A recent paper from the Arxiv made its way into my browser this week — http://arxiv.org/abs/1305.3913
It’s a description of some ‘tests’ that the authors did on the ‘E-Cat’ (for Energy Catalyser) device, something Italian inventor Andrea Rossi has cooked up that is claimed to produce energy ”one order of magnitude greater than conventional energy sources”. The conclusion that we’re expected to jump to is that E-Cat is producing energy through nuclear fusion.
If this were true, it would be spectacular — fusion at low energies (‘cold fusion’) would be an incredible benefit to mankind, producing copious energy with nothing (or very little) in the way of harmful by-products — no smoke, no CO2, no radioactivity. And it works from a 33 cm x 10 cm cylinder plugged into the wall. So why aren’t there one of these in all of our homes?
Probably, because it doesn’t work. If you read the arxiv paper, you’ll see that the tests done were essentially limited to looking at the device through an infrared camera — that allows you to measure the temperature of the surface. Then, if you calculate how much power the device is radiating (and convecting) to the environment — the outer surface becomes hotter than 500 deg C, so the authors calculate around 2000W, and subtract how much power it’s drawing from the mains, you get how much power it’s generating.But wait, you say. If it’s generating power, why does it need to be connected to the mains? Good question, I say. The inventors say that the device needs to be heated, by a series of resistive coils inside the device for it to function. The authors used a current clamp to measure the power delivered from the mains, through a control box, to the device — they got 360W. So the device is generating over 1600 W of energy.
That’s a lot more than you cold get from burning things — even ultra-high energy density liquid hydrogen (used in the Space Shuttle), especially given that the test lasted several days.
. The inventors claim that they have nickel, hydrogen and some ‘special additives’ in side the E-Cat. In principle, nickel and hydrogen could fuse to form copper (one element higher on the periodic table). So testing the spent fuel for copper would be a nice tests of fusion. The inventors didn’t allow the team to do this because it may spoil the ‘trade secret’ of the special additive — or more likely, expose that this is not what is really going on.
Fusion would also be accompanied by some high energy radiation — X-Ray and gamma photons, and probably some neutrons. The authors placed some radiation detectors around the E-Cat during their test, but failed to see any thing. This is touted as the device passing a safety test, but really, it’s just it failing a credibility test.
So what’s really going on. If you ask me, the E-Cat is probably just a regular heater, converting electricity from the wall socket to heat. That the testers weren’t allowed to look inside the control box, or un-plug the box from the wall is really telling. The current clamps were probably by-passed in some way — see, for example, the scheme on http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2013/05/21/the-e-cat-is-back-and-people-are-still-falling-for-it/, or perhaps with an added DC component (clamp ammeters are only sensitive to the AC commponent that usually comes from the mains supply). There is some handwaving analysis about the characteristic heating and cooling curves measured, but I don’t believe it, since all you have to do is to modulate your current in an appropriate way.
The tests in the arxiv paper are an example of science at it’s worst. It’s covered in the trappings of science, but is really a sham. Every part of the test was controlled by the inventors of the E-Cat, and the testers weren’t allowed any freedom to devise their own tests. So while, as a good scientist, I’m always open to my mind being changed, for the two options — that Rossi and co have made a really astonishing breakthrough that defies our understanding of physics, or that they have concocted a scam for some reason best known to themselves, I’m going to go with the more reasonable one. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.
By the way, if the inventors ever read this (and I doubt it, I only get visitors to my downloading Windows from Ubuntu post ;) ), I’m open to being proved wrong — let me do some tests of my own choosing on an E-Cat and I will gladly eat my hat.
Giuseppe Levi, Evelyn Foschi, Torbjörn Hartman, Bo Höistad, Roland Pettersson, Lars Tegnér, & Hanno Essén (2013). Indication of anomalous heat energy production in a reactor device Arxiv arXiv: 1305.3913v2