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Cheap power: An overnight revolution

Backspin By , Network World
October 14, 2011 12:20 PM ET

Network World - Every now and then along comes a technology that is revolutionary and changes everything. But a very few of these new technologies cause fast change. Mostly they seep out of the lab, into the arms of early adopters, and then ooze out into the world in general.

For example, the first internal combustion engine was (arguably) the Pyréolophore invented by Nicéphore and Claude Niépce in 1807, but car ownership wasn't really commonplace until the first decade of the 1900s.

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So, while the internal combustion engine is one of the key technological achievements that define Western culture, it took more than a century for the impact of the technology to become widespread. As technological revolutions go, that one was pretty slow.

The "Singularity is Near" website has a number of charts illustrating the pace of technology adoption. One of the most interesting concerns the mass use of inventions, which shows the number of years required for various technologies to be adopted by one-quarter of the U.S. population.

We can see from this that electricity transmission and use, which was developed in 1873, took 46 years to reach a mass market, while the telephone (1876) took only 35 years. The radio (1897) took only 31 years, television (1926) took 26, the PC (1975) just 16 years, the mobile phone (1983) a mere 13 years, and the Web (1991) a blisteringly fast seven years.

Now, in IT we're used to change and revolutionary (or rather what appear to be revolutionary) changes at that. I won't labor the statistics of technology evolution other than to point out how the cost of rotating disk storage has fallen from 158 bits bytes per dollar in 1956 to 25GB per dollar today!

All the forgoing was just to provide perspective and frame what might be about to happen: a technological advance that in terms of societal impact could be greater and far faster than pretty much anything else we've witnessed in human history. That thing could come ... and I'm not kidding ... in the shape of a steam engine.

An Italian inventor named Andrea Rossi and his scientific consultant, physicist and emeritus professor, Sergio Focardi, have demonstrated a device called the E-Cat or Energy Catalyzer which, according to a 2008 patent application, involves "a method and apparatus for carrying out nickel and hydrogen exothermal reactions," with the production of copper as a result.

The device is said to work by heating hydrogen to an "ignition temperature" using an external heat source, after which a catalyst, which has yet to be explained, causes the hydrogen atoms to "penetrate" the nickel and transform it into copper, producing energy in the process -- essentially a nuclear fusion reaction -- that is self-sustaining (i.e. the external heat source can be removed and the device will continue to function).

Water fed into the reaction chamber comes out as steam with which you could drive a turbine, and voila! You have a generator. Or you could use it for motive power. You could also use the heat to drive a Stirling Engine, but for whatever reason, this option hasn't been much discussed.

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