Opinionista Ivo Vegter 12 August 2014

Advanced technology or magic?

A company fronted by an Italian “scientist” claims to have invented a cold fusion generator, and is taking pre-orders. A NASA technical report documents a test of an “impossible space engine” that shows “anomalous thrust” physics can’t explain. Have the fundamentals of physics been overthrown, or am I just suffering a failure of imagination?

In his 1962 essay Hazards of Prophecy, the late science fiction author Sir Arthur C. Clarke describes the failures of nerve and imagination that lead otherwise learned people to declare future technologies – such as horseless carriages, nuclear power, or flying to the moon – impossible. He subsequently summarised his opinion in a trenchant phrase: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Clarke may have been a revered futurist, many of whose speculations about the future have come to be, but the converse of his maxim is not true. Not everything that looks like magic is advanced technology. Sometimes, incomprehensible nonsense really is hokum. Or fraud.

In that very same essay, Clarke mentions nuclear fusion, which has always been the holy grail of energy production. Many stars, including our sun, generate energy by fusing hydrogen and its isotopes deuterium and tritium to produce helium. These isotopes are commercially available in “heavy water”.

Although fusion was first achieved in the laboratory more than 80 years ago, it would take another 20 years before a hydrogen fusion bomb would be successfully tested. They were wicked, and a thousand times more powerful than earlier atomic fission bombs.

Aside from its tremendous explosive power, however, nuclear fusion is an enormously efficient way to generate electricity. It has long been the dream of ambitious scientists and striving politicians to fill the world with clean, green and very mean fusion reactors.

At the National Ignition Facility in the US, the world’s largest laser is employed in the 60-year-old quest of starting and sustaining nuclear fusion. The goal is to produce more energy than it took to start and contain the reaction. In Germany, a different design is slated for completion in 2015. It hopes to produce electricity from a sustained nuclear fusion reaction for a total of 30 minutes. In the south of France, a third design is being built to produce electricity, but it is years over deadline, and ten times over budget, with costs running to $50 billion, to date. It is feared the entire fusion project may be derailed as a result.

There are other fusion projects, including a number of private ones. Some of them are promising, but to date, they all have two things in common: they do not produce commercial energy, and they are mega-projects. All are vast plants of large-scale precision-engineering. They rival the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, except that the latter actually works.

The problem is that fusion reactions happen at insanely high temperatures. No vessel on Earth can physically contain it, so the hot plasma needs to be controlled by some hideously complicated system of indirect forces, like magnetism or inertia.

Fusion at a lower temperature is theoretically tricky because (to over-simplify) this would require correspondingly higher plasma density, which is hard to achieve. Despite this, fusion at room temperature, also called low-energy nuclear reaction or “cold fusion”, has been to nuclear energy what the perpetuum mobile has been to mechanical energy: a holy grail that has never been found, and probably does not exist.

Contrary to the popular belief that patent offices dismiss applications for patents on perpetual motion machines out of hand, dozens of such patents have actually been issued. None of the machines worked as advertised. Many were the subject of elaborate swindles.

The same is true for cold fusion. The most famous case goes back to the late 1980s, when a pair of scientists, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, claimed to have achieved fusion in a table-top experiment. Nothing came of it, but a few years later, Canon obtained a related cold fusion patent.

Although mainstream science generally rejects the possibility of cold fusion, in 2011 another man claimed to have invented a cold fusion device that produces hundreds of times the input power required to start it, occupies the space of a microwave oven, produces a 1MW of electricity, and can be yours for small change: $1.5 million.

Known as the Energy Catalyzer, or ECAT, the device is claimed to leave neither toxic nor radioactive waste, and can solve the world’s energy problems by producing cheap and green energy.

The inventor, Andrea Rossi, an Italian, is variously described as a scientist, engineer, entrepreneur and convicted criminal. He and his partner, Sergio Focardi, have kept the device tightly under wraps, quite literally, variously citing secrecy while patents are obtained and a non-disclosure agreement with commercialisation partners.

Nobody has ever published a paper on the underlying science, and with the exception of one Guiseppe Levi, who conducted a supposedly independent test, nobody has ever been allowed near it.

The media have followed the story with varying levels of credulity. Some were positively cheerleading. Most have been skeptical. Some, like Forbes and New Energy Times did detailed investigations, which appear to expose Rossi as either a hoaxer or – considering that he has raised millions in investment and is taking pre-orders for the device – a swindler.

Rossi exhibits many of the hallmarks of a “free energy” crackpot. They include a devotion to secrecy, promises of imminent availability while years pass, seeking publicity with grand claims, a history of shady business or criminal convictions for fraud, avoiding peer-reviewed journals, and appearing to break the fundamental laws of physics.

Now it is possible that Clarke was right, that “the only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible,” but I will gladly eat my hat if Rossi is that discoverer. If you’re sending him money, my guess is you’re being had.

The Levi test of Rossi’s ECAT used the term “anomalous heat production” to disguise the rather inconvenient problem that the author could not explain the physics behind it. The Rossi case came to mind when this very same language popped up in a NASA technical report recently.

Confidence tricksters, conspiracy theorists and deluded believers are a dime a dozen, and when it comes to free energy, many invoke “open systems” to get around those annoying thermodynamics laws nobody voted for and everyone wants to break. Others end up theorising about “vacuum energy”, which is the background energy that exists throughout the universe.

This is the energy to which the NASA test referred, when it described an engine that could generate thrust without consuming any fuel at all. Impossible, you say? You’d be right.

“‘Impossible’ Space Engine May Actually Work, NASA Test Suggests” wrote space.com, with unselfconscious self-contradiction.

“Nasa validates ‘impossible’ space drive,” echoed the oft-credulous Wired.

The UK Independent went even further: “Nasa approves ‘impossible’ space engine design that apparently violates the laws of physics and could revolutionise space travel,” it crowed. Approval, no less? From NASA? Heady stuff, indeed!

The report on the thruster, known as Cannae QDrive, concludes: “Test results indicate that the RF resonant cavity thruster design, which is unique as an electric propulsion device, is producing a force that is not attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and therefore is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma.”

Now the effect isn’t very big, but still, we have an engine, that – like Rossi’s ECAT – produces “anomalous thrust”. That’s effectively an infinity drive. It can just keep accelerating forever.

As Clarke said, advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. But more often than not, what looks like magic is bogus.

Perhaps the Cannae drive has tapped into quantum vacuum energy, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The magnitude of this phenomenon is a fundamental problem in physics, known as the vacuum catastrophe. When the Voyager spacecraft finally got around to measuring what the science predicted, reality differed from theory by 107 orders of magnitude. This has been called “the worst theoretical prediction in the history of physics”.

The inventor of the Cannae QDrive is one Guido Fetta. He is widely credited as a “scientist”, but his LinkedIn profile recently disappeared, which leaves him officially sans résumé.

However, the Internet never forgets, and an online biography of an organisation of which he is a board member describes him as a sales and marketing executive with lots of soft skills, none of them covering astrophysics. It seems unlikely that he’d be the type to resolve one of the fundamental problems of physics. Besides, the Cannae drive is based on work initially conducted on something called the EmDrive, by Roger Shawyer, who was outed as a perpetuum mobile fraud back in 2006.

As expected, the impossible engine was quickly debunked. Colin Johnston, science education director at a planetarium in Ireland, has a good overview of the entire story.

The name NASA implies an implicit appeal to authority, which journalists often blindly accept. They often lack the time to stop and think, or to verify claims and double- or triple-check stories with independent sources. But when someone makes a claim that appears to break the laws of physics, it should take more than an authoritative acronym to validate the story.

My skepticism may be misplaced, and I may be guilty, in Clarke’s phrasing, of a lack of imagination, but I do not lack nerve. I have a second hat in case something does come of this “anomalous thrust” malarkey.

If both cold fusion and the infinity drive turn out to work, I’m going to be one embarrassed journalist, with a large dose of indigestion and a shortage of hats. But I’ll bear my humiliation bravely. DM


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