Sympathetic Stupid

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Fairy Tale Power?

A too-good-to-be-true story from Alok Jha in the Guardian:

Randell Mills, a Harvard University medic who also studied electrical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, claims to have built a prototype power source that generates up to 1,000 times more heat than conventional fuel.

Wow! And zero emissions.

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

This is hydrino energy.

In a recent economic forecast, Prof Maas calculated that hydrino energy would cost around 1.2 cents (0.7p) per kilowatt hour. This compares to an average of 5 cents per kWh for coal and 6 cents for nuclear energy.

When I hear "1,000 times more heat" and "1.2 cents per kilowatt hour", I'm excited - but unfortunately also pretty sceptical, especially with "theoretically impossible". It brings to mind unreproducible cold fusion claims and unexploitable zero point energy theories. This is certainly the tone taken by the Guardian article.

The scepticism thickens when it's revealed that Mills first made these claims in 1991. In 1999 he started BlackLight Power, picking up a lazy $25m from investors - and planned to get a hydrino "plasma"-powered car on the road in California within months. I can't find any further evidence of the car, but hey, at least the company still exists, which is more than can be said for most late 90s companies.

It's probably not really surprising that this has taken so long, though, if only for commercial reasons. The majority of the physics world seem to think this guy's nuts, so it's probably hard for him to get over due diligence hurdles and actually get development cash. In the early 90s, the cold fusion backlash was well in place, so it's not surprising this similar idea was ignored. But in the late 90s there was money everywhere, so that was a good time to go commercial. And now, with oil prices high, alternative energy is all the rage - so it's back on the agenda.

So is it a mirage? Well, after fourteen years, the idea seems to be kicking on despite efforts to tear it down. The hydrino itself is a new form of hydrogen, with slightly less energy; so creating it from normal hydrogen releases huge quantities of energy. The problem is that it pretty much destroys all established quantum theory (not to mention strings and other unified theories), apparently favouring a deterministic model of the atom instead of the probabilistic. But it explains some things that quantum theory can't, especially to do with dark matter, the 90% of the universe we can barely imagine. And also some anomalies of the Big Bang Theory.

As is traditional in these cases, Dr Randell Mills is not a physics PhD - he's actually an MD, with training in biotechnology and electrical engineering. Also worrying is that many articles talk about his charisma. The Village Voice said his "cadences are more often like those of a motivational speaker". But there seems no doubt that he's smart - he got his MD from Harvard and the rest of his undergrad from MIT.

The collective wisdom of the Internet is that he's nuts. And this still seems the easiest thing to believe; after all, if the technology worked then the commercial applications are far too compelling for it to sit on a shelf. The opposing view is that it's damn hard to challenge the established order, and that the development of completely new technology is long and fraught with difficulties.

But it's such a seductive idea.