Editor’s Note: Tom Casten founded and led multiple companies over thirty-nine years that successfully deployed the commercial model proposed by Leonardo Corp of using private capital to fund industrial heat and power plants in return for long-term contracts to supply customer heat and power. He knows a great deal about the science, technology, and economics of supplying industrial and institutional heat and power. We asked Casten to review the new E-Cat presentations and provide his take on the technical and commercial likelihood that this renamed approach to cold fusion could work and provide useful energy to the world’s industrial and institutional users, as claimed by founder Andrea Rossi.
In 1989, Fleischman and Pons claimed they had achieved “cold fusion,” which could release the incredible energy of fusion without the bother of containing the incredible temperatures and scale of fusion in stars. Alas, other scientists could not replicate the results. A few believers hung on and renamed the process Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) to avoid the association with the discredited term cold fusion. One Italian gentleman, Andrea Rossi, apparently focused on the rebranded cold fusion while in jail in Italy for defrauding investors. In January 2019, Rossi posted a video stating that his company, Leonardo, was ready to sell a device dubbed “E-Cat” to creditworthy industrial companies.
I watched the entire three-hour E-Cat video but did not find the claims credible with respect to energy conversion technology, materials to handle the plasma temperatures, or even documentation of the basic energy inputs and outputs. Here’s an overview.
Rossi’s Gigantic Claims
Claimed new science: creating useful energy with not-so-cold fusion under a new name, involving plasma with 8,111 degrees Celsius temperatures.
Claimed materials breakthroughs: materials able to contain over 8,000-degree Celsius plasma without melting and insulation that prevents any of this heat from traveling to the outside of the small E-Cat box. The highest melting temperature of any material known to science is 3,800 degrees Celsius for hafnium carbide—less than half of the E-Cat claimed plasma temperature.
Claimed value of E-Cat energy output: Rossi claims an energy output fourteen times the energy input to E-Cat but fails to provide the simple measurements to verify the quantity of energy leaving E-Cat, leaving the viewer with no way to confirm the energy balance. The claim that E-Cat produces fourteen units of energy per unit of energy input is gigantic and potentially of great importance. Why doesn’t the inventor allow the measurements to prove this claim that E-Cat generates energy from some internal source? One suspects a simple explanation: a true energy balance test would falsify the claims.
Actual E-Cat energy input could be higher than claimed, but Rossi refuses to allow confirming measurements. Ian Bryce, the chief investigator for the Australian Skeptics, believes that E-Cat demonstrations cheat by sending additional electric power through the ground wire (see preceding article). All Rossi needs to show actual energy input is to cut the ground wire or let others meter its flow, but he refuses to allow investigators to measure the ground wire.
Bottom line: If the claims are true, Rossi could easily provide the data needed to determine the energy balance without exposing any of the claimed fusion process, but he refuses. No one can independently verify the claimed excess of E-Cat’s energy output over E-Cat’s energy input, and thus no one can have any certainty about the validity of the claims. Rossi should allow the tests, and if observed energy output exceeds observed energy input, then something in E-Cat must be releasing energy. If the observed energy output is—as I suspect—less than the energy input, then E-Cat is not releasing any energy. The lesson: Do not believe in the magical powers of the Wizard of Oz before looking behind the curtain.
Rossi did allow a test in June 2012 by the Swedish Reference Group on an E-Cat prior model, but the observers reported zero energy production. This seems a good data point, but Rossi blamed the absence of energy production on a sealant problem and declared the test null and void (see the prior Ian Bryce article).
There is little value in discussing the scientific claims of fusion energy generation until we can see an independent energy balance that shows E-Cat is releasing energy. However, I would ask one troubling question. If E-Cat does produce over 8,000 degrees C internal temperatures, why is the output temperature only 100 degrees C? Why would E-Cat destroy most of the potential work that could be done by this high process temperature? In 1824, Sadi Carnot showed that the maximum theoretical conversion efficiency of any heat engine would be equal to 100 percent, minus a fraction calculated as outlet temperature divided by the process inlet temperature, both stated in degrees above absolute zero. Absolute zero is zero in Kelvin and 263 degrees in Celsius, so the calculation is in degrees Kelvin (K). The higher the input temperature to the heat engine, the greater the theoretical efficiency.
For example, a modern Rankine Cycle power plant sends the steam turbine steam at roughly 1,360 K and then cools output from the steam turbine to 15 degrees C or 288 degrees K. The max theoretical efficiency of these plants is 100 percent minus the fraction of 288 K outlet divided by 1363 inlet or nearly 79 percent theoretical efficiency. After boiler losses, parasitic loads, and other inevitable losses, these steam plants convert around 40 percent of the energy in the fuel to electricity.
If E-Cat is producing 8,111 degrees C, or 8,374 degrees Kelvin, it could, using Carnot’s formula, theoretically convert almost all the input energy—96.6 percent—to electricity. But E-Cat provides energy flows at 100 degrees C, which has a theoretical efficiency of only 21 percent, and due to the diseconomies of small size, could probably not convert 5 percent of that energy into electricity.
Why would an inventor who claims to have mastered fusion in a small box and learned how to contain incredible high temperatures then offer an E-Cat design that destroys the quality of the process temperature? The simplest explanation is that E-Cat does not produce temperatures much above 100 degrees C.
The final question is whether the 100 degrees C output of E-Cat has any value for industrial processes. In our experience with 300 industrial customers, this low-quality energy has very little value. Most industrial processes require higher temperatures, and most factories distribute thermal energy at temperatures of 250 degrees C to 300 degrees C.
The E-Cat presentation makes giant claims of scientific breakthroughs with no validation, which flashes red lights to skeptics but does not always dissuade potential investors. Skeptics seek to discourage others, including investors, from accepting large claims without demanding large proof. So far, Rossi has refused to provide any proof that E-Cat produces more energy than it draws from the plug.