Cheap power: An overnight revolution

In a couple of weeks the world could be forever changed by power too cheap to meter. Or not.

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.

The whole idea of generating power from nuclear fusion has been, if you'll excuse the pun, a "hot" topic for a long time. Most attempts to build fusion power generators have been mainly "Big Science" experiments costing millions of dollars, such as the National Spherical Torus Experiment, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor and the Polywell.

All of these designs rely on the creation of extreme environments where a high-temperature plasma (a very hot "gas" of ionized particles) is confined by a powerful magnetic or electrostatic field. This is not engineering you do casually. Or cheaply.

But hot fusion is not what the E-Cat does and, while much of the commentary on this device characterizes it as "cold fusion," Rossi claims that it isn't actually cold fusion at all but involves a Low-Energy Nuclear Reaction (I can't figure out what the difference between cold fusion and LENR might be from the research I've done).

Cold fusion, a nuclear fusion reaction at low energies or temperatures, is the alternative to hot fusion and includes Muon-catalyzed fusion and "generally cold, locally hot" fusion.

Experiments using these methods of cold fusion have, in common with hot fusion, so far not shown a net energy gain, although the experiments have been much cheaper.

A much-celebrated claim for a working cold fusion reaction became a huge brouhaha in 1989 when two established scientists, Martin Fleischmann, one of the world's leading electrochemists, and Stanley Pons, also a respected electrochemist, claimed to have observed cold fusion in a table-top experiment.

Alas, after many attempts by other researchers to duplicate the findings, as well further work by Fleischmann and Pons at a cost of more than $44 million, it transpired that their results could not be replicated and they and their experiment were discredited ... as was the idea of cold fusion.

But all of these failures in both hot and cold fusion haven't stopped research because, if nuclear fusion can be made to work, we could have essentially unlimited energy for next to no cost beyond infrastructure costs (generator production, transmission, facilities, manpower, waste management and so on). So far, no joy. Not one experiment has demonstrated what is termed "over unity" output -- that is, the ability to produce more power than is input.

It is in this netherworld of physics that Rossi's system has appeared and, no surprise, along with it, a three-ring circus of media, science and speculation. At the center of the show is the E-Cat device which has been demonstrated a number of times and appears to be very simple.

One of the demonstration attendees, Bologna physics professor Giuseppe Levi, described as "an expert on nuclear physics, energy physics and sub-nuclear physics," has publicly defended Rossi and Focardi as well as the project.

There's now quite a furor over how the E-Cat might really work (or not), with some critics predicting that eventually the system will not perform as claimed and accusing the inventors of being deluded, or worse, frauds.

The results of the demonstrations have received a tremendous amount of analysis and commentary but, for now, the metaphorical jury is out.

Rossi has another demonstration scheduled in Bologna, Italy, for Oct. 28 for which he has partnered with a U.S. company, AmpEnergo, to build what is claimed to be a 1MW plant in a shipping container.

So, here's the question: Let's assume Rossi's E-Cat works. What then?

From the demonstrated prototypes it appears that you could build E-Cats small enough to power a car or a house. Bundle a lot of them together and you could power a truck, a ship or an office block. Imagine a data center where each row of racks has its own really cheap power generator.

Now you have a world where oil only matters as a raw product for things like plastics so the oil economy as we know it could be dismantled within a few months. Production costs for anything would fall. The power grid would become obsolete. Power stations of all kinds would no longer be an environmental problem. The balance of economic power worldwide would change and, for example, OPEC would become a historical footnote.

The only risk, assuming that the E-Cat doesn't become horribly radioactive after extended operation or produce some other kind of hazardous byproduct, could be global thermal pollution from so many power generators (if they are very cheap and not dangerous then niceties such as minimizing waste heat would be ignored).

We could see a world where ubiquitous power generation is so cheap it wouldn't be worth metering (as a consequence, Rossi would become the wealthiest man in the world, assuming that all of the vested interests in the existing oil and power economies didn't have him bumped off).

It remains to be seen whether this is really all some kind of mistake, which seems unlikely, or a hoax, which seems equally implausible because, if it is all bogus, then there's no obvious upside for Rossi or any of the others involved.

So, Oct. 28 will be a big day. If the demonstration goes ahead as planned either we're going to be really disappointed or we'll be on the brink of something that will change the world forever.

You thought the adoption of the Web was fast? This could change everything overnight.

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