And no, these aren't the Jack Handy Deep Thoughts. ("Even if they never find intelligent life there, I still think we should declare Jupiter to be an enemy planet.")
Here's the setup. It was about twenty years ago (has it been that long already?) that all our energy needs were solved by a couple of guys named Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann. That is, our energy needs would have been solved if everyone else had been able to reproduce their stated results. As it was, after their jubilant announcement that they'd managed to start a fusion reaction with palladium electrodes in a jar of deuterated water, further independent research produced decidedly mixed results. That is, some researchers detected extra heat in their follow-up experiments, most others did not.
Eventually, the term Cold Fusion came to be synonymous with the term junk science. After a time, further research in the field was dropped by most outfits. For the sake of their careers, few researchers wanted to have their names associated with Cold Fusion. Interest was lost in most corners, and it just became a byword and a bad memory.
But... this obscures the fact that something happened in that jar of deuterated water, and we still don't really know what. Was it fusion, as Pons and Fleischmann alleged? Almost certainly not. It was most likely some as-yet unrecognized, unidentified chemical reaction. Some decent primary chemistry research could probably be done to figure it out. It might not earn a Nobel prize for its investigators, but that doesn't mean such research would be without merit.
Now out of the aftermath of Cold Fusion, there came an, um... unorthodox theoretician and experimentalist named Randell L. Mills. He proposed a theoretical framework for understanding what happened. According to Mills, it wasn't fusion at all--it was a new kind of chemistry entirely.
Mills wrote a 1000-page tome, entitled "The Grand Unified Theory of Classical Physics", that outlined his proposed theory. In a very small nutshell he proposed that pretty much everything that came after Maxwell's equations was wrong. For Mills' theory to be true, the work of such giants of 20th Century physics as Neils Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, and Richard Feynman has to be wrong. I won't go into the details, other than to say that in Mills' theory, the electron that orbits a hydrogen nucleus can drop into much lower orbits than what is generally accepted as the "ground state", and that this process releases a whole lot of energy. Mills has dubbed hydrogen atoms in a lower-than-ground-state condition as hydrinos.
Pretty much every reputable physicist out there says that this theory is bunk, and that Mills is a crank. For one thing, if hydrogen could drop into lower states than the ground state, why haven't we seen this happen before now? Furthermore, they claim, Mills' tome is rife with errors; and that big parts of it--the parts that were the most lucid--were plagiarized.
For the record, I don't have enough physics knowledge to judge Mills' theory on my own. I find myself in the same boat as the other 99% of the population who didn't study quantum mechanics; I have to rely on the word of those people who have. And while it's true that Consensus Is Not Science (in the immortal words of Michael Crichton), a consensus among scientists should at least make us sit up and pay attention.
Nevertheless, Mills pushed ahead, and founded a company to help develop this theory and find marketable uses for it. If ordinary hydrogen atoms could be forced into less-than-ground-state conditions, they would release energy in the process. (Mills and co. calculated that this would be an order of magnitude more than a typical chemical reaction, and an order of magnitude less than a typical nuclear reaction.) If the reaction could be controlled and harnessed, a cheap and plentiful source of energy would become available (Warning: link is to a pdf file).
And his company, Blacklight Power, managed to scare up something like sixty million dollars of venture capital, and started up its R&D.
At this point, the conventional wisdom shifted: Mills is no longer just a harmless crank: Now that he's convincing people to pony up big bucks for this harebrained scheme of his, he's progressed to outright fraud!
And to be fair, this was not an unreasonable suspicion. After all, if someone comes to you and says:
We've got this new process that will make almost limitless inexpensive energy! All those stuffy old-school scientists like Bohr and Feynman shall be shown completely wrong, and when we unveil our invention to the world five years from now, everyone will have to rewrite their physics texts! All we need is for you to provide us a little financial help......most intelligent people would, quite rightly, offer to put them in touch with that ex-Nigerian Minister of Finance who's trying to figure out a safe place to put all that money.
But here's where the story starts to get a little unusual. It's one thing for a scammer to say, "it'll be ready in five years!" After all, the scam will generally be up well before five years, and the scammer will long since have vanished. It's quite another thing to say, "this thing will be ready for marketing by next year Q2, and we're looking for independent parties to verify our work."
And it's really quite remarkable for said independent parties to come back and say, um... yes, this reactor is producing more energy than we can account for through standard chemistry.
Last week, Blacklight Power announced that some of their claims had been independently verified:
Dr. Jansson's Rowan University team conducted 55 tests of the prototypes, including controls and calibrations, during a nine-month study. Test results indicated that energy generation was proportional to the total amount of solid fuel, and only one percent of the one million joules of the energy released could be accounted for by previously known chemistry. These results matched earlier tests conducted at BlackLight's Research and Development Center, in Cranbury New Jersey.Now, whenever I hear anyone else announce that their results have been "independently verified", I immediately look to see whether the independent verification has been independently announced. After all, it's easy for anyone to claim that they've been independently verified by someone else. It's a lot harder to get that someone else to play along.
Well, the New York Times picked up the story. According to them:
We covered the company extensively back in May, when it started saying it had a prototype 50 kilowatt reactor.So: unless the Times has totally botched its reporting (hey! Could happen), it appears that the Rowan University team has "come forward with results from its own tests", and that their results are pretty close to the ones that Blacklight has predicted.
At the time, Mills was reluctant to provide much proof, only saying that the process was being verified. Now an engineering team at Rowan University, also in New Jersey, has come forward with results from its own tests of the Blacklight process. Tests conducted in sealed chambers, and measured with a device called a calorimeter, show a heat reaction from a substance provided by Blacklight far beyond anything anticipated.
Now, are there parts of this story that sound fishy? You bet. For one thing, the Rowan U. team couldn't get the continuous energy production that would be needed in a commercial power source, and the Blacklight people are saying, "that's proprietary information." And there's the fact that the Blacklight people provided all the fuel for the Rowan U. tests, meaning that it wasn't completely independent. And this doesn't even start to touch on the sheer unlikelihood of a mere nickel-catalyzed chemical reaction forcing hydrogen atoms into a physical state that modern physics says doesn't exist.
And yet, even with all this, there's a pretty good point that's made by the writer of the Times article:
According to Mills, it’s likely a totally independent researcher will verify the whole process within a year. Meanwhile the company will start licensing out its energy process, and do work with hydrinos in various chemical applications.As I noted in May, it would be odd, if Blacklight were a complete sham, for Mills to place himself in an end game in which he would be definitively proven wrong within just a year or two. So there does seem to be something deeper here. Physicists will deny the hydrino theory, and they may be right; perhaps that’s why there was a distinct note of smugness in Mills’ voice as he said, “The controversy and academic debate won’t stop commercialization.”
What to make of all this?
My own gut feeling, for what it's worth, is that:
- Mills is not a scammer, and Blacklight Power is not a scam. To be a scam, the guys orchestrating it would have to know it's wrong, and be doing it anyway. These guys aren't acting like it's a scam. Like the Times writer said, it would be odd for Blacklight to "place [itself] in an end game in which [it] would be definitively proven wrong within a year or two." These guys are true believers.
- That said, I doubt that we're seeing the vindication of hydrino theory here. I suspect that we're seeing some previously undocumented chemical reaction, and that with proper research, an explanation for the anomalous power will be found within the framework of standard chemistry, without the need for rewriting the laws of physics.
- But it think it's noteworthy that these guys found something new. That is, even if hydrino theory proves to be totally bunk and everyone involved with Blacklight loses their shirts, they have reproducibly found a new chemical reaction. Key word here is on the term "reproducible": one problem with the Cold Fusion people is that it couldn't be reliably reproduced. One team found anomalous heat, another did not, and it was totally unpredictable. But whatever the "Blacklight reactor" is doing, it appears to be able to do it reliably, every time. That means the process can be studied at length, and it should be studied--whatever is happening.
How is it that the "cranks"--if that's what they are--have managed to come up on a new chemical reaction the more respectable researchers have heretofore overlooked?
Answer: they looked for it.
Here's the problem. There's always been a tension in the scientific community between the experimentalists and the theoreticians. The goal of the theoretician is to produce a logical framework, a set of "laws", that explains all the observations that the experimental guys come up with, and predicts things that later experiments can verify. The goal of the experimentalists, on the other hand, is to make new observations that stretch--or even break--the theories. After all, if you observe something that has already been predicted by an existing theory, you merely reinforce the theory; but if you observe something that no one could have predicted, that is where the great leaps of knowledge come about.
The trouble is that by 2008, the physics theoreticians have won the debate. Blacklight notwithstanding, there are no observations of physical phenomena out there that can't be explained by the prevailing theories of quantum mechanics. Experimentation today consists of making predictions from the theories (say, regarding quantum teleportation), and then building an experiment to verify that what you predicted from the theory actually happens. That, combined with the fact that cutting edge physics often requires larger and pricier machines, like ITER and the LHC, means that there aren't that many totally new and unexpected phenomena left to be discovered by tinkerers building experiments on the tabletop.
Aside from the cranks and the crackpots, it seems everyone else has given up looking for holes in the General Model of Quantum Mechanics--because people have been trying for so long to find holes in it, without success. And because the General Model is so successful, there's a tendency to cast anyone who does reject it as one of those cranks and crackpots.
So along comes a Randell Mills, who says, "I think the General Model is a load of hooey," and he comes up with an alternate theory and sets about trying to prove it. He starts running experiments that no one else would have thought to run, precisely because the General Model told them they wouldn't find anything. And when these experiments start returning values that no one (except the "crackpot") expected, what happens?
Well, what should happen is that the scientific community says, "Hmm. Wow. Huh. Could you do that again, dear chap?" And then, when he does, the scientific community should say, "All right, I want you to show me exactly what you just did, so I can do this myself." That being done, the scientific community should start trying to fit their results into some kind of theoretical framework.
Now, there may well be plenty of scientists out there who think like that; I hope there are. But just from perusing various online scientific fora, I tend to see a lot of arguments like the following:
- His theoretical paper is riddled with computational errors and has extensive passages lifted from other works.
- The fact that he's rejected the Bohr model of the atom--with its absolute rock-bottom ground state--makes him a crank, and his work should be ignored.
- The guy's a scammer, who's just trying to get gullible people to send him money. For the sake of the integrity of the Scientific Community, this guy should get no attention whatsoever.
- The "anomalous energy" is most likely just a design flaw in the experiment--nothing to get excited about.
- The "anomalous energy" most likely comes from some change in the physical structure of the nickel catalyst; nothing worth getting worked up over.
- There is so little money available for any research these days, that we have to pick and choose what we give it to. We shouldn't have to spend a dime investigating something that's so unlikely to pan out.
Anyway, that's enough for now. I will occasionally follow up on the somewhat controversial doings of Blacklight Power. I suspect that eventually their process will be found to be a new but otherwise unremarkable chemical reaction, and the whole company will fold within a year or two. I find the fact that no one else has yet found hydrinos to be pretty compelling.
Still, I wish the Blacklight team well. While my gut tells me that their physics is totally wrong, and I certainly wouldn't invest in the company (at least, not before they have viable products on the market and a stable long-term cash flow from operations), I don't think they're scammers.
And unlikely as it is, I'm just enough of a rebel at heart that I wouldn't mind seeing the entire edifice of 20th Century Physics turned on its head. :-)