Monday, November 07, 2005

Fisking the Latest “Miracle Fuel”

WARNING: The following is a long, boring physics post and I recommend skipping it.

Sandy points out an article in the London Guardian that examines yet another miracle fuel claim. A Harvard trained medical doctor, Rendell Mills, claims to have invented a new cheap energy source. The story is very reminiscent of the Pons and Fleischmann cold fusion controversy (although he doesn’t claim to have discovered a nuclear reaction). Here is my fisking:

“It seems too good to be true: a new source of near-limitless power that costs virtually nothing, uses tiny amounts of water as its fuel and produces next to no waste.”

If it seems too good to be true it probably is. This kind of claim has been made many, many times, but has never panned out. But then again, you never know.

“Independent scientists claim to have verified the experiments and Dr Mills says that his company, Blacklight Power, has tens of millions of dollars in investment lined up to bring the idea to market. And he claims to be just months away from unveiling his creation.”

Independent scientists, you say? Maybe I should sell a share or two of Halliburton and invest it in Blacklight Power to diversify my energy holdings. Time to do more research. Here’s an article from the Village Voice that quotes real theoretical physicist Michio Kaku on the subject:

“the only law that this business with Mills is proving is that a fool and his money are easily parted.”

Hmmm, I guess I’ll pass.

“The problem is that according to the rules of quantum mechanics, the physics that governs the behaviour of atoms, the idea is theoretically impossible.”

Oops, this is a problem given that the laws of quantum mechanics have survived innumerable experimental tests and theoretical challenges from the likes of Einstein on down. Certainly it is possible that there are flaws, but a new theory must explain that which quantum mechanics now successfully explains: nuclear physics, high energy particle physics, superconductivity, and semiconductor physics to name a few.

What exactly is Mills claiming?

“What has much of the physics world up in arms is Dr Mills's claim that he has produced a new form of hydrogen, the simplest of all the atoms, with just a single proton circled by one electron. In his "hydrino", the electron sits a little closer to the proton than normal, and the formation of the new atoms from traditional hydrogen releases huge amounts of energy.

Technically, this “hydrino” would not be a new atom, but a new state of the hydrogen atom. Energy would indeed be given off when an electron transitioned to the new, lower energy state just as it gives off energy when it transitions from higher to lower energy states under the existing theory.

This is scientific heresy. According to quantum mechanics, electrons can only exist in an atom in strictly defined orbits, and the shortest distance allowed between the proton and electron in hydrogen is fixed. The two particles are simply not allowed to get any closer.”

This is a common explanation, but it is not quite right. Electrons do not exist in “orbits” but in “energy levels”. Electrons do not orbit the nucleus like planets around the sun, but reside in certain energy slots (they do not necessarily correspond to the physical distance between the electron and the proton). Quantum mechanics determines the energy levels, and the number of electrons that can be at that energy level. Even if we stipulate that quantum mechanics is wrong, we must acknowledge that no one else has ever observed an electron at this energy level (and the hydrogen atom is well studied). So if the new level does in fact exist, it is very rare and hard to achieve. This is unlikely because electrons naturally prefer the lowest energy levels, and will give off quantas of energy until they reach the lowest available energy level. Why, unlike the other energy levels, do electrons transition to this new energy level only under unusual circumstances?

According to Dr Mills, there can be only one explanation: quantum mechanics must be wrong. "We've done a lot of testing. We've got 50 independent validation reports, we've got 65 peer-reviewed journal articles," he said. "We ran into this theoretical resistance and there are some vested interests here. People are very strong and fervent protectors of this [quantum] theory that they use."

Once again, this is reminiscent of Pons and Fleischmann’s cold fusion. Either Dr. Mills is wrong or the known laws of physics are drastically wrong. I’d put my money on Dr. Mills being wrong. And I have a news flash for Dr. Mills: There have been a hell of a lot more than 50 “validation reports” and 65 peer-reviewed articles in FAVOR of quantum theory.

And another thing, these “fervent protectors of this [quantum] theory” would love nothing more than to assign quantum mechanics to the dust bin of science. If Dr. Mills is correct, all of modern physics will have to be re-examined, providing physicist boundless opportunities for fame and fortune, not unlike the quantum mechanics revolution. Just think of the money to be made writing new textbooks alone.

Dr Mills will not go into details of who is investing in his research but rumours suggest a range of US power companies. It is well known also that Nasa's institute of advanced concepts has funded research into finding a way of using Blacklight's technology to power rockets.

Secret investors? Another warning sign. NASAs involvement may or may not be significant. How much are they funding and why?

"If it's wrong, it will be proven wrong," said Kert Davies, research director of Greenpeace USA. "But if it's right, it is so important that all else falls away. It has the potential to solve our dependence on oil. Our stance is of cautious optimism."

Granted. We will know soon enough whether this pans out. Until then, my own stance will be reckless extreme pessimism.

Let’s go back to the Village Voice article for a quote from another real physicist (and potty-mouth) Phillip Anderson:

“If you could fuck around with the hydrogen atom, you could fuck around with the energy process in the sun. You could fuck around with life itself. Everything we know about everything would be a bunch of nonsense. That's why I'm so sure that it's a fraud.”


Blogger R-Five said...

I enjoyed the post, as my limited knowledge of quantum mechanics sufficed to comprehend most of it. Regardless, good old conservation of energy (including E=mc^2) is usually enough to raise my skepticism to 99% or more.

My favorite is still all this talk of hydrogen fueled cars without any explanation of where all that free hydrogen is going to come from.

11:17 PM  
Blogger drjonz said...

The free hydrogen will come from fusion reactors of course! Or at least short term pebble beds.

12:24 AM  
Blogger Nicko McDave said...

You turn to the Village Voice for investment advice????

8:57 AM  
Blogger Sisyphus said...

R-Five and Dr. Jonz,
I also run in to a lot of people who think that hydrogen cells are an alternative energy source, when in fact they are just another way to store energy (although a promising one). The hydrogen would come from either water (of course you'd need more enrgy to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen than you'd get out when you recombined them) or ---- petroleum.

Ohligarch, I can see why you're surprised, but the Village Voice is also where I got the idea for my very lucrative Halliburton investment.

9:32 AM  
Anonymous Zatera Ul said...

I should know more about this--my field was atomic physics! Sadly, most of it has leaked out of my head, and I'm stuck with only college intro physics and chemistry books and Google for reference. But let me take a stab.

Nihilist has his physics straight. He's right that the energy levels aren't just circular orbits, and that the hydrogen atom has really been studied to death.

The hydrogen atom (protium isotope, no neutrons) is a classic example in quantum mechanics classes, because the quantum mechanics can actually be worked out and resolved into a mathematical equation. Wikipedia has a nice article on the Hydrogen Atom, with a little sprinkling of the heavier math, and enough detail to make your head hurt. If this guy is right (unlikely) it would turn decades of quantum mechanics upside down.

If "hydrions" are just a special state of protium, then why doesn't it occur in nature, and thereby show up in hydrogen spectra (which essentially show the transitions between energy levels that are going on)? What's the transition probability of an electron getting into or out of that state? Where exactly is the new energy level?

If I ignored quantum mechanics, I could picture Coulomb attraction bringing the oppositely charged proton and electron very close together. But I'd think we would have stumbled across some of them by now.

4:40 PM  
Anonymous Zatera Ul said...

Oh, sorry, it's Sisyphus who has the physics right.

4:42 PM  
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6:51 PM  

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