Keeping up with the neighbours can be a real headache. You have just put down a new patio, and then the Bernsteens at Number 34 trump this by building a home cinema. Where do you go from there? Well, Italian inventor and entrepreneur, Andrea Rossi, may have developed the ultimate in home improvements, one which will leave your neighbours scurrying off to take out a second mortgage and prise the solar panels from their roof: your own personal nuclear reactor.
Of course, technology like this does not come cheap; the new Energy Catalyzer (ECAT) 1MW portable cold fusion plant is likely to retail at around $1.5 million, and it isn't yet clear whether the science behind the invention is really sound. Rossi has not published any scientific papers for review by his peers, or outlined in any detail how his amazing new discovery actually works.
The idea of 'cold fusion' has been something of a Holy Grail in nuclear terms and scientists have been investigating the possibility for years, as it would be a much safer version of nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion - that is the fusing of atoms together - is currently achieved using phenomenal amounts of heat, and generates toxic radioactivity. Cold fusion would not have this dangerous side effect, making it an infinitely preferable alternative if it was possible. NASA has been working on a similar project, Low-energy nuclear reaction (LENR), using nickel and carbon, which, it claims, could potentially meet the world's energy needs at a fraction of the current costs, and which could eventually see cars, planes, and homes powered by small, safe nuclear reactors. The technology is still in the development stages, however, and so far, scientists have been unable to discover a viable way to accomplish cold fusion. Until now, if Rossi's claims are to be believed.
Rossi has certainly had a controversial past. Back in the 1970s, he founded a company called 'Petroldragon', based around his claim that he had invented a process to convert organic waste into oil. In the early 90s however, amidst allegations of toxic waste dumping and tax fraud, the company was closed down and Rossi was sued and imprisoned. Consequently, his credibility amongst his peers took a nosedive, though there are some rumors which suggest that there was more to this unceremonious demise than met the eye.
The lack of any concrete evidence to review in respect of his current project, the ECAT is not likely to dispel this opinion, however, though Rossi himself seems to believe in his latest project so wholeheartedly that he sold his house in 2011 to finance the endeavor. Without any published papers to support the launch of the ECAT, scientists are not yet certain exactly how it works, but rumors suggest that it basically hinges around a simple tube that utilizes an unknown nano-sized nickel type catalyst. When hydrogen is added, heat and maybe copper, is produced.
Rossi's company, also called ECAT, has announced that the tiny plant measures just 20x20x1 centimeters and merely produces steam and/or heated water, but that its customers would be able to attach it to a turbine in order to generate electricity. The company stacks 106 of the units in a shipping container and combined they make up the ECAT 1MW Plant, which sells for a cost of $1.5 million. DARPA is apparently one of the first customers, and has pre-ordered a plant on the basis of a prototype demonstration witnessed by a group of scientists in 2011. The demonstration was not entirely successful due to a system fault, but it was enough to convince the defense agency of the plant's potential worth.
Customers will be able to take home their plants in about four months' time, though Rossi's critics are dubious about what the purchasers have actually bought. Time will tell, and if Rossi's invention is the real deal, then it could potentially revolutionize the future of power and reinstate Rossi as a credible player in the search for sustainable fuels.