The most bizarre article

Our title is the first words of this blogger’s title, and he was referring to what I covered on: Financial Times slapdash knee-jerk reaction passes for journalism

Followup discussion is reviewed, and it shows how patient and civil discussion of views can lead to openings.

The most Bizarre Article I’ve read this year.

This is a first draft, I will probably re-organize this, creating hypertext.

Jake, the blogger, is an investment analyst. As we can see from his lede, he is bullish on Woodford. Yet he has found something that astounds him and puzzles him. Neil Woodford has invested in … get ready for this … cold fusion! the stuff of “sci-fi movies and comic books.”

He read an article, So Neil Woodford invested in a cold fusion company, which I covered with Financial Times slapdash knee-jerk reaction passes for journalism. So now we see the damage done by shoddy journalism in a reputable publication. People believe it. It’s not that it was completely wrong. It is that a series of easy misconceptions are propagated. Jake obviously has his mind boggled, because something doesn’t fit. I.e., Neil Woodford does not equal face-palm stupidity. That is an “anomaly.” Like “cold fusion,” in fact. Anomalies sometimes have boring explanations. Maybe Woodford forgot to take his drugs. Sometimes, maybe, when we find an anomaly and we investigate it, we find something new, even something possibly wonderful. Jake now has that opportunity.

And, no, this is not a get-rich-quick opportunity. Here, Jake, the megaphone, tell us what you wrote:

The curious case of Cold Fusion 

Which leads us to the article. Cold Fusion is a staple of sci-fi movies and comic books. And I say this with some trepidation, but my understanding of cold fusion is that according to our (the world’s) current understanding, cold fusion is simply impossible. Fusion, basically, is forcing atoms to fuse together, to get more energy afterwards. It takes lots of energy to force atoms to fuse together! And lots of energy makes everything hot.

Nonetheless, primarily through the Patient Capital fund, Neil Woodford has invested in Industrial Heat, which is a company that is working on Cold Fusion. Earlier this year, in defence of a lawsuit, Industrial Heat themselves said that “Industrial Heat [has] been unable to produce any measurable excess energy”. The device they are working on simply does not work.

This doesn’t mean that it wont work! In fact, it would be simply incredible if Industrial Heat managed to figure out a way to produce a cold fusion reaction that produced energy.

What is “cold fusion”? Is it “impossible”? Start with with “fusion.” Jake describes it as “forcing atoms to fuse together,” he then gives a purpose for it, but that’s a distraction, it is not what fusion is, it is why we might want to make it happen. Fusion is, more accurately, something that for light elements will happen spontaneously under some conditions. What keeps the light elements of the universe from just fusing, in some new big bang! Distance, basically. First of all, atoms are composed of electrons surrounding nuclei, very dense and very small cores, composed of protons and neutrons, and there is a Strong Force, not named “strong” as a whim, that attracts them. We don’t normally experience this force, because it declines with distance, and drastically. And then nuclei are charged, the protons have a positive charge, and all atomic nuclei have at least one proton. Like charges repel, and the closer they are, the stronger the repulsion. But over the very short distances in nuclei, the strong force dominates. (When nuclei become large, they become larger than the range of the strong force, so very large nuclei tend to break up more easilyl, and that is called fission. With light nuclei, putting them together releases energy from the collapse under the strong force, whereas with heavy nuclei, breaking them apart releases energy. Hence “nuclear power plants, fueled by heavy elements.”

There is something else that keeps atoms apart. “Atoms” are composed of nuclei with a cloud of electrons around them, attracted by the “Coulomb force,” which is electrostatic. The clouds of electrons around atoms repel each other, keeping the nuclei far apart. We are familiar with three states of matter: solid, liquid, gas. There is a fourth state, plasma. In a plasma, the electrons have been stripped from the nuclei — usually with heat or the like. In a plasma, nuclei will collide. However, the “Coulomb barrier” will normally keep them apart, until the energy of collision is enough to bring them close enough together that the strong force takes over. That is so-called “hot fusion.”

However, there are other ways to allow nuclei to fuse. The best known is Muon-catalyzed fusion (MCF). If a physicist tells you that “cold fusion is impossible” — and many who should know better have said that — ask them about MCF. I’ve certainly had this conversation! They will say, “that’s not practical.” And they are probably right about that. But “impractical” and impossible” are far apart!

Why are we even talking about cold fusion? Well, in about 1985, arguably the most renowned electrochemist in the world, Martin Fleischmann, and his friend, Stanley Pons, had an idea. They knew (as I had myself heard from Richard P. Feynman when I sat in his lectures at Cal Tech in 1961-63) that the solid state was too complicated to analyze precisely, that the very accurate methods of quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics produced intractably complex math when applied to more than two-body interactions. In calculating that the fusion rate would be utterly undetectable in the solid state (“impossible” was always shorthand for “very rare,” which was often forgotten), certain approximations were made. What if those approximations were off? In fact, they knew they must be off, but considered that the deviation was probably undetectable. They decided to look. They were not looking for a practical energy source, that idea came later, and mostly from those dismissing what they found as being based on “dreams of limitless energy.”

They set up an experimental cell, containing a one-centimeter cube of palladium metal, which eagerly soaks up hydrogen isotopes, and they used deuterium, because it may fuse more easily than ordinary hydrogen. So they were thinking of fusion, but thought they would find nothing. Finding “nothing” is valuable in science, they would be establishing an upper bound for the fusion rate. Classic hot fusion, though, is easily detectable, because of the radiation. A few reactions per second could be detectable, releasing a miniscule amount of energy, but only from the radiation. To generate enough heat for them to detect and show significance would take at least something like a billion fusions per second, given their very precise calorimetry (possibly the most precise in the world at the time). That may seem like a lot, but not when one considers how many atoms of deuterium would be in that cube! Let’s see, basic physics: Avogadro’s number is 6.023 x 10^26, and that is the number of atoms per “mole,” which is based on the atomic mass, for palladium it would be 106.4 grams, and a cubic centimeter of palladium would weigh about 12 grams. So there are about 6.8 x 10^25 atoms in that cube of palladium. It was thought, before Pons and Fleischmann’s work, that 70% loading was the maximum loading that could be obtained under room temperature and pressure conditions, but they took their cells beyond that, to probably over 90% loading, so there may have been about 6 x 10^25 atoms of deuterium. Actually, inside palladium, the deuterium atoms share their election with the metal lattice, so this is, in some ways, like a plasma. What keeps them apart is not the electron shells, but their own nuclear charge.

In fact we now know that Pons and Fleischmann’s idea that fusion might take place in the bulk palladium was incorrect. The fusion is taking place at the surface. I may get to that.

That first cell melted down. Calculations of the energy it took to do what happened to that cell indicated a far higher energy release that would be chemically possible for the amount of deuterium in the cell, if it all burned, and there is no other major chemical heat source there. So Pons and Fleischmann began their work in earnest, and when it appeared that there was competing research, they were “forced” to announce, which was done in 1989. They knew that the results would be considered incredible, and they were not ready. There was a massive rush to confirm, based on incomplete evidence, and most of these efforts failed, as is now predictable from what we know of what works and what doesn’t. Pons and Fleischmann kept some aspects of what they were doing secret, and, in particular, they didn’t explain the high loading they had obtained, and so independent efforts were satisfied with 70%. It was a disaster, Huizenga, the highly skeptical co-chair of the 1989 U.S. Department of Energy review that attempted to decide — on shallow evidence and in a rush — if this was worth a major research federal program, later called the whole sequence the “scientific fiasco of the century.”

That panel decided, no, there was no convincing evidence yet, meriting such a program, but they recommended further research to answer basic questions. The 2004 D.O.E. review came up with “similar conclusions,” though in 2004, the panel was much more positive about the evidence, it simply does not match the opinion of “impossible.” There is a heat anomaly, and half the panel thought that the evidence for this was conclusive. Yet the idea that cold fusion is bogus was so strongly established in the information cascade of 1989-1990 that this is commonly presented as rejecting cold fusion.

There is good coverage of the status of cold fusion in this article in Current Science, by Michael McKubre, who was retained, initially by the Electric Power Research Institute, and later by various governmental agencies, to investigate cold fusion. (I also have a paper in that 2015 special issue, showing why I have accepted the reality of “cold fusion,” with the caveats that I will detail.)

“Cold fusion” is a popular name for “Low Energy Nuclear Reactions,” or LENR. What Pons and Fleischmann found is called the “Fleischmann-Pons Heat Effect,” or FPHE. It is also called the Anomalous Heat Effect (AHE). Other than from the amount of heat they reported — which has been criticized by others, though never conclusively — they did not show that this reaction was nuclear in nature. That was done by others, beginning with Melvin Miles, first reported in 1991. My paper covers that.

The mechanism of cold fusion is unknown, but we do know that with the FPHE, helium is being produced proportionally to the heat. That, confirmed, is conclusive evidence that a nuclear reaction is involved. It has been widely confirmed, again, see my paper.

“Fusion” raised an idea of the standard hot fusion mechanism, which definitely is not what is happening, and this is all easy to understand. Hot fusion would have produced copious and deadly radiation, this was called the “dead graduate student effect” by skeptics. “We know it’s bogus because there are no dead grad students!” In fact, radiation has been detected, but at very low levels. With classic hot d-d fusion, half the reactions produce tritium, the radioactive isotope of hydrogen, and half produce a hot neutron, highly penetrating and deadly. Tritium is easily detected, and was the first “nuclear evidence” found, but … the levels are roughly a million times lower than expected from d-d fusion. The tritium/neutron ratio has been estimated, and it is also about a million times less than what would be expected. Neutron radiation from these experiments is extremely difficult to detect, because it is close to cosmic ray background. It’s been detected, and the evidence is reasonably strong, but … this is among the many unconfirmed results in the field, because it was starved for funding for years.

That has changed. And here we start to get into the money story.

In 2011, an Italiam inventor/entrepreneur, Andrea Rossi, held a demonstration purporting to show the generation of kilowatts of power. He created quite a fuss, but kept his methods secret, and never allowed fully-independent confirmation. Most scientists involved with LENR adopted a wait-and-see attitude. However, his continued work and enthusiasm and, shall we say, some media successes (including high negative media that was recognizable as yellow journalism and thus not reliable), created a general concern about investment in other LENR research. Rossi was using nickel and hydrogen. The ash was unknown, and he released some assays, later though to be salted. He had a strong motive, easily imagined, to lead competitors astray until he was ready to hit the market. He claimed to have a megawatt power plant, and the thing was actually constructed, consisting of roughly 100 of his individual modules.

Wait and see wasn’t working very well, because if he hit the market with a real product, all other cold fusion research would be reduced to “lab curiosity.”

Meanwhile, Thomas Darden, the CEO of Cherokee Investment Partners, had come to the conclusion that there was something worth looking at in cold fusion. That, in fact, is a very common conclusion from scientists who are brought, somehow, to take a more careful look at LENR than had happened earlier.

Robert Duncan, who was Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Missouri in Columbia, was retained by CBS Sixty Minutes in 2009 to review the field. He was skeptical, but took it on with an open mind. When we open our minds, new stuff can come in! You can see the report, and SKINR was established at Mizzou, with a $10 million grant from Sidney Kimmel, who had previously funded Energetics Technologies, an Isreali firm with some remarkable (and confirmed) results.

Darden apparently saw that unless Rossi could be confirmed or disconfirmed, the field would stagnate, effectively putting all the eggs of a possible future technology, that could be worth a trillion dollars per year, into one flimsy basket, depending on the probity of a single man who, from a supporter’s assessment, deliberately makes himself look like a con artist — perhaps to discourage imitation, is the ready excuse.

Rossi resisted all independent measurements or examinations, only allowing certain very limited “observation” of his demonstrations. How to move beyond this stalemate? Rossi had said that he would sell his “secret” for $100 million, a statement accompanied with much derision at the time!

Darden decided to buy the secret! Actually, what he bought was the 1 MW plant that Rossi had made, for $1.5 million, which was then to be tested and “validated,” and if it passed validation, then they put $10 million in escrow, to be released when Rossi turned over the “IP.” The reactor passed the validation conditions (and this is all now questioned in the lawsuit as possibly fraudulent), the IP was transferred, and the Plant was shipped to North Carolina, where the company Darden had formed, Industrial Heat (IH) began testing. And that brings us to what Jake reported:

Industrial Heat themselves said that “Industrial Heat [has] been unable to produce any measurable excess energy”.

That’s false, the sentence has been chopped up to create a misleading impression. This was the original, as quoted in the Financial Times:

“Indeed, using the E-Cat technology Plaintiffs directly provided them, Industrial Heat [has] been unable to produce any measurable excess energy.”

Back up. The intention of Darden et al was to get involved with cold fusion, not Rossi. They chose to investigate the Rossi claims, which was expensive. However, apparently they had previously invested in at least one other effort, and long before the lawsuit was filed, they were supporting other research efforts. What we know of their work is that they are largely focused, at this point, on supporting the science. They are supporting theorists, at least two that we know of (Peter Hagelstein and Yeong Kim).

At this point, IH is not a commercial effort, as such. though it would have become one, rapidly, if they had been able to confirm the Rossi Effect, and especially if the Rossi claims of massive heat generation were confirmed. That comment was from the IH Answer to the Rossi Complaint (current version), (paragraph 31, PDF page 7).

(All case files are available from Rossi v. Darden case files.)

So this is clearly not about “cold fusion” generally, but only about the “E-cat technology.” Woodford did not invest in “E-cat technology,” rather, Woodford invested in a U.K. company, created in 2015 apparently to receive that investment, IH Holdings International, Ltd (IHHI). IH was first sold to IHHI, lock, stock, and barrel, for stock in IHHI. (IH was apparently capitalized with a private offering of about $20 million in 2014, when the money was needed to pay Rossi; at that point, whoever came up with the original $1.5 million — Darden personally? — was probably reimbursed, though also probably with stock.)

Woodford got $50 million in preferred stock, but obviously trusted Darden et al, because they control IHHI, not Woodford. (Woodford paid about $45 per share, but has the voting rights of the penny stock.)

IHHI is not a defendant in Rossi v. Darden. While IHHI may voluntarily support IH efforts — there is some research going on at IH in North Carolina, but we don’t know what — IH now is mostly a hedge against the possibility of Rossi pulling a “Wabbit” out of his hat, my term, but it seems to have caught on.

One of the theories advanced in the Answer is that Rossi has a real technology, but had decided not to trust IH, and so he withheld it, and Rossi has recently admitted fact that may support this idea, in spite of it demolishing his case against IH. His Agreement with them clearly depended on full technology transfer. (see the Rossi Answer Merge, paragraphs 80 and 81.)

I don’t think the Wabbit exists, but, if it does, and if Rossi takes it to market, IH will reap extraordinary profits, it could be a thousand billion dollars, and this would belong to IHHI, and thus Woodford would make out extremely well. Not bad for a $50 million investment that has other utility!

As to the ordinary operation of IH and IHHI, they expect to spend all the money and need more. Fleischmann once estimated that it would take a “Manhattan-scale Project” to commercialize cold fusion. It might. At this point, all investments in cold fusion must be considered highly speculative.

The problem is not that the effect is not real, it is that it is not known how to make it reliable, for sustained reactions. The material changes and the reaction stops. Arata (the “grand old man” of Japanese physics) did a nifty demonstration with a small cell powering a Stirling engine, showing a persistent temperature rise of about 4 degrees C from about 7 grams of material total. He ran these things for a thousand hours, then shut them down to measure helium. (I understand that he found helium, he certainly should have from what we know, and this was a palladium deuteride cell, gas-loaded.) I figured that with this design, and about $100,000 worth of palladium, one might be able to make a home hot water heater. But how long would it operate? This was not tested and, even if it does last, obviously not a practical application!

There are now approaches being tested that may get around the restrictions. Some of this work is open, published, but much is secret, for obvious commercial reasons.

So, Jake, what do you think? Woodford invested to get his toe in the water. If something is really happening in the field, the people who would know, probably first, will be Darden et al. and, of course, Woodford will be in the loop.

Risky? Yes. Stupid? No.

As to the additional investment required, need Woodford come up with it? They could, or they could simply wait. I was assured in 2012 by an Italian industrialist, from a major corporation, at a meeting at SRI International, that there was plenty of money available for solid proposals. There is less available for the blue sky research that is probably most necessary right now. But it’s still available.

I wrote that paper about the heat/helium ratio, published in February, 2015. However, the paper represented arguments that were floating in the field for at least a year, I’d been pushing this privately, and sometimes in public.

In 2015, Robert Duncan, who had now moved to Texas Tech, announced a research program that would do the research I proposed. That could be expensive, did they have the money?

Yes, they did. Plenty, courtesy of a $6 million gift to Texas Tech, (see p. 18 of the PDF for the original donation, and then page 39 for an amendment) with $6 million then possibly available in Texas State matching funds. This is entirely independent of Industrial Heat, though most people in the field are cooperating, as far as I can tell. If there are positive results from that research, I expect the “cold fusion is impossible” trope to disappear, with the skeptics saying, “I told you so, now they have finally done the research needed!”

Author: Abd ulRahman Lomax


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