Related to MAKE 03, A Fusion Reactor for the Rest of Us
The Fascination of Extreme Science
by Charles Platt
July 21, 2005
I have an interest in "extreme science," by which I mean research at the edges of plausibility. Of course, there's a lot of self-deception and wishful thinking among researchers who are serious about, say, human cryopreservation or unconventional energy sources. On the other hand, I don't think it's wise to refuse to examine anything that stretches or violates our ideas about the way the universe works. The chance of finding a new Einstein may be as small as the chance of winning the lottery; but if you don't play, you can't win.
When MAKE asked me to write a profile, I immediately thought of a man named Ed Storms, a chemist who worked at Los Alamos for several decades before taking early retirement and setting up a garage workshop in which to study low-energy nuclear reactions, or LENR — a generic term for the field that began with so-called "cold fusion." I wondered what Ed was doing now, so I gave him a call.
He told me he had just taken delivery of a $175,000 scanning tunneling electron microscope, financed by investors who see some light at the end of the cold fusion research tunnel. MAKE editors said I could write about this solitary endeavor, and the art director cautiously agreed that I could attempt to take my own photographs. Since I recently bought a Canon EOS-1Ds 11-megapixel digital camera on eBay, I was psyched to tackle this assignment.
Incidentally, the Canon is a beautiful beast, originally selling two years ago at $8,000, now available around $4,500 on eBay, since the Mark II has been introduced. It is as clunky as a 1950s refrigerator, with controls that are insanely nonintuitive. I mean, what sort of lunatic would create a system of menus where you select each option by releasing a button? But the CMOS image sensor is the same size as a 35mm film frame, so at last, I can use all my 35mm Canon lenses that have been in storage since I stopped using film. I realize that $4,500 for a secondhand camera may seem a bit steep, but I have a steady income these days, I don't buy clothes, I drive a dented pickup truck with 180,000 miles on it, and almost all the food I eat comes from Costco. So, why not own a really nice camera? Especially since it does take beautiful pictures.
I flew out to Albuquerque, rented a car, and drove into the mountains overlooking Santa Fe to meet Dr. Storms and his wife Carol, who makes jewelry but used to work at Los Alamos where she specialized in tritium detection. She and Ed met during the furor immediately following the Pons-Fleischmann press announcement in 1989. About 100 scientists tried to replicate the experiment in Los Alamos at that time. Ed and Carol were among those who succeeded. She found tritium on 13 occasions; in a research institution where tritium detection is so thoroughly understood, experimental error in this area is unlikely. Tritium has a half-life of approximately 12 years, which means that it self-destructs very quickly on a geological time scale. Consequently, very little of it exists naturally, and even a small amount is a strong indicator of nuclear events.
I spent an enjoyable afternoon with Ed, looking at palladium wafers via his electron microscope, admiring his new vacuum deposition system with built-in mass spectrometer (a $200,000 item), and also appreciating the craftsmanship in his handmade electrolytic cells and calorimeters, which are really quite beautiful, almost like 19th-century scientific equipment.
Ed now feels sure that a) low-energy nuclear reactions do exist, even though they violate our understanding of nuclear physics, and b) they generate much more energy than anyone realized. We can play with them safely because the energy is created in very, very small domains, in intersections between a metal base and a thin layer of another metal. Thus, the total output is small but the energy-per-square-micron is immense. Ed is trying to figure out the ideal configuration for energy-producing micro-domains so that they can be mass-produced on substrates by silicon chip fabricators. We would then have ubiquitous nuclear batteries, scalable for your wristwatch, your car, your house, your airplane, or maybe your personal space vehicle. Moreover, each battery would run for years without requiring any maintenance or fuel, since it would be converting tiny amounts of mass into energy on a slow but continuous basis.
Is this for real? I certainly don't rule it out. An LENR advocate named Jed Rothwell mentioned to me recently that it simply isn't true that cold fusion was only replicated by a handful of deluded chemists running poorly designed experiments. Jed cited a source listing 92 separate groups that made successful attempts to find excess heat in just the first year after the Pons-Fleischmann announcement. Somehow, these successes attracted less publicity than the failures. Arthur C. Clarke has described this as possibly "the greatest scandal in the history of science."
Will LENR solve our energy crisis and make oil obsolete? I have no idea, and anyway, this isn't the part of the story that interests me. I'm interested that there is still a useful role for lone garage scientists. Ed Storms may not turn out to be a modern-day equivalent of Robert Goddard, but at least he has a shot at it.
His situation provides an interesting counterpoint to the predicament of some people I happen to know who are doing privately funded research into organ cryopreservation at a company named 21st Century Medicine. Their primary goal is to enable kidney banking by storing human kidneys at very low temperatures — probably around -130 degrees Celsius. In the long term, their kidney technology may enable reversible brain cryopreservation.
This is solid research that has already been published in a peer-reviewed journal. So far, rabbit kidneys have been re-warmed and re-implanted successfully after periods during which all cellular life processes had ceased. Since the structure of a kidney is not so different from the structure of a brain, and preservation of structure is just as important as protection of cell chemistry. Personally, I believe that the achievements at 21st Century Medicine could lead fairly quickly to the much more extreme concept of reversible brain cryopreservation, that is, if someone wanted to put enough money into it. This, of course, gets us into the stuff of Hollywood B-movies, as isolated heads could "wake up" and try to make sense of their surroundings, hopefully protected from excessive trauma by a powerful anesthetic during a period in which tissue regeneration would grow a new body.
Am I serious about this? Well, it doesn't seem to violate any scientific principles, and it would enable an end-run around mortality for people dying from terminal conditions. Since huge sums are spent on marginally successful research to cure diseases such as cancer, you'd think that cryopreservation would be a popular idea; yet it isn't. In fact, I don't think many people really want this kind of thing. Most Americans are ambivalent merely about copying genetic material out of a zygote into another cell, even though the zygote normally is discarded either way. In such a climate of fear and ignorance, you don't need much imagination to foresee the reaction if we start reanimating brains.
The general aversion that I see to extreme science may explain the continuing marginalization of research into low-energy nuclear reactions. If you take it seriously, the idea that you can have a fusion reactor on your tabletop for, say, $1,000 in materials and equipment, is disorienting. Maybe this explains why so many scientists prefer not to take it seriously.
Nuclear physicists are especially predisposed to be hostile, because their hopes have been pinned for decades on huge hot-fusion reactors, which will perpetuate the economic model of centralized electricity generation while keeping researchers happily employed with billions of dollars in public funding. The U. S. government itself might have some qualms about tabletop fusion, considering that unauthorized private ownership of tritium is a serious violation of federal law, tritium being a hard-to-find ingredient in the construction of some types of nuclear weapons. And while the United States obviously would benefit from diminished dependence on oil in the Middle East, I have to wonder whether individuals in government would be entirely happy about it, not just because of possible ties to the oil industry, but because massive economic destabilization creates significant risks and few benefits for those who hold power.
In fact, when you add it up, hardly anyone likes the idea of massive economic destabilization — yet this is what extreme science can be almost guaranteed to do, assuming of course that some of it turns out to be valid.
As a teenage science-fiction reader, I believed that rapid progress in science would provide all kinds of benefits, which everyone would receive enthusiastically. I was too young and naive to understand that as most people grow older, they acquire responsibilities such as homes, spouses, and children, making them wary of change, even if the change promises to entail some significant benefits.
So, I am not surprised anymore that cold fusionists continue to labor in relative obscurity, or that cryopreservationists remain almost as obscure.
Those who struggle to do extreme science today may be comparable to airplane pioneers who tried unsuccessfully to fly, before the Wright brothers figured out how it should be done. Backyard tinkerers, hampered by their own ignorance and whimsical notions, built poorly engineered airplanes that crashed and crumpled without ever leaving the ground, and their disasters were captured faithfully on grainy motion-picture film for our subsequent amusement.
Their failure was never a source of shame or regret. What matters is that they tried. I feel the same way about today's underfunded extremists, and I feel privileged to have met so many of them. I also feel fortunate that I have been able to write about them. I make no claims for the validity of their work, but their courage, vision, and dedication are beyond doubt.
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- Good ole Otto found out how to fly...
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The Wright bro's found out, how to fly with a motor. Otto Lilienthal found out how to fly with a glider.
But as hes wasn't american, you probably don't know.
Posted by danho on July 29, 2005 at 02:47:01 Pacific Time
- Reasons to be wary of "extreme science"
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Although far from a luddite, I have come to favor limiting no-holds-barred scientific research and development. My basic reason is the observation that mankind has not obtained extreme wisdom to go along with extreme science. I don't blame the scientists for this. They are curious by nature and don't have the restraint to resist doing something to see it done.
My larger concern is with the military and commercial sectors. Their focus on conquest and profit respectively eventually overwhelms any consideration of ethics and public welfare.
As for the specfic topic of life extension, I refer back to the wisdom issue. Simply put, we don't have any idea what life is. Therefore, we have no basis for understanding how to successfully extend it--not just preserve the physical organism that exhibits the quality of life.
Posted by crumpley on August 05, 2005 at 13:27:32 Pacific Time
- Letter to the Editors of Make re Storms Article
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Letter to the Editors of Make Magazine:
We have read Charles Platt's published work for a number of years and consider him to be an excellent writer and thoughtful reporter of the leading edge of science, including the controversial subject of cold fusion. That having been said, we read his July 21, 2005, article, "The Fascination of Extreme Science" and his Make - Volume 03 article titled "A Fusion Reactor for the Rest of Us " which referenced the ongoing work of Dr. Edmund Storms in the field of "cold fusion" (a.k.a. low-energy nuclear reactions) and would like to clarify the following:
1. Dr. Storms is not currently engaged in research in this field as a "solitary endeavor" nor is he a "lone garage scientist" nor is he a "lone scientist" working on his own. Quite to the contrary, he conducts LENR research as an employee, senior scientist, and minority owner of a privately held company named Lattice Energy, LLC which received its initial funding in 2001. Dr. Storms' affiliation with Lattice was not disclosed in the articles other than stating that, "His latest acquisition, the electron microscope, is on loan from a small Chicago company of speculative investors who hope that Storms may make a crucial breakthrough in his one-man research initiative."
We do not agree with the characterization that Lattice is a "company of speculative investors." Since its formation, it has conducted R&D activities with a variety of scientists at several institutions, developed a portfolio of intellectual property, and entered into discussions with potential strategic partners. Lattice's business goal is to commercialize the company's proprietary LENR-related technologies. Lattice plans to establish corporate research facilities in the Chicago area in the near future. Dr. Storms was a consultant to the company in 2003, became a senior scientist to the company in 2004, and continues to conduct laboratory experiments for the company on a full-time, exclusive basis.
2. There is only one (not two as stated in the article) major piece of analytical equipment in Dr. Storms' home laboratory. It is a scanning electron microscope (SEM) with an integrated energy dispersive X-ray spectrometer (EDX) used to perform elemental analysis of surface structures seen with the SEM. The SEM/EDX equipment is owned by Lattice and was installed at Dr. Storms' home laboratory in mid-2004 (not in 2005 as stated in the article).
3. Dr. Storms did not devise Lattice's commercialization plan nor was he involved in identifying initial market applications for LENR-based technologies, such as nuclear battery-like devices, or possible manufacturing techniques. Lattice plans to develop actual commercial prototypes at other facilities, not at Dr. Storm's home laboratory.
4. We do not agree with the statement that low-energy nuclear reactions " violate our understanding of physics." To the contrary, Professor Allan Widom of Northeastern University (Boston, MA), Department of Physics, and I have published a technical paper on the arXiv preprint server that offers an alternative explanation for many anomalous phenomena that have been aggregated under the label of "cold fusion." This paper, "Ultra Low Momentum Neutron Catalyzed Nuclear Reactions on Metallic Hydride Surfaces" can be found at http://arxiv.org/abs/cond-mat/0505026. Our theory, if verified experimentally by other laboratories: (a) falls solidly within the established laws of physics; and (b) does not involve any D-D or D-D-like fusion.
Lewis G. Larsen
President and CEO
Lattice Energy, LLC
Posted by lewisglarsen on August 10, 2005 at 18:11:56 Pacific Time
- Welcome back, Charles
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The last piece I read from you on cold fusion was back in 1998, in Wired, "What If Cold Fusion Is Real?" That was a monumental piece of work! Welcome back!
Now that you told us about your multi-mega-dollar camera, where's those photos at, buddy? I can't see any links for them...
I would like to suggest that this phrase, "violate our understanding of nuclear physics," is not very helpful and could be better stated as "challenges our understanding of nuclear physics."
There is a significant myth that cold fusion violates the laws of physics, and I don't think you wanted to propagate that myth further.
More on cold fusion myths and facts are here http://newenergytimes.com/PR/CFMythsFacts.htm
All the best,
Steven B. Krivit
Editor, New Energy Times
Executive Director, New Energy Institute Inc.
Posted by StevenKrivit on September 04, 2005 at 23:12:55 Pacific Time
- Alternative Fusion Concept
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The aneutronic reactor is another electrostatic device pursuing helium-3, hydrogen-lithium and hydrogen-boron fusion.
Posted by rbrtw on February 11, 2010 at 16:22:19 Pacific Time
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