...so did we now get cold fusion to work or what?

post by Friendly-HI · 2013-05-25T13:09:46.948Z · score: -10 (21 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 30 comments

Some of you may have heard about the following paper already:

http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1305/1305.3913.pdf

Here's a news article wrapping up the main points:

http://atom-ecology.russgeorge.net/2013/05/20/an-italian-cold-fusion-tide-lifts-all-boats-arvix-independent-review-paper-confirms-rossi-fusion/


I'm way out of my depth here so I find it hard to judge, is this a pile of BS or are we finally getting somewhere for real?
Is burning coal (and using chemical reactions in general) for the purpose of producing energy coming to an end in the upcoming decades?



EDIT: Here's a review of the article, it should be read. http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2013/05/21/the-e-cat-is-back-and-people-are-still-falling-for-it/

30 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by CarlShulman · 2013-05-25T17:23:37.975Z · score: 15 (15 votes) · LW · GW

That scienceblogs review is completely devastating (Rossi prohibited all of the tests that would actually work, and just had people record the heat emitted from his plugged-in machine), and the guy has a long history of fake demonstrations and supposed roll-outs coming "very soon, really!"

His wikipedia page shows THREE successive fringe science companies promising miracle energy breakthroughs in completely separate areas of technology, contra accepted science: waste-to-oil, super-thermoelectricity, and now cold fusion. The previous companies failed to produce anything, and the first one brought criminal charges.

And you said:

Here's a news article wrapping up the main points:

But it's not a news site, it's the personal website of a cold fusion enthusiast (look at the sidebar or read the "about" section).

Also, there was a previous discussion post excited about cold fusion here with following discussion and rebuttal. You can read that to save time here.

comment by fortyeridania · 2013-05-26T16:45:07.981Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

The OP said:

I'm way out of my depth here so I find it hard to judge

But look at this comment's four critiques:

  • The scienceblogs review is devastating

  • Rossi has a history of fakery, per his Wikipedia page

  • What is supposedly evidence for the claims is actually quite weak (it's not a news site, just a personal website)

  • This idea was discussed before and did not fare well.

The middle two are easily accessible even to those with zero relevant domain expertise.

comment by private_messaging · 2013-05-25T16:29:56.623Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

The verification was complete crap, as outlined in the review article. See the "power magic" image. Even that image over-thinks it. Rossi's marks used AC clamp meters that will incorrectly measure power consumption if you connect a diode in series with your load (and Rossi had a circuit generating "trade secret waveform" there).

edit: actually, the manufacturer's page for the meter they used is not very clear on how the clamps work, and I can't be bothered to look deeper for Rossi's sake. There's two types of clamps, DC or universal clamps use hall effect sensor, AC clamps use a pick up coil and measure only the AC component. The only thing that could not be fooled is high bandwidth oscilloscopes connected via shunts to every conductor going into this device, integrating the current*voltage.

Other issues: 2000W from <1 gram of loose powder is a little odd, to put it mildly (its not easy to conduct that much power away from something small). And of course, someone with a legitimate, working device that produces heat would invest into a variation that does not need external energy input to heat any resistors (and the concept is truly ridiculous).

On the other hand, the reviewers may well be honest, because if they weren't honest they'd have told us they did the whole thing with oscilloscopes and such.

comment by Rukifellth · 2013-05-26T14:51:59.690Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Late to the punch, but I'm sure we can all appreciate the credibility lent to this effort by its now-discontinued relationship with the University of Bologna in Italy.

comment by Kawoomba · 2013-05-25T13:15:10.707Z · score: 2 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I've already linked to that on the Open thread, and incurred the inevitable downvotes for giving any kind of publicity to Rossi (I didn't whine about the downvotes at all, though).

Short version is that the "independent" verification is still mighty fishy (conducted at Rossi's facility, somewhat under his control, and not using accepted methodology).

comment by Friendly-HI · 2013-05-25T13:24:27.923Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the link, I recalled something about an Italian guy trying to pull something a few years back so I became suspicious by two of the four authors being Italian from the get-go, but other than that I just don't have any clue about whether or not cold fusion is actually doable.

I'll look into that tread right away, thanks for the heads up.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-05-25T13:25:15.207Z · score: -1 (21 votes) · LW · GW

and incurred the inevitable downvotes for giving any kind of publicity to Rossi

Three whole downvotes. How do you sleep at night?

(I didn't whine about the downvotes at all, though).

Until now.

not using accepted methodology

This vastly understates the situation. In a stark change from the usual, Lubos Motl is right about something.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2013-05-25T22:57:58.820Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In a stark change from the usual, Lubos Motl is right about something.

Motl is rude, has some strong political beliefs, and personalizes absolutely everything. But when it comes to physics, he generally knows what he's talking about.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-05-25T23:06:39.573Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The unfortunate thing about him is that he wasted all his energy being a massive troll, and stopped publishing (really good, if mostly string-theoretic) work years ago.

comment by thomblake · 2013-05-30T18:24:52.316Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Why was this post downvoted like crazy? Is Less Wrong not the sort of place to post this sort of question?

Should we have a Q&A site for this sort of purpose? It's been discussed before.

Or is it just that this should have been posted to Discussion or the open thread?

comment by Friendly-HI · 2013-06-17T17:04:03.316Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I have made a terrible mistake judgement-wise by posting this topic in the fashion I did.

The situation was like this:

I've been at the librabry, studying for an exam when I took a not unusual 10-minute procrastination break to surf whe web. I went onto planetrationalist.com (a website that collects the newest articles from a wide variety of "rationalist" websites of varying quality including LW), where an article about the mentioned paper was one of the most recent ones.

At that point I made at least three faulty assumptions/ mistakes that were to some extent connected:

1) "It's the top post so this is actually news." (I think it was actually a week old at that point already).

2) "The article about the article does not point out any obvious flaws, and because it's linked on planetrationalist.com I assign some trust/probability that it's not complete garbage" (by far my worst irrational crime)

3) "I'll take a look on lesswrongs discussion board to find what people say about this topic because right now I haven't any time to really check out this paper myself. [...] Oh, there's no post yet in the discussion section, but since it's news (which it wasn't) that makes sense, so I guess I'll open the first topic to see what others think about this paper."

If I had realized that it was old news I would have taken the absence of discussion about this paper/topic in the discussion section as a vital hint. Bad choices and assumptions all along.

So right now I just hope people stop upvoting this and let it die in silence because more people who thinks this thread hasn't enough downvotes yet show up all the time ruin my karma yet further, which overall has been rather positive up until very recently. On the upside however I've learned a valuable lesson about lesswrong at the cost of some karma I wouldn't have learned otherwise.

comment by satt · 2013-05-25T15:39:50.665Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Might as well do this as a full-blown poll.

Q1. How has this paper led you to update your probability that cold fusion is a real phenomenon that could be exploited to generate power (even if exploitation requires further research)?

[pollid:467]

Q2. In general, how likely is it that cold fusion is a real phenomenon that could be exploited to generate power (even if exploitation requires further research)?

[pollid:468]

comment by JoshuaZ · 2013-05-25T23:02:19.662Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure I like Q2. Cold fusion that would generate power seems much less likely than "there's interesting chemistry going on in the setups that is a real phenomenon and isn't well understood." As written it lumps a variety of distinct questions together in a way that may not be helpful. Note also that Rossi's apparatus is in general pretty different from what most versions of cold fusion setups have done, so I'm confused as to how anyone can conclude much from this paper strongly in the negative direction.

comment by satt · 2013-05-26T13:41:14.094Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I basically agree with you. I figured even a crude poll made more sense as a way to summarize LWers' views on cold fusion than simply posing questions in a Discussion post, but reasonable people can disagree with that call.

Cold fusion that would generate power seems much less likely than "there's interesting chemistry going on in the setups that is a real phenomenon and isn't well understood."

This is true, but I'd guess power generation is the dominant reason for most outside observers' interest in cold fusion (such as it is). Cf. ordinary hot fusion, which motivates interesting research about MHD instabilities, designing tokamak casing materials, and so on, but is nonetheless mostly of interest as a potential power source.

comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2013-05-26T01:38:08.059Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Your poll does not include the option, "No change, because this has nothing to do with traditional cold fusion". Rossi's E-Cat employs nickel, not palladium.

Traditional cold fusion is fusion of deuterium in palladium and has been reported by a number of labs across several decades. They get heat and new isotopes, they don't get gamma rays. The main problems are (1) what force overcomes the charge repulsion that should keep the deuteriums apart (2) why aren't gamma rays being produced.

Ron Maimon has a new theory (unpublished, but discussed in various forums) in which the fusion is a d-d-Pd three-body interaction in which electrostatic interaction with the Pd nucleus allows otherwise forbidden transitions, increasing the probability of d-d fusion. If I have the details right, the deuterium wavefunctions are overlapping near the palladium nucleus; the trigger is an electron falling into a hole in the Pd inner shell, producing a 20 keV photon which is the energetic input to the d-d-Pd interaction; and then the energy is released as the kinetic energy of alpha particles, which travel through the palladium atomic lattice, knocking out inner-shell electrons and causing a chain reaction. I don't know if it ultimately makes sense, but the idea gives a theorist something to work with.

So the Rossi saga is irrelevant for traditional cold fusion, the reality of which should be judged on the basis of a completely different body of theory and experiment.

comment by satt · 2013-05-26T13:42:28.969Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Your poll does not include the option, "No change, because this has nothing to do with traditional cold fusion".

I'm happy to subsume that under "no change (because I read the paper but it didn't move me either way)".

comment by Unknowns · 2013-05-30T18:59:47.461Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It's interesting that 20 out of 27 people say that there was no change in their opinion. Given conservation of expected evidence, this seems a bit odd. To a rough approximation, if a paper published on the subject could have provided evidence for it, but when investigated it failed to provide evidence, then we should update in favor of it being less likely. And if it succeeds in providing evidence, we should update in favor of it being more likely.

Likewise, if someone didn't read the paper, he could still update one way or the other based on the existence of the paper.

comment by gwern · 2013-05-31T03:38:05.184Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It's interesting that 20 out of 27 people say that there was no change in their opinion.

I was one of them, IIRC.

Given conservation of expected evidence, this seems a bit odd. To a rough approximation

Yes. To a rough approximation. Excluding things like, 'I can't adjust my beliefs by such a small amount'.

comment by shminux · 2013-05-30T19:31:05.009Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Given conservation of expected evidence, this seems a bit odd.

Wrong event.

If someone tells me that they constructed a perpetual motion machine out of chains, cranks and pulleys, I do not expect to update my estimate of whether such a device is likely. I do however, expect to update my estimate of the probability of whether taking this person seriously is worthwhile.

If a serious scientist publishes an earnest paper claiming a revolutionary novel effect (like the superluminal neutrino paper last year), I would update my probability of this effect being real, until further information is available.

Rossi matches the pattern of a con artist, and none of the linked paper's authors appear to be experts in debunking clever schemes. After reading the paper I have lower opinion of the paper authors, so yes, I have updated.

comment by Unknowns · 2013-05-30T19:43:18.372Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with you about Rossi.

However, if someone makes the perpetual motion claim, unless you update your probability that they are worth taking seriously to 0%, you should also update your probability of the perpetual motion machine.

comment by bogdanb · 2013-05-30T22:00:47.500Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don’t need to estimate “worth taking seriously” to 0, just “too low to bother”. (E.g., the update to my “perpetual motion machin probability” would be lower than the margin of error of my estimates.)

comment by shminux · 2013-05-30T20:10:55.489Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If you do, then you are prone to a version of the Pascal mugging attack: given enough false claims, you start taking them seriously.

comment by kilobug · 2013-05-25T14:37:08.755Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

As far as I understand it, even if it were true (which is still unclear), it's not "cold fusion", but more like neutron capture followed by beta decay, which doesn't release nearly as much energy as fusion does. It's still great if it actually works and can be used to generate energy, but it's not "cheap unlimited energy" as "cold fusion" would be (but cold fusion will likely never be possible, due to Coulomb barrier).

comment by private_messaging · 2013-05-25T20:11:05.434Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Where would neutrons come from? If there was a neutron flux corresponding to the claimed power output, following things would have happened: all the people attending would have died of radiation poisoning (receiving fatal doses in the matter of seconds), the cameras would have gotten damaged possibly beyond any chance at recovering the data, there would have been massive and costly clean up on the site as neutron activation would have made everything around radioactive (including the corpses which would have to be disposed of in the sealed lead caskets if not as radioactive waste), and possibly, the radioactive gasses would have triggered alarms at nearby monitoring stations. We'd be watching this unfold like Fukushima. And there would have been no doubt what so ever that it works.

comment by satt · 2013-05-26T13:48:21.363Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

neutron activation would have made everything around radioactive (including the corpses which would have to be disposed of in the sealed lead caskets if not as radioactive waste)

Maybe getting a bit carried away. Corpses are mostly carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen & oxygen, and low-Z atoms like those are hard to activate with neutrons.

comment by private_messaging · 2013-05-26T20:59:27.537Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But those atoms, with the exception of nitrogen, also have low neutron capture cross sections... and the neutron doses you'd get from 2KW source running for many hours would be huge. It'd be much more like Tokaimura criticality accident than cold fusion. I know that the soldiers who died in SL-1 accident had to be buried specially, not entirely sure though if that was neutron activation.

comment by satt · 2013-05-27T02:32:14.026Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But those atoms, with the exception of nitrogen, also have low neutron capture cross sections...

Yup, exactly.

and the neutron doses you'd get from 2KW source running for many hours would be huge.

Admittedly I haven't run the numbers on whether this dose might be so huge it could activate a dead body by neutron capture, but I'd guess it's unlikely. It's really, really hard to make an organism radioactive just by zapping it with neutrons. (Sayeth the 'pedia: "Steam and water may be radioactive only because of dissolved or mechanically mixed contaminants, not because of activation of the water itself. [...] Finally, the largest part of life chemistry is also immune from neutron activation".)

It'd be much more like Tokaimura criticality accident than cold fusion. I know that the soldiers who died in SL-1 accident had to be buried specially, not entirely sure though if that was neutron activation.

I doubt it was neutron activation. The SL-1 reactor had been running for 2 years when it blew up and most of the water & steam in the reactor vessel escaped. The water would've contained some of the fission products, which would be enough to explain the contamination without invoking neutron activation. (Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry does refer to neutron activation, but only of gold from a wristwatch buckle and copper from a cigarette lighter screw.)

comment by private_messaging · 2013-05-27T05:57:00.494Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Finally, the largest part of life chemistry is also immune from neutron activation".)

But with low neutron capture cross sections, the neutrons are left available to activate elements that are present at low concentrations and have high capture cross sections. At 2 kW and 10 MeV per neutron you'd have ~ 10^15 neutrons per second...

(Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry does refer to neutron activation, but only of gold from a wristwatch buckle and copper from a cigarette lighter screw.)

Well, I'd think those were useful for measuring the doses...

Interesting study on sodium activation:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11791757

so, 0.05 Sv of neutrons, which I presume is on order of 0.05*80/10 = 0.4 joules (where 80kg is the weight of our unlucky cold fusion researcher and 10 is the dose equivalent factor for neutrons, albeit I am not entirely sure how dose equivalent works for low energy neutrons) , converts to 7KBq of Na-24 . Though, Na-24 has half life of 15 hours so this one is not a very big problem. But its clear that with a few watts absorbed for hours, the corpses, while perhaps not being a big health hazard, would be rather radioactive for some short while due to Na-24 alone...

edit: reading the pdf now, it says that 0.5..3 * 10^-6 Gy of gamma and neutrons from a criticality roughly corresponds to 1Bq of Na-24 in the whole body. With kilowatts of power, one could conceivably be getting 1Gy/s somewhere in the vicinity of such things, and running for tens hours at 1 Gy/s, one could conceivably end up with around 1 Ci of Na-24 in the corpse. edit: misread Gy as Sv at some point.

comment by satt · 2013-05-27T21:05:18.083Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Upvoted for doing a Fermi calculation.

You motivated me to put numbers from this breakdown of elements in the body into a neutron activation calculator. Using the setting for thermal neutrons, it suggests you'd get even more activated Rb, Br, Cu, Al & I than Na-24 (~350 Ci total a 10-hour exposure to a point source 2 metres away that emits 10^15 neutrons per second). I don't know how different things would be for the fast neutrons a fusion reactor would spit out; the calculator doesn't say. I'd guess it's not as bad but I'm not a health physicist.

Still, you've got a fair point, although most of the danger would come before the body's six feet under (most of the relevant half-lives are short).

comment by private_messaging · 2013-05-28T07:46:10.288Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, the neutrons would get moderated by the water in the body rather well... i'm thinking the elements being essentially dissolved in moderator should make it worse overall.

I wonder how much activity would remain in the corpse after a week. To qualify as "short lived waste", the body would need to have less than 400 KBq/Kg of >30 years half life isotopes: http://www.iaea.org/ns/tutorials/regcontrol/intro/glossaryw_z.htm#W29 . I don't know what are the regulation for corpses though.

edit: speaking of which, other thing that's very fishy about "cold fusion", especially expanded to include transmutation of nickel, is that it never produces radioactive isotopes. On one hand you have those ridiculously high power outputs, on other hand not even a very small fraction of energy comes in form of gamma rays or high energy particles.

If I believed in cold fusion, I'd be experimenting in middle of nowhere, in a basement of a shed, remote viewing only, wearing a dosimeter, with a radiation alarm and so on edit: In fact one of my friends likes to mess with high voltage, and he got a dosimeter and everything for x-rays that are easy to inadvertently produce). It seems to me that one good way to identify pseudoscience is to ignore the talking beliefs, and look at walking beliefs (I mean, action inducing beliefs). The talking beliefs are, well, cold fusion works, but the walking beliefs are, no it does not, and therefore I don't need a dosimeter (unless it is part of the talk).