Today, thanks to a story in the New York Times, we take up the unusual case of Blacklight Power. You may have heard of them before - I had, and I didn't realize that they were still around. Their founder, Randell Mills, has been telling people for years now that there is another energetic state of hydrogen, which he calls the “hydrino”, and that transitions to and from this state can be used to generate power.
My competence in physics isn’t sufficient to wade through Blacklight’s thicket of equations – but what competence I have in the subject strongly suggests that the company is very likely delusional (or, less charitably, hoping to delude others). A “state below the ground state” for hydrogen atoms, based on fractional Rydberg coefficients, seems. . . highly unlikely, to put it mildly. This is a perfect example of extraordinary claims that call for extraordinary evidence.
And that’s where the Times article comes in. According to it, the company has send samples of Raney nickel, apparently enriched in their putative hydrinos, to Rowan University down the road from them in New Jersey. When reacted with water, calorimetry of this system appears to show a release of heat “far beyond anything anticipated”. (It should be noted that this is a burst of heat when the water is added, as you’d expect, not some sort of sustained reaction. Its application to electric power generation is unclear). Update: Blacklight has responded, pointing out that I have several details of this experiment wrong - see this later post.
I know, I know – we’ve been down this road before, and more than once. Breeding even more skepticism is Blacklight’s history (link thanks to Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit). The company has been around since at least the early 1990s, and appears to have been promising various breakthroughs Real Soon Now the whole time. The timing of these announcements would seem to correlate more closely to the company’s financial demands than to their scientific accomplishments. Update: Blacklight disputes this statement, too, saying that they're not raising money This is not a totally unfamiliar business model in the drug industry, to be sure, but neither are most drug companies proposing revolutions at the level of the hydrogen atom. No, Occam’s Razor doesn’t leave much stubble behind when you run it over Blacklight Power.
But when people start talking Raney nickel, they’re heading into my territory, and the territory of many of this site’s readers. The Times names associate professor Peter Jansson at Rowan as the faculty member who’s conducting the tests, and I’ve written him this morning, as one scientist to another, to ask for more details and comment, if possible. We’ll see what can be learned.
Blacklight, for their part, have this PDF available. This part would appear to be what’s being tested at Rowan:
”To achieve high power, R-Ni having a surface area of about 100 m2/g was surface-coated with NaOH and reacted with Na metal to form NaH. Using water-flow, batch calorimetry, the measured power from 15g of R-Ni was about 0.5 kW with an energy balance of delta-H = -36 kJ compared to delta-H of roughly 0 kJ from the R-Ni starting material, R-NiAl alloy, when reacted with Na metal. The observed energy balance of the NaH reaction was -1.6 x 10 to the 4th kJ/mole H2, over 66 times the -241.8 kJ/mole H2 enthalpy of combustion.”
I'll wait for more details before commenting on this, but it's clearly rather odd. Also in the rather-odd category are some of the figures in the Blacklight PDF - take a look at Figure 58, for example, which is labeled "MAS NMR spectra relative to external TMS Of NaCl, KCl, and CsCl showing the expected trend of increasing intensity of H2 (1/4) at 1.1 ppm relative to the H2 at 4.3 ppm down the column of the Group I elements."
Well, fine - but hold on a minute. MAS is "magic angle spinning", which is a solid-state NMR technique - and that NMR spectrum is clearly taken with a lot of DMF around. The dimethylformamide peaks are labeled as such, and it looks like a solution spectrum, not a solid-state one. Second, where's the trend? I see no series presented, just a single spectrum of something, with no labels to suggest various alkali metals. What's more, although I can't find a value for the NMR chemical shift of hydrogen gas in DMF, it's known to be 4.5 in deuterochloroform, so their 4.3 ppm is reasonable. But there's no peak at 4.3 to compare that big 1.1 ppm peak to - what am I looking at here? Update: Blacklight has informed me that this figure was mislabled, and that they're correcting the error
We shall see - maybe. I'll report back if I hear from the group at Rowan. For now, I remain skeptical. I would truly enjoy the discovery a new energy source, but the history of this field does not inspire confidence.