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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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October 31, 2011

Very Likely Not Real, But Still. . .(The E-Cat)

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Posted by Derek

I occasionally cover odd attempts at alternative - very alternative - energy sources here, because there's a chemistry angle to many of them. The various cold fusion claims have always gotten a slightly less frosty reception among professional chemists than among professional physicists, on average. And yes, there are two good explanations of that, which are not mutually exclusive: (1) that the chemists are willing to be a bit more open-minded since (among other things) they have less invested in the state of physics as it is, and (2) that the chemists are willing to be more open-minded because they know less about physics.

So far, the track record on these things has been pretty close to 100% hardtack disappointment, dry as dust and crunchy as hell. But as Tyler Cowen put it over at Marginal Revolution, the expected value of such things is so high that a small amount of attention is worthwhile. The latest headline-grabber is a mysterious thingie from Italy called the E-Cat, which I mentioned briefly here back in July.

The inventors apparently concluded a larger-scale demonstration over the weekend, as reported here, at the request of an unnamed client from the US. The problem, as that article shows, is that we really don't have a lot more to go on: this "client" could plausibly be DARPA, or that could (also plausibly) just be what the device's backers would like for everyone to think, the better to fleece the unwary in the next round.

So for now, I'm just noting this with cautious interest. I certainly hope that the people behind this are operating in good faith, in which case I will in good faith wish them well. But we'll see what happens next, if anything. For now, the "snake oil" tag stays on.

Comments (23) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News | Snake Oil


COMMENTS

1. PharmaHeretic on October 31, 2011 9:44 AM writes...

It does sounds too good to be true, but controlled nuclear fission was once seen in a similar manner.

In 1938, few believed that some small lab in Germany (Lise Meitner) had been able to achieve what other 'famous' scientists had failed to for years. But then WW2 started and everybody quickly forgot how skeptical they used to be about nuclear fission.

When your grant is dependent on modulating nuclear fission, it suddenly becomes respectable and obvious.

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2. JH on October 31, 2011 10:07 AM writes...

He claims that the process converts nickel to copper. But that would consume energy, wouldn't it?

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3. luysii on October 31, 2011 10:41 AM writes...

Speaking of alternative energy sources, the organism of typhoid fever can use tetrathionate (SO3-S-S-SO3^-2) as an electron acceptor (it is reduced to two S-SO3^-1 just as a cystine (a disulfide) is reduced to two cysteines (S^-1). This helps it survive in the relatively anoxic environment of the gut. What does it oxidize? Why ethanolamine, which is released from the membranes of dying cells after hydrolysis of the phospholipids containing it. Clever no? For details see PNAS 108 17480 - 17485 '11

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4. luysii on October 31, 2011 10:44 AM writes...

Speaking of alternative energy sources, the organism of typhoid fever can use tetrathionate (SO3-S-S-SO3^-2) as an electron acceptor (it is reduced to two S-SO3^-1 just as a cystine (a disulfide) is reduced to two cysteines (S^-1). This helps it survive in the relatively anoxic environment of the gut. What does it oxidize? Why ethanolamine, which is released from the membranes of dying cells after hydrolysis of the phospholipids containing it. Clever no? For details see PNAS 108 17480 - 17485 '11

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5. CatCube on October 31, 2011 11:04 AM writes...

(1) that the chemists are willing to be a bit more open-minded since (among other things) they have less invested in the state of physics as it is, and (2) that the chemists are willing to be more open-minded because they know less about physics.

I think this is true of most fields--the less you know about it, the less you know about what has been settled. The cranks for any field are usually the most ignorant about it. (For my personal experience, the structural engineering cranks that came out after 9/11...wow.)

Though the thing to watch for is that you don't let "settled" science close your mind if you are and expert in the field.

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6. Curt F, on October 31, 2011 11:29 AM writes...

Supposedly the E-cat fuses nickel to make copper.

When someone shows the E-cat generates copper whose isotopic composition is not identical to the Earth's, and/or that the E-cat generated gamma rays, I'll be a lot more interested.

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7. John Novak on October 31, 2011 11:39 AM writes...

This is the one run by the guy who did jail time for tax fraud, right? And the one whose main blog-cheerleader appears to be NextBigFuture, who also breathlessly forward on every "discovery" that Joe Eck reports in the superconductivity field?

I think my investment dollar is safe in my wallet, thanks.

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8. TFox on October 31, 2011 11:57 AM writes...

This is Pascal's wager, yes? I don't see why it would apply better here than for deism or any other extraordinarily unlikely proposition. The essence of the fallacy is computing the product of zero times infinity, where both the zero and the infinity are informal estimates.

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9. DBS on October 31, 2011 12:07 PM writes...

O/T

On the more familiar topic of alternative medicine, today's xkcd comic (http://xkcd.com/971/) is definitely worth a read.

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10. Vader on October 31, 2011 12:48 PM writes...

Pascal's Wagers are one thing; obvious fraud is another.

The binding energy of nickel-58, the most common isotope, is 8.731 MeV/nucleon versus 8.752 MeV/nucleon for coppuer-63. So the copper is marginally more tightly bound. But the proton fraction is 0.933 for the nickel and 0.853 for the copper; you can't fuse nickel to copper without some extra protons lying around unbound, which makes the energetics completely unfavorable. Just can't happen.

That's leaving aside the question of a mechanism for the fusion. Claiming there's a "cold" way to fuse deuterium/tritium is bad enough. The Coulomb barrier for nickel is vastly larger.

All the other red flags for fraud are there, such as refusing to disclose any important details for "intellectual property" reasons and claiming the endorsement of a wealthy (and mysteriously unnamed) investor.

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11. johnnyboy on October 31, 2011 1:48 PM writes...

This is all a bit above my poor biologist's head, but I do note with interest that the work is apparently carried out at the University of Bologna... File under 'couldn't make this up'.

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12. Andrea Shepard on October 31, 2011 1:52 PM writes...

@Vader:

I believe the E-Cat is claiming fusion of Ni-62 + p -> Cu-63, which would be exothermic (yielding 6.85 MeV). The Coulomb barrier is not the biggest impossibility here, though: they're claiming no gamma rays, just heat. This reaction can't possibly produce 'just heat' (i.e., kinetic energy of the reaction product) because, with only a single reaction product, the momentum of the Cu-63 nucleus would be completely fixed by the Ni-62 + p center-of-mass frame. In fact, it couldn't go directly to the Cu-63 ground state without also violating energy conservation, for the same reason: there's nowhere for the energy to go but potential energy of an excited state of the product nucleus, or kinetic energy of the reaction product, and the latter is forbidden by conservation of momentum.

A legitimate but similar fusion reaction is B-11 + p -> 3 He-4, which proceeds through intermediate short-lived excited states of C-12 and Be-8. This proposed Ni-62 + p -> Cu-63 reaction, if it were possible, would need to proceed in a similar manner: initially produce an excited state of Cu-63, which would then decay, either by emitting a gamma ray to the ground state of Cu-63, or by emitting some charged particle and producing some other end product. The E-Cat, if it operates as claimed, does neither.

Well, it does appear to do a rather effective job of producing a net gain of *something*, but not of energy...

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13. William on October 31, 2011 2:05 PM writes...

@Andrea
I don't think that they claim no gamma rays are created, I believe they are saying no gamma rays are emitted. I read somewhere (pesn?) that they detected small levels of gamma rays, but the device's shielding kept most of them in. I am no expert, but I would just like to make that point.

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14. Pat H on October 31, 2011 2:32 PM writes...

It's fraud or a failure to understand electrochemistry, pure & simple. The one thing that the news articles don't mention is that he has to run voltage through the system for almost a week before he sees any temperature change. What happens when you run a current through an electrolyte solution with metal electrodes? You start charging a battery and generating ions in solution. Eventually, you fully charge the system and it starts to provide resistance and can start shorting out internally, dumping the energy that's been stored in it for a week. That energy is partially released as heat. He claims he gets more energy out than he's putting into it AT THE MOMENT... neglecting to factor in all the energy he pumped into it to "prime" the system.

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15. Casey on October 31, 2011 2:53 PM writes...

Rossi has always refused radiation measurements on an unshielded ecat as he claims that could give away his secret. Of course emitting radiation when powered on would prove a nuclear reaction.

Four inches of lead is enough to completely block any radiation the ecat generates, so that gives you an idea of what types and energy levels of particles are produced.

What's interesting about Ni + p -> Cu fusion is most of the Cu is radioactive with a very short half life.

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16. matt on October 31, 2011 3:10 PM writes...

@10 Vader

Agreed. To hear Rossi tell it (now), the Oct. 28 test was merely to satisfy a customer only he knows about. (Hence the 500kW diesel generator running alongside the 479kW output.) To hear Rossi tell it (six months ago), in October he would demonstrate a full size unit that would put to rest all the doubters.

The important details that he fails to disclose or measure adequately are the inputs and especially outputs of his black box. He'll measure one part of the output (for example temp), run the hose behind a wall, and helpfully supply the other values (mass flow). Apparently the proprietary secret is whether it works or not.

Derek, I'd say there's a strong correlation to some of the alternative medicine, penny stocks, and CFS threads: many observers want it to be true so badly they are willing to overlook...everything.

Others are convinced by Rossi's occasional associations with credentialed individuals: surely THEY would not be taken in. The people attending demos are never skeptics, but people who have demonstrated a willingness to accept what he says and withhold judgment, and thus add to his credibility by association.

It's a case study in epistemology, both from a philosophical standpoint as well as a psychological one.

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17. Sili on October 31, 2011 6:26 PM writes...

(2) that the chemists are willing to be more open-minded because they know less about physics.
"Openminded"?

That's a very openminded way of putting it ...

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18. Sili on October 31, 2011 6:32 PM writes...

Four inches of lead is enough to completely block any radiation the ecat generates, so that gives you an idea of what types and energy levels of particles are produced.
No. That just gives an upper limit.

Zero/nill/nada/zilch will be below that barrier. Coïncidentally(?) Nukees demonstrates that nicely today.

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19. WB on October 31, 2011 8:51 PM writes...

I suspect it's just an activated Ni catalyst, and the H2 gas is being converted to water in the presence of oxygen. Anyone who has worked up a hydrogenation reaction knows the danger of exposing the catalyst with H2 bound to air. Some pretty nice fires....

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20. gippgig on November 1, 2011 1:54 AM writes...

Fusing ordinary Ni (68% Ni-58, 26% Ni-60) with protons would mostly produce unstable Cu isotopes that would quickly decay back to Ni by emitting positrons which would annihilate producing gamma rays. This should be very easy to test. No gammas = no fusion.

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21. Vader on November 1, 2011 9:01 AM writes...

Andrea,

Thanks for the details. Single-nucleon capture on a heavy nucleus is indeed likely to be exothermic, and it has a much smaller Coulomb barrier.

Which, as you point out, doesn't mean it's now plausible. "Much smaller" in this case means "less monstrously high", but still monstrously high. Plus single-particle capture requires emission of gammas, as you point out. Plus such a reaction is limited by the electromagnetic force, not the strong force, making it considerably slower even if you could overcome that barrier.

Reeks of fraud in every way.

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22. metaphysician on November 1, 2011 4:34 PM writes...

I'll put my money on the actual DARPA fusion research the Navy is doing out in ( IIRC ) California.

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23. Hurin on November 1, 2011 11:20 PM writes...

I'm not a specialist in nuclear chemistry or physics, so its the secrecy that excites my skepticism in this case. If something with this level of power and novelty had really been discovered, I have a hard time believing that the details would be kept behind closed doors. There are ways of getting both the multimillion dollar patent and the science publication/Nobel prize/respect of every physical science researcher on the planet. Just saying.

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