Italian scientists claim to have demonstrated cold fusion

Few areas of science are more controversial than cold fusion, the hypothetical near-room-temperature reaction in which two smaller nuclei join together to form a single larger nucleus while releasing large amounts of energy. In the 1980s, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleishmann claimed to have demonstrated cold fusion – which could potentially provide the world with a cheap, clean energy source – but their experiment could not be reproduced. Since then, all other claims of cold fusion have been illegitimate, and studies have shown that cold fusion is theoretically implausible, causing mainstream science to become highly speculative of the field in general.

Despite the intense skepticism, a small community of scientists is still investigating near-room-temperature fusion reactions. The latest news occurred last week, when Italian scientists Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi of the University of Bologna announced that they developed a cold fusion device capable of producing 12,400 W of heat power with an input of just 400 W. Last Friday, the scientists held a private invitation press conference in Bologna, attended by about 50 people, where they demonstrated what they claim is a nickel-hydrogen fusion reactor. Further, the scientists say that the reactor is well beyond the research phase; they plan to start shipping commercial devices within the next three months and start mass production by the end of 2011.

The claim

Rossi and Focardi say that, when the atomic nuclei of nickel and hydrogen are fused in their reactor, the reaction produces copper and a large amount of energy. The reactor uses less than 1 gram of hydrogen and starts with about 1,000 W of electricity, which is reduced to 400 W after a few minutes. Every minute, the reaction can convert 292 grams of 20°C water into dry steam at about 101°C. Since raising the temperature of water by 80°C and converting it to steam requires about 12,400 W of power, the experiment provides a power gain of 12,400/400 = 31. As for costs, the scientists estimate that electricity can be generated at a cost of less than 1 cent/kWh, which is significantly less than coal or natural gas plants.

“The magnitude of this result suggests that there is a viable energy technology that uses commonly available materials, that does not produce carbon dioxide, and that does not produce radioactive waste and will be economical to build,” according to this description of the demonstration.

Rossi and Focardi explain that the reaction produces radiation, providing evidence that the reaction is indeed a nuclear reaction and does not work by some other method. They note that no radiation escapes due to lead shielding, and no radioactivity is left in the cell after it is turned off, so there is no nuclear waste.

The scientists explain that the reactor is turned on simply by flipping a switch and it can be operated by following a set of instructions. Commercial devices would produce 8 units of output per unit of input in order to ensure safe and reliable conditions, even though higher output is possible, as demonstrated. Several devices can be combined in series and parallel arrays to reach higher powers, and the scientists are currently manufacturing a 1 MW plant made with 125 modules. Although the reactors can be self-sustaining so that the input can be turned off, the scientists say that the reactors work better with a constant input. The reactors need to be refueled every 6 months, which the scientists say is done by their dealers.

The scientists also say that one reactor has been running continuously for two years, providing heat for a factory. They provide little detail about this case.

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