“In contrast to conventional experience based on using high energy to overcome the Coulomb barrier by brute force, the CANR [Chemically Assisted Nuclear Reaction] environment apparently uses a mechanism that can neutralize the barrier. This more subtle method apparently is obscured when high energy is applied, this situation being like the difference between a rape and a seduction.”
– Dr. Edmund Storms
The Future of Hydrogen
Hydrogen is the simplest, lightest and most abundant element in the known Universe. In addition, it is the most potent carrier of energy known to Mankind. It has a propensity to combine with other elements, such as oxygen to form water (H2O) and carbon to form the familiar hydrocarbon fuels that we have been using for our energy needs for eons.
Burning hydrocarbons is easy, effective and relatively efficient. Unfortunately, it also has its drawbacks. The end products include nasty carbon and other residues that pollute the environment. But even more fundamentally, there is only so much petroleum, coal and natural gas on the planet. Eventually we will run out of the stuff, and at our increasing rate of consumption, this tipping point will come at an accelerating pace.
But burning compounds of hydrogen is not the only way to release the energy of hydrogen. In 1920, Arthur Stanley Eddington speculated that if the Sun generated its heat and warmth from burning hydrogen, or from some form of gravitational contraction, it would exhaust itself of the fuel in something like 20-30 million years. But accurate calculations at the time put the age of the Earth considerably older – and the Sun had to be older than the Earth. Something else had to be happening on the Sun.
That something else is nuclear fusion.
Hydrogen in its simplest form, called protium, consists of a single proton and a single electron. It will also absorb neutrons into its nucleus: one proton and one neutron gives us deuterium, one proton and two neutrons give us tritium. The number of neutrons is important because when two hydrogen nuclei fuse, as they do in the center of the Sun, they form a new element with a nucleus of larger mass. For example, when the nucleus of one deuterium atom fuses with that of a tritium atom, the result is helium-4, a new element with a nucleus containing two protons and two neutrons. A free neutron is also released in the process. The mass of the nucleus of the helium-4 atom (plus neutron) is slightly less than the mass of the two hydrogen nuclei. The difference in mass is released as energy in the reaction, in accord with Einstein’s famous formula E=mc2, where E (energy) is equal to mass times the speed of light squared.
Mass and energy are interchangeable at the nuclear level in truly amazing ways. And the amount of energy released boggles the imagination. The nuclear fusion reaction is millions of times more energetic than the chemical reaction of burning.
A Brief History of Brute Force – Storming the Coulomb Barrier
But of course, fusing hydrogen nuclei is easier said than done. It became apparent that the strong nuclear force pulling protons and neutrons together to form an atom’s nucleus is counterbalanced by the electrostatic force of the positively charged protons in the nucleus. This electrostatic force was first described by Charles-Augustin de Coulomb in 1784, and today is commonly referred to as the Coulomb barrier. If the barrier can be overcome, as it is through the tremendous gravitational pressure and heat at the center of the Sun, nuclei will fuse and energy will be released.
The theoretical basis for the fusion reaction was worked out in the early years of the 20th Century. The result was the first thermonuclear weapon developed at the Los Alamos National Lab in Albequerque, New Mexico. It did not take long for these scientists to speculate that the tremendous power of the nuclear reaction might be harnessed for productive use. The first model envisioned was a magnetically confined fusion device in which powerful magnets could be used to hold a plasma in place while it is heated to high temperatures. In 1946, a patent was filed for a contained fusion reactor following just this approach.
At the present time the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is being built in the south of France for the purpose of harnessing the thermonuclear process for useful energy. The ITER Reactor is not expected to be completed until well after 2025 at a cost that will exceed $20 billion (15 billion euros).
A competing program, the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory uses the focusing power of lasers to concentrate a tremendous amount of energy on a very small hydrogen fuel pellet in an attempt to stimulate the nuclear reaction.
The bottom line on hot fusion: despite more than 50 years of effort, today’s nuclear-fusion reactors still require more power to run than they can produce. Success at producing useful amounts of energy is estimated by those working in the field to be at least 15 – 20 years away. The cost of the programs is astronomical.
New Energy Technologies and Theories
Interestingly, however, there are other, more subtle ways around the Coulomb barrier that have not received as much attention (or funding), but which I believe hold the promise of our hydrogen future. A recent paper by Talbot A. Chubb (www.lenr-canr.org/acrobat/ChubbTAthreetypes.pdf) describes three types of dd fusion. One is the familiar “hot” fusion described above. The other two are catalytic processes that can occur at much lower temperatures. Catalysis is generally understood as a chemical process. However, Chubb is talking about nuclear reactions (not chemical) when he states that “catalytic processes usually use surface and interface science to reduce the temperature at which exothermic reactions can take place.”
One well-accepted method of catalyzing fusion is muon-catalyzed fusion. First discovered in the 1950’s, the process has been demonstrated to produce excess heat on numerous occasions. As I understand the theory, a muon, which is some 200 times the mass of an electron, takes the place of an electron in deuterium and tritium atoms, thereby pulling the nuclei close enough together to overcome the Coulomb barrier and cause fusion, releasing energy as heat. Most observers believe it unlikely that the process will ever achieve commercially useful heat, although a company in Australia is working on it.
Robert Godes of Brillouin Energy Corp. proposes a different catalyzed fusion process that he calls “Quantum Fusion”. In Quantum Fusion, it is not the protons of the hydrogen nuclei that fuse, but rather neutron accumulation in a metal lattice of the right geometry. Godes applies an electronic pulse to certain metals (palladium or nickel) loaded with hydrogen, which act as the catalyst of the reaction. The electronic pulse creates stress points in the metal where the applied energy is focused into very small spaces. This concentrated energy allows some of the protons in the hydrogen to capture an electron, and thus become a neutron. This step converts a small amount of energy into mass in the neutron. Further pulses both create more neutrons and allow neutrons to combine with some of the hydrogen to form deuterium (hydrogen with both a proton and a neutron in the nucleus). This ‘combination’ step releases energy. The process continues, again, with some neutrons combining with deuterium to form tritium (hydrogen with one proton and two neutrons). This step actually releases still more energy. The process continues with some neutrons combining with the tritium to form quadrium (hydrogen with one proton and three neutrons). Since quadrium is not stable, it quickly turns into helium in a process that releases more energy than it took to create all the preceding steps. (2.4 units of energy go in and 24 units come out). The released energy is initially absorbed by the metal element, and then made available as heat.
Another leading theory suggests that the Coulomb barrier is not overcome, but rather suppressed or cancelled out. The generalized theory of Bose-Einstein condensation nuclear fusion has been proposed to explain the processes involved in Andrea Rossi’s Energy Catalyzer. The nuclei of hydrogen and nickel are proposed to fuse through the creation of Bose-Einstein condensation of two species of Bosons. I will not attempt to summarize the physics here, but readers are directed to the paper “Generalized Theory of Bose-Einstein Condensation Nuclear Fusion for Hydrogen-Metal System” by Yeong E. Kim of Purdue University.
My point is not to convince you that any one of these theories is correct, but to suggest that something very interesting is going on. The reactions described in the theories are variously called Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR), Chemically Assisted Nuclear Reactions (CANR), Controlled Electron Capture Reactions (CECR) or Cold Fusion.
Rather than focusing on any particular reaction or theory, Dr. Edmund Storms, a leading researcher in the field of New Energy Technologies, likes to talk about the “nuclear-active state” or “nuclear-active environment” and to focus on the similarities of all reported experiments and theories. In the following quote, which was the inspiration for this blog, Dr. Storms explains his approach:
“The large number of nuclear reactions being reported and the types of required environments give a particular challenge to theoreticians. In contrast to conventional experience based on using high energy to overcome the Coulomb barrier by brute force, the CANR environment apparently uses a mechanism that can neutralize the barrier. This more subtle method apparently is obscured when high energy is applied, this situation being like the difference between a rape and a seduction. The problem is to identify the nature of these environments. Up to now, almost all effort has been focused on explaining how the nuclear reactions can take place once the environment is created. While this insight is important, it has not been much help in finding the best environments. This approach needs to change if commercial applications are to be achieved and if the skeptical attitude is to change.” (emphasis supplied)
One of the primary skeptical arguments in the face of experimental evidence of “cold fusion” or low energy nuclear reactions (LENR) is that it can’t work because tremendous amounts of energy are needed to overcome the Coulomb barrier. Yet after more than 50 years and an exorbitant amount of money, “hot” fusion reactors that attempt to overcome the barrier by brute force still require more power to run than they produce – and commercially useful energy is not predicted for 15 – 20 years. Perhaps its time to find other ways around this barrier. Hydrogen is the key because of its simplicity and abundance. Work in the field of New Energy Technologies has produced some intriguing theories on new ways to coax energy from hydrogen by working around the Coulomb barrier. Its time that more attention – and funding – is directed at this promising new field.
David Niebauer is general legal counsel for Brillouin Energy Corp.