).
    I think that the entire experiment and especially the report is of an embarrassingly low quality. If someone made a science report like that in grade school, they should Fail and take up a career in Marketing instead.
    Clearly, they are trying to hide something. Sadly, they seem to be successful in extracting more funding for “further investigations”.
    PS:
    The researches are *retired* from Uppsala University.

  40. loupgarous says:

    All Signor Rossi would have to do is pull the covers off of the E-Cat and let people instrument it.
    But, noooo… we have to take his word and some professors emeriti from the University of Uppsala that spooky things are happening with isotopic ratios.
    It’s a pity that no one can get into the E-Cat and swipe the aluminum prism that makes it all work….

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