Last May, this column reported advances made in small modular reactor technology as a follow-up to a description of a fusion concept for electricity generation in a May 2007 article. Please accept my apology for totally missing the newest approach that has reached the world scene. Demonstrated Oct. 28, 2011, at Italy’s University of Bologna, “E-Cat” is a type of cold fusion, or low-energy nuclear reaction, that is as controversial as anything considered by world scientists.

Last May, this column reported advances made in small modular reactor technology as a follow-up to a description of a fusion concept for electricity generation in a May 2007 article. Please accept my apology for totally missing the newest approach that has reached the world scene. Demonstrated Oct. 28, 2011, at Italy’s University of Bologna, “E-Cat” (energy catalyzer) is a type of cold fusion, or low-energy nuclear reaction, that is as controversial as anything considered by world scientists.

Recall that Tokomak projects in the U.S. and Europe rely on “hot fusion” running tens of thousands of degrees. None have ever operated for more than a fraction of a second. Legions of scientists with career employment have never produced a watt of electrical output, costing taxpayers about $25 billion in America alone. A Tokomak plant will cost over $18 billion to build and more to operate “after testing in 2019,” according to officials.

In contrast, the 1-MW E-Cat reactor tested at Bologna operated at 476 KW for about 5.5 hours; is the size of a small shipping container; emitted no nuclear waste or gamma radiation; became self sustaining at 450°C (842°F) after start-up; and consumed powdered nickel metal and hydrogen in the presence of a catalyst that makes monatomic hydrogen to be absorbed by the nickel that transmutes to copper, producing considerable heat.

Initial heating is supplied by external electric input, which is then disconnected. An E-Cat is offered at ~$2,400 per KW or ~$2.4 million for a 1-MW plant. (One was sold on the spot at demonstration.) The plant cost per KW installed is predicted to drop to ~$120 per KW, or about a tenth of what coal or gas power plants cost. Further, small-scale E-Cat plants are forecast to produce electricity for $0.01 per KWh. Incidentally, all of this is reported (unconfirmed) to be underwritten by U.S. customers. The word is that DARPA and the U.S. Navy’s SPAWAR (Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command) financed the latest demonstration effort.

Now we get to the troublesome part. The inventor of E-Cat is Andrea Rossi, a 1973 cum laude physics graduate of the University of Milan whose firm is Leonardo Corporation. He has teamed with a credible physicist, Sergio Focardi at Bologna, and has also teamed with National Instruments (NI) of Austin, Texas, to make all control systems for E-Cat products. NI was established in 1976, has world operations in 41 countries, sold to 30,000 users in 91 countries and had ~$900 million in sales in 2010. NI is a quality company.

All this said, most outside observers were not permitted to observe or question the how and why of the Oct. 28 tests, despite the fact that an Italian patent was granted to Rossi for his invention (April 6, 2011), while U.S., European and international patents are pending. I mentioned that this was the troublesome part: Rossi is also accused of “improprieties,” and some say he is more an entrepreneur than a physicist. He had a permanent visa for work in the U.S. but did spend time in an Italian prison for unrelated environmental crimes and tax fraud.

Regardless, Rossi does have a record of creativity. In 1974, he was granted a patent for an incineration system, and he formed Petroldragon, a company that burned 100 tons of organic waste daily to produce 20 tons of fuel oil, in 1978. That firm collapsed in the mid-1990s amid allegations of toxic-waste dumping, leading to Rossi’s imprisonment. Charges were dismissed upon acquittal 10 years later.

So little of E-Cat is revealed or understood that it is reasonable to question what exactly is truth and what is hype. The past 12 months have burst with activity to explore and test this new scheme. Rossi has enlisted and then discarded the firms Ampenergo, Defkalion and Quantum Energy Technologies. The Greek company Defkalion has done added work on the concepts with its Hyperion electric power unit, apparently an assemblage of up to nine modules that each produce 20-50 KW. Every six months the 15-gram nickel fuel and hydrogen gas bottle is replaced and operations continue at the cost of a few hundred dollars per year.

All of this comes to attention because many IH readers are big users of electricity, where price and availability are critical to business health. Our fervent hope should be that Rossi, a capable but troubled man, has found a key to Pandora’s Box, providing humankind an avenue to a new and better world. Only time will tell. IH