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NASA's basement nuclear reactor

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February 20, 2013

NASA's research holds the promise of a home nuclear reactor (Image: NASA)

NASA's research holds the promise of a home nuclear reactor (Image: NASA)

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If Joseph Zawodny, a senior scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center, is correct, the future of energy may lie in a nuclear reactor small enough and safe enough to be installed where the home water heater once sat. Using weak nuclear forces that turn nickel and hydrogen into a new source of atomic energy, the process offers a light, portable means of producing tremendous amounts of energy for the amount of fuel used. It could conceivably power homes, revolutionize transportation and even clean the environment.

Currently, nuclear power means one of two approaches. There’s fission, which involves splitting atoms of uranium or plutonium to release energy, and is employed in all military and civilian nuclear plants. Then there’s fusion, which involves forcing together hydrogen atoms to form helium and releasing even more energy. The former has been controversial for decades while the latter has been in the research phase since the 1950s, and is still as far away from practical application now as it was then.

A nickel lattice (Image: NASA)
A nickel lattice (Image: NASA)

The problem with current nuclear technology is that fission produces nuclear wastes and has a poor public image, while both fusion and fission involve generating large amounts of dangerous ionizing radiation. It also doesn't help that both processes require large, complicated installations with heavy shielding. That’s because conventional nuclear reactions rely on what are called strong nuclear forces, which are the forces that hold atoms together. Breaking heavy atoms apart or forcing light atoms together releases enough energy to run a nation or blow one up.

What Zawodny and other researchers are working on is called Low-Energy Nuclear Reactions or Lattice Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR). In the late 1980s, it went by the name of “cold fusion.” Its proponents were light on theory and not very rigorous in experimenting. They thought that nuclear energy was being released by a chemical reaction, but this theory ended up being discredited. Today, not only the name has changed, but also the theory and the approach of the researchers.

“There are a lot of people who are trying to just build something without understanding anything,” Zawodny said. “It worked for Edison and the light bulb, but it took him a long time and that was a simple system. This is very complex. And if they make something that just barely works, and accidentally one in a thousand works really, really well, it's going to take down a house with their trial-and-error method.”

A nickel lattice absorbing hydrogen ions (Image: NASA)
A nickel lattice absorbing hydrogen ions (Image: NASA)

According to Zawodny, LENR isn’t what was thought of as cold fusion and it doesn't involve strong nuclear forces. Instead, it uses weak nuclear forces, which are responsible for the decay of subatomic particles. The LENR process involves setting up the right conditions to turn these weak forces into energy. Instead of using radioactive elements like uranium or plutonium, LENR uses a lattice or sponge of nickel atoms, which holds ionized hydrogen atoms like a sponge holds water.

The electrons in the metal lattice are made to oscillate so that the energy applied to the electrons is concentrated into only a few of them. When they become energetic enough, the electrons are forced into the hydrogen protons to form slow neutrons. These are immediately drawn into the nickel atoms, making them unstable. This sets off a reaction in which one of the neutrons in the nickel atom splits into a proton, an electron and an antineutrino. This changes the nickel into copper, and releases energy without dangerous ionizing radiation.

The trick is to configure the process so that it releases more energy than it needs to get it going. “It turns out that the frequencies that we have to work at are in what I call a valley of inaccessibility,” Zawodny said. “Between, say, 5 or 7 THz and 30 THz, we don't have any really good sources to make our own controlled frequency.”

LENR is a very long way from the day when you can go out and buy a home nuclear reactor. In fact, it still has to be proven that the phenomenon even exists, but hundreds of experiments worldwide indicate that heat and transmutations with minimal radiation and low energy input do take place with yields of 10 to 100 watts.

Much work needs to be done to validate these claims, but it may already be happening outside of the laboratory. According to the theory’s co-developer, Lewis Larsen, LENR may occur naturally in lightning or even in the primordial cloud of gas and dust that formed the Earth. If so, it would explain why the oxygen isotopes of our planet and the Sun are so different.

If it could be made to work, the practical applications would be as revolutionary as what fission has achieved and fusion has promised. Theoretically, the process could yield several million times more energy than chemical reactions. According to Dennis Bushnell, Chief Scientist, NASA Langley Research Center, one percent of the nickel mined per year could meet the world’s energy needs for a quarter of the cost of coal. In past years, several labs have blown up while studying LENR and windows have melted – showing that if it really works, it can produce an impressive amount of energy.

Concept of space planes powered by LENR reactors (Image: NASA)

Zawodny says that the most logical first application of LENR is the home reactor, which would produce heat and electricity for the home while charging the family electric car. Another area is in transportation, with the light, portable reactors powering supersonic aircraft and flying cars without the danger or radiation. It could even be used to power a space plane capable of reaching orbit without stages or external fuel tanks.

One area of particular interest is the environment, with the LENR reactor using carbon to run it, converting the element into nitrogen. According to Zawodny, this would be much better than sequestering carbon dioxide to control climate change, and could also be used to eliminate toxic carbon compounds by turning waste into fuel.

The future of LENR is a matter of taking a step back in nuclear physics. The first generation leapt straight to strong force reactions. Now the goal is to go back and study the weak forces.

“From my perspective, this is still a physics experiment,” Zawodny said. “I'm interested in understanding whether the phenomenon is real, what it's all about. Then the next step is to develop the rules for engineering. Once you have that, I'm going to let the engineers have all the fun.” He went on to say that, “ All we really need is that one bit of irrefutable, reproducible proof that we have a system that works. As soon as you have that, everybody is going to throw their assets at it. And then I want to buy one of these things and put it in my house.”

The video below outlines LNER experimentation.

Sources: NASA, NASA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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38 Comments

Sounds just like the E-cat reactors that Rossi and Focardi have been selling in Italy for that past couple of years.

MBadgero
20th February, 2013 @ 01:31 pm PST

Fueling a flying car with egg shells and banana peels suddenly sounds a lot less ridiculous (Movie: Back to the future). There is an absolute abundance of energy out there. Latent heat in the Earth, Chemical energy, Fission from the sun and nuclear in various shapes and forms.

It is kind of crazy that people keep telling us we are running out of energy. It would violate the first law of thermodynamics.

Paul van Dinther
20th February, 2013 @ 03:03 pm PST

Andrea Rossi Energy Catalyzer anyone? The NASA guys did visit him.

I'm wondering why he is not mentioned here and how related this and his story are.

Kris Lee
20th February, 2013 @ 05:06 pm PST

I wish him well, but if the 'Green' lobby doesn't scare-monger it out of business - NUCLEAR, Everybody Panic - then the big power suppliers will find another way to close it down. I hope his relatives have taken out a lot of life insurance on his good self.

The Skud
20th February, 2013 @ 05:07 pm PST

I don't think anyone is saying we are running out of energy in absolute terms. It is more a case of being limited by economics and technology. There is only so much fossil fuel we can extract, only so much sunlight we can reasonably turn into electricity and only so much fissile material we can mine and refine.

I am excited to see the boundaries of theoretical physics being pushed in a rational way (see e-cat device for irrational).

The cool thing is the waste out of this reaction would be copper which is a useful product in itself. I am dubious that we'll discover the method to start the proposed reaction, if the reaction is possible in any way other than theory.

Scion
20th February, 2013 @ 05:16 pm PST

@me

Likely Rossi is just a conman but I like to know more about those melted windows. Do you refer to the uncontrolled process?

Kris Lee
20th February, 2013 @ 05:26 pm PST

Hmmm... submillimetre radiation. Very tricky. Beyond microwaves, not quite infra-red. Just beyond the threshold of direct measurement. Good luck there. No one's really cracked it yet.

nutcase
20th February, 2013 @ 06:01 pm PST

Yes, it does sound just like Rossi's device. This is precisely the process he claims to create, except that he claims to be using some kind of catalyst rather than terahertz waves.

Whether Rossi is a conman or not I cannot say, but one thing we do know is that his device produces excess heat. We also know that he has successfully sold arrays of devices that reportedly output in the 10MW range... and that is something that is pretty hard to fake.

We also know that a separate company that they and Rossi both claim to have evaluated Rossi's device also claims to know what the catalyst is, and is selling devices of their own.

So... I make no claims about the science or whether it's a scam or somehow real. But last I heard there were 2 separate firms making and selling Rossi-style devices. I am adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

Anne Ominous
20th February, 2013 @ 11:29 pm PST

Also... submillimeter waves? Hmmm. Maybe a good use for all those scanners the TSA is trying to dump off on other departments.

Anne Ominous
20th February, 2013 @ 11:31 pm PST

There is a 5.5 million USD project running at University of Missouri.

Robert Duncan, Vice Chancellor for Research writes: "There have been great advances in this discipline over the last five years by research labs and private institutions around the world, and this work will be explored at ICCF-18. The Naval Research Lab (NRL), and many other excellent laboratories have confirmed that the excess heat effects reported by Fleischmann and Pons are real, and roughly one thousand times larger than can be attributed to a chemical process."

Missouri U together with Purdue will host the international conference on cold fusion in July this year.

At the NETS-2013 meeting (Nuclear and Emerging Technologies for Space, organized by the ANS) starting Monday 25 Feb, George Miley from Illinois (UIUC) will speak about his research in this field.

Gerrit
21st February, 2013 @ 01:55 am PST

@Anne Ominous

Interesting hos you can say definitely that we KNOW all this information about Rossi. NONE of this is known, it is all just internet chatter. There is no one who has actually been able to definitely state this information as FACT.

Greg P
21st February, 2013 @ 02:09 am PST

How are we ever going to get over the nuclear hangover of the 1950’s. Interesting how generations of active participants keep thinking nuclear is our only option. Sorry to state the obvious but we are biological organic creatures, take a look around you. There is an abundance of energy. Unfortunately exponential growth requires supply of cheep credit. Demand in 2015 will outstrip supply for all forms of energy as growth dynamics start to go exponential. Unless I am missing something we are virtually at peak output for Oil usage. LNG is the only medium term solution. I like Nasa they are extremely efficient at wasting huge amounts of capital on bad investments. Keep up the good work.

settimo
21st February, 2013 @ 03:18 am PST

> It is kind of crazy that people keep telling us we are running out of energy

*Fossil* fuels specifically, not energy in the absolute.

Freyr Gunnar
21st February, 2013 @ 04:27 am PST

Thorium rectors can already be built in small areas and produce the same or more power than a huge plant

D.O.R.A.
21st February, 2013 @ 05:04 am PST

There are much more business activity than Rossi only.

I've made recently an "executive summary for policy maker" about LENR, that gather much data about business actors, business potential...

Rossi behave like the Wright Brothers, and a little like the Marx Brothers. Anyway when a blacksuit executive, with such a CV, support this clown on the media, you know that its works and it have been checked many, many times.

Defkalion is a gang of blacksuit like me. LENR-cars is a young black-suit, like LENR-Cities promoters. For Kresenn, Brillouin, I don't know well how they dress.

There are much more theory than widom-larsen, and I'm now convinced that none is convincing today... yet many will probably participate to the final theory. We should forget about theoretical question, before the last skeptics learn to accept the facts... Theory is guided by experiments, not the opposite.

Today the regulatory problems force to focus on industrial application, because home certification is too hard for so young technology.

However what zawodny says is the dream that every creator had at the begining, Rossi, defkalion, Miley/lenuco. It will be true if men in black and green-shirts don't forbid it.

AlainCo
21st February, 2013 @ 05:23 am PST

"“Between, say, 5 or 7 THz and 30 THz, we don't have any really good sources to make our own controlled frequency.”.............

"In 2009, it was shown that T-waves are produced when unpeeling adhesive tape. The observed spectrum of this terahertz radiation exhibits a peak at 2 THz and a broader peak at 18 THz. The radiation is not polarized. The mechanism of terahertz radiation is tribocharging of the adhesive tape and subsequent discharge"

Science can be quite funny......... ;)

Jeff Seussalias
21st February, 2013 @ 05:32 am PST

So basically, cold fusion might now work - if it's not called cold fusion. This story hasn't changed in decades, so why would we expect it to change now? Seems obvious that revolutionary power sources will forever be trumped by the most stagnating powerful force: $

Fritz Menzel
21st February, 2013 @ 09:33 am PST

And the quest to turn lead into gold continues....

Paul Anthony
21st February, 2013 @ 10:24 am PST

"Sounds just like the E-cat reactors that Rossi and Focardi have been selling in Italy for that past couple of years. "

-

There is no evidence that Rossi has ever sold anything to anyone. Instead, it seems he has probably taken plenty of money from investors and developers and has never delivered anything.

If you know of a single client of Rossi's (or Defkalion's) which can be named, please name them. I've never seen a single name in print. Rossi claimed associations with National Instruments and several universities and all have denied ever receiving or testing his ecat.

Rossi makes increasingly extravagant claims on his blog but has never had his devices properly confirmed to work by independent testing. His activities greatly resemble (and probably are) an investor scam.

If you read Zawodny carefully, especially on his own web site, you will see that he is not even sure the phenomenon of LENR is real!

Mary Yugo
21st February, 2013 @ 10:48 am PST

I notice the phrase: "The trick is to configure the process so that it releases more energy than it needs to get it going". Aye, and if me Grandmother ha' wheels she woul' be a wagon...

Russ Jata
21st February, 2013 @ 02:55 pm PST

We could have Nevada paved with solar cells before this guy (or Rossi & co.) produce a watt of excess power.

Captain Obvious
21st February, 2013 @ 05:16 pm PST

As Anne Ominous said "I am adopting a wait-and-see attitude."

More people should do the same instead of right off the bat claiming it won't work. It was also mentioned that "Science is funny", well before the Wright brothers flew their plane it was claimed that it couldn't be done also.

People, sit back and wait to see if it is going to work or not. You may be surprised if it turns out to work. Besides that we need the dreamers in society to help advance it.

So, just QUIT NAY-SAYING all the time.

JMOdom
21st February, 2013 @ 08:01 pm PST

@Greg P

Yes, we do know these things.

Rossi's devices have been submitted to evaluation by others. And while nobody was allowed to open them for detailed scrutiny, they HAVE been shown to produce more heat than their volume would allow if they used other power sources such as batteries, *IF* they output that power continuously. Whether they put out anywhere near as much as Rossi claims, however, or enough to even be practical, is what is open to debate.

We also DO know that he sold at least one, and as of the last I read about it was in the process of selling his second, 10MW-range array. (These were collections of Rossi devices in parallel packed into storage containers.) I make no claims about their quality or operation... I only know that they were sold.

We also DO know that another firm in Greece is also commercially selling Rossi-style devices.

I make no other claims about them. They generate heat (and I do not even make any claims about HOW LONG they generate that heat), and they are being sold. That sums up my only assertions.

I clearly stated that I do not know whether Rossi's devices are scams. Do not read more into my statements than I actually wrote.

Anne Ominous
21st February, 2013 @ 09:11 pm PST

@ JMOdom:

Even worse: much like Rossi, the Wright brothers were very secretive about the details of their invention. They put on demonstrations in the U.S. and Europe, but for 6 years Scientific American refused to believe their claims, and actually credited the invention of powered flight to someone else.

Again, I am not making any claims about Rossi. Just pointing out that there HAVE been secretive non-scammers before, because they were afraid they would lose commercial control of their inventions. On the other hand, if you ARE a scammer, it's a pretty convenient shield to hide behind.

So I am just playing wait-and-see. The technology is at least plausible, as the U.S. Navy has been saying for at least a couple of years now. It is not beyond the range of credibility that somebody has found a way to do it.

Anne Ominous
21st February, 2013 @ 11:35 pm PST

@ Mary Yugo:

Off-hand, no, I can't name the company. But several independent reporters (even some skeptics who were very critical) reported that he had made a sale of a 10MW unit and another sale was in the works. There was also a picture of the first one, with the doors open. No, of course that's not proof of anything. But when even the skeptics report about it, it does have some credibility.

He also claims to have spoken to Siemens AG about a low-pressure turbine they make. This has been widely reported but there is little corroborating evidence. On the other hand, that's hardly surprising because Siemens most likely would not discuss a pending deal.

So as I mentioned before: it's all plausible, and there are lots of reports, even some from skeptics, but we know little for sure.

One more time: I'm adopting a wait-and-see attitude. I'm not going to make claims about it that haven't been reported with at least a modicum of credibility. But neither am I going to flatly deny something that is plausible, without evidence that it is false. (Which is not the same as lack of evidence that it is true, which seems to be a point of confusion for many people.)

Correction:

I have been saying 10MW. I believe this was an error. I am pretty sure the units that were supposedly sold were claimed to be in the 1MW range, not the 10MW range. Apologies for any confusion.

Anne Ominous
22nd February, 2013 @ 12:24 am PST

PLEASE NOTE: this is an idea developed by Professor Rossi and Professor Focardi from the Milan and Bologna University.

1 or 2 years ago they build a working machine (its name is E-Catt), and no one from the scientific community believed it was a possible or probable process to create.

They were skeptical because they couldn't prove the process inside the machine since it was under industrial secret.

After that, Nasa bought 1000 E-Catt machines (or 100, don't remember well) to study the process and understand its functions.

But the inventor of the cold fusion is Professor Rossi, who is already producing E-Catt machines to sell in October in collaboration with an American Company.

Bloccato

Bloccato
22nd February, 2013 @ 05:23 am PST

It damages a scientist's credibility when he doesn't even know his history. What Edison needed was the answer from Joseph Swan who actually invented the first practical incandescent light bulb. A little bit of research would put him straight. Swan demonstrated his bulb in late 1878 just in time for Edison to invent it and demonstrate it in December 1879.

chann94501
22nd February, 2013 @ 11:49 am PST

"the electrons are forced into the hydrogen protons to form slow neutrons. These are immediately drawn into the nickel atoms, making them unstable. This sets off a reaction in which one of the neutrons in the nickel atom splits into a proton, an electron and an antineutrino. This changes the nickel into copper, and releases energy without dangerous ionizing radiation." Sounds like what researchers have been calling cold fusion, and what Rossi has called his E-Cat. Is NASA ahead of this curve or behind it?

Bernie Koppenhofer
22nd February, 2013 @ 12:57 pm PST

SHAME ON YOU ! NASA.

ROSSI is the inventor who finished the work published in 1989 by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann . "Cold nuclear fusion" that had been published in Scientific American in July 1987 . NASA and MIT alike with their so called lattice assisted fusion "discovery" ! They have become nothing but loser copE- cats pun intended fearing that they are missing the boat to one of the biggest breakthroughs in modern times. We need to face it that the Italians beat us to it! Period! The same people who riddiculed Pons and Fleishman into isolation now claim they discovered it!. whoa what a shame! These guys need a dose of ridicule themselves for being so discusting!

I bet they will miss the next one as well because the cat is out of the bag for who to trust. MIT and NASA are no friends to the independant guy with some good electrolytes roaming around his neurons.

SHAME!

Eurekalogic
22nd February, 2013 @ 02:21 pm PST

Quite disappointing to see that Dr. Rossi wasn't even mentioned here. Kind of like in medicine, where only official medical doctors are allowed, by law, to say what is a disease or a diagnosis. So, now that NASA has waved its hand over LENR, and given it a new name from its old Cold Fusion name, now it becomes Politically Correct and Scientifically Acceptable?

Dan Ecklund, MD
22nd February, 2013 @ 03:03 pm PST

What is strange is that the reporting in this article is so outdated by new developments. The US military has already purchased a 1mW generator of this type - early last year - and they are currently being manufactured by Leonardocorp in Miami. It doesn't even mention the main progenitor of this technology, Andrea Rossi, any of his major competitiors (Piantelli, Focardi, Miley, et alii) or other companies hoping to market the technology (Brillouin, Nicheenergy, Defkalion Green Technologies, etc.). It's like the writer read and rewrote some year-old news story; after all, NASA and Zawodny released a substantive video on LENR last January that has been on The American Reporter's homepage (www.american-reporter.com) for more than a year now. Wired, US News & World Report, FoxNews, MSNBC and many other pubs have already beaten Gizmodo to the punch on it. Nonetheless, this was a nice piece, however dated.

Joe Shea
22nd February, 2013 @ 03:35 pm PST

As Dr. Bussard said of his Polywell fusion principle, the

author may die, (or be killed) but the idea is immortal.

Sooner or later, someone will build and demonstrate

a practical power-plant, and then the creative cat will

well and truly be loose amongst the pessimistic pigeons.

Heh. The Physics, and the Psychology, of basic research

into truly revolutionary concepts does not change:

Dr. E. E. Smith and George O. Smith both described these

constants of the equation in their SF works, and their

warnings are still good today: Work on very small quantities

of the energy source, be sure you completely understand

the basic principles before scaling up the device, and

never, never turn your back on the naysayers. >:)

M. Report
22nd February, 2013 @ 06:11 pm PST

Holy $&%$, would it kill people to read the other comments before going on the same crackpot rant as the person above? No wonder we can't get anything vaguely resembling new energy off the ground.

So, seriously, I work with sealed source radiation regularly, (at MIT by the way, so I can tell you first hand that they have one of the best programs in the world for facilitating innovation) and we need to stop freaking out about it so much. That said, we are years closer to supplying every hospital with a thorium reactor than we are to anything as complicated as what you see above. This would be an achievable, safe, and reasonable goal for ten years time, unlike something we are testing in space because it seems to occasionally melt a lab. Also, is this really not producing ionizing radiation?

As for THz waves, I would try "playing" carbon nano tubes. If they are the right length and the right capacitance they should give off the right output in the right conditions. Alternatavely, large enough cavities on IR style diode lasers should do the trick.

Charles Bosse
22nd February, 2013 @ 08:40 pm PST

Regarding the Edison light bulb thread...

I thought I read somewhere that there were other people making light bulbs before Edison. The problem was that they did not last long, as was the case for thousands of tries by Edison. He finally found something that lasted long enough to be practical. Actually, I thought his first practical one that he patented was something that he improved many times as well as he worked to commericalize it.

Actually, my understanding is that most of the people we learned in school were THE inventors of things (cotton 'gin, powered flight, and a bunch of others) were actually the ones who got patents AND turned them into successful businesses... but all of these things had lots of activity by multiple people during the time period, as well as some degree of success, key ideas and results, etc.

Bob Pearsall
24th February, 2013 @ 05:57 pm PST

sounds kind of like a hydrogen fuel cell or browns gas generator (theory in reverse?). I'd wonder if water would work at microwave frequencies?

given the similarity to cold fusion-does it generate any helium? (deuterium?tritium?))

Kwazai
24th February, 2013 @ 07:15 pm PST

Weekend Handyman....

Honey I'm just going down to the basement to tinker with the nuclear reactor.....

Why is anyone even speaking of that con man. It is a total fraud.

Foxy1968
10th April, 2013 @ 11:26 pm PDT

For those who need some education on the subject, start with MIT's LENR course online

Cold fusion was proven to work in the late 80's (and unjustly disproved by several labs who had $millions to loss at it's success). The labs that followed the protocol established by Pons and Fleishman were and currently are able to reproduce the same results 8 out of 10 times (it just wasn't and isn't commercial feasible).

The Rossi method of producing LENR (which is pretty much the same thing as above) works and has generated 10's of megawatts of power commerically, efficiently and under stable conditions.

For anyone interested in LENR theory look into Znidarsic's theory.

Matt Fletcher
6th August, 2013 @ 12:49 pm PDT

Well, it's almost a year later. Where is Rossi's reactor? Where are his customers? Where are Defkalion's dozen famous companies testing their Hyperion? Where is NASA's cold fusion project?

They're nowhere. They're vaporwhere.

Mary Yugo
18th January, 2014 @ 05:11 pm PST
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