Not long ago, the idea that a scientist could generate energy using little more than a beaker of water, a bit of metal and some electricity was met with widespread skepticism.
Today, so-called low-energy nuclear reactions, or LENR, are being recorded in laboratories around the world. Scientists from the Naval Research Laboratory, the National Energy Laboratory of Italy, as well as research teams in France, Japan and Israel have all observed the phenomenon — a wallop of heat when electricity is applied to palladium, nickel or platinum submerged in deuterium-enriched water.
Many scientists are convinced that a new source of clean, cheap renewable energy is within reach. But the experiments to generate the heat don’t always work, and when they do, experts can’t agree why.
MU researchers are trying to understand the physical science behind the heat effect. Last February their research received a monetary boost via a $5.5 million gift from philanthropist Sidney Kimmel.
Kimmel gift helps research
Some of the research at the Sidney Kimmel Institute for Nuclear Renaissance will take place at the MU Research Reactor, the largest and most powerful university-based reactor in the country. In 2011, John Gahl, professor of electrical engineering and director of MU’s Material Science Program, received a Mizzou Advantage grant to conduct low-energy nuclear reaction experiments using the Reactor’s cyclotron.
Gahl said the Kimmel gift allows him and his colleagues to build on that research, which involves shooting particle beams of deuterium at palladium isotopes under various conditions. The results could help researchers evaluate the different theories proposed for the heat effect.
“We’re taking a look directly at the theoretical constructs that have been put forward as a way to explain these phenomena,” Gahl said. “The theories are falsifiable, so we should be able to construct experiments to show whether this theory or that theory is absolutely incorrect.”
Researchers will also be working with scientists from Energetics Technologies, a private company that set up shop at MU’s Life Sciences Incubator two years ago. With financing from Sidney Kimmel, Energetics has been working on commercial applications for low-energy
nuclear reactions, focusing on what the company calls the SuperWave fusion process.
That process was featured in a 60 Minutes segment in April 2009. Rob Duncan, MU vice chancellor of research and a physicist, was asked by the CBS news program to evaluate Energetics’ scientific claims. Duncan came away impressed with the possibilities of the heat reaction.
Federal investment needed
In a 2009 review of the science, the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that low-energy nuclear reaction research was “increasing and gaining acceptance” worldwide, most notably in Japan and Italy. Russia, China, Israel and India have also committed considerable resources to the research “in the hope of finding a new clean energy source,” according to the agency.
The report concluded that whoever harnesses the reaction for commercial use “could revolutionize energy production and storage for the future. The potential applications of this phenomenon … are unlimited.”
Yet Duncan estimates that only $2 million in public money has been invested in trying to understand the anomalous heat effect. “I think it’s unusual, given the body of evidence, that there isn’t more money being spent to inquire what’s going on,” he said.
Duncan said federal investment is important because it could speed development of the technology. As it stands, while privately funded labs are reporting results, most of the research is considered proprietary and not readily available publicly to other researchers.
“Competitive grants — awards based on proven scientific merit — are the key to really getting at what is happening,” Duncan said. “Because then clever research groups around the country can apply for federal funding to try and figure it out.”
Harnessing heat reaction
Figuring out why anomalous heat is generated is only one piece of the puzzle, said David Robertson, professor of chemistry and associate director of research at the Reactor. Scientists need to nail down the specific conditions under which the heat effect can be repeated.
Right now, the success rate is roughly 20 percent, according to Robertson. That means that four of five experiments fail to generate the heat. Identifying and correcting those mistakes could uncover the secrets that lead to an alternative form of energy.
“Quite frankly, our technology has gotten to the point where, if we can reproduce the excess heat effect and we know what’s going on, we know how to harness it,” Robertson said. “That’s not the hard part.”
— Brian J. Wallstin