I thought I should stop worrying about physics, but then I got an impromptu invitation to a symposium on low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR) and I got all excited about it. The field of LENR was, and still is, often referred to as cold fusion which, after initial enthusiasm, got a not-so-good name because of… More than one reason, really. Read the Wikipedia article on it, or just google and read some other blog articles (e.g. Scientific American’s guest blog on the topic is a pretty good one, I think).
The presentations were very good (especially those on the experimental results and the recent involvement of some very respectable institutions in addition to the usual suspects and, sadly, some fly-by-night operators too), and the follow-on conversation with one of the co-organizers convinced me that the researchers are serious, open-minded and – while not quite being able to provide all of the answers we are all seeking – very ready to discuss them seriously. Most, if not all, experiments involve transmutions of nuclei triggered by low-energy inputs such as a low-energy radiation (irradiation and transmutation of palladium by, say, a now-household 5 mW laser beam is just one of the examples). One experiment even triggered a current just by adding plain heat which, as you know, is nothing but very low-energy (infrared) radiation, although I must admit this was one I would like to see replicated en masse before believing it to be real (the equipment was small and simple, and so the experimenters could have shared it easily with other labs).
When looking at these experiments, the comparison that comes to mind is that of an opera singer shattering crystal with his or her voice: some frequency in the sound causes the material to resonate at, yes, its resonant frequency (most probably an enormous but integer multiple of the sound frequency), and then the energy builds up – like when you give a child on a swing an extra push every time when you should – as the amplitude becomes larger and larger – till the breaking point is reached. Another comparison is the failing of a suspension bridge when external vibrations (think of the rather proverbial soldier regiment here) cause similar resonance phenomena. So, yes, it is not unreasonable to believe that one could be able to induce neutron decay and, thereby, release the binding energy between the proton and the electron in the process by some low-energy stimulation provided the frequencies are harmonic.
The problem with the comparison – and for the LENR idea to be truly useful – is this: one cannot see any net production of energy here. The strain or stress that builds up in the crystal glass is a strain induced by the energy in the sound wave (which is why the singing demos usually include amplifiers to attain the required power/amplitude ratio, i.e. the required decibels). In addition, the breaking of crystal or a suspension bridge typically involves a weaker link somewhere, or some directional aspect (so that would be the equivalent of an impurity in a crystal structure, I guess), but that is a minor point, and a point that is probably easier to tackle than the question on the energy equation.
LENR research has probably advanced far enough now (the first series of experiments started in 1989) to slowly start focusing on the whole chain of these successful experiments: what is the equivalent, in these low-energy reactions, of the nuclear fuel in high-energy fission or fusion experiments? And, if it can be clearly identified, the researchers need to show that the energy that goes into the production of this fuel is much less than the energy you get out of it by burning it (and, of course, with ‘burning’ I mean the decay reaction here). [In case you have heard about Randell Mills’ hydrino experiments, he should show the emission spectrum of these hydrinos. Otherwise, one might think he is literally burning hydrogen. Attracting venture capital and providing scientific proof are not mutually exclusive, are they? In the meanwhile, I hope that what he is showing is real, in the way all LENR researchers hope it is real.]
LENR research may also usefully focus on getting the fundamental theory right. The observed anomalous heat and/or transmutation reactions cannot be explained by mainstream quantum physics (I am talking QCD here, so that’s QFT, basically). That should not surprise us: one does not need quarks or gluons to explain high-energy nuclear processes such as fission or fusion, either! My theory is, of course, typically simplistically simple: the energy that is being unlocked is just the binding energy between the nuclear electron and the protons, in the neutron itself or in a composite nucleus, the simplest of which is the deuteron nucleus. I talk about that in my paper on matter-antimatter pair creation/annihilation as a nuclear process but you do not need to be an adept of classical or realist interpretations of quantum mechanics to understand this point. To quote a motivational writer here: it is OK for things to be easy. 🙂
So LENR theorists just need to accept they are not mainstream – yet, that is – and come out with a more clearly articulated theory on why their stuff works the way it does. For some reason I do not quite understand, they come across as somewhat hesitant to do so. Fears of being frozen out even more by the mainstream? Come on guys ! You are coming out of the cold anyway, so why not be bold and go all the way? It is a time of opportunities now, and the field of LENR is one of them, both theoretically as well as practically speaking. I honestly think it is one of those rare moments in the history of physics where experimental research may be well ahead of theoretical physics, so they should feel like proud trailblazers!
Personally, I do not think it will replace big classical nuclear energy plants anytime soon but, in a not-so-distant future, it might yield much very useful small devices: lower energy, and, therefore, lower risk also. I also look forward to LENR research dealing the fatal blow to standard theory by confirming we do not need perturbation and renormalization theories to explain reality. 🙂
Post scriptum: If low-energy nuclear reactions are real, mainstream (astro)physicists will also have to rework their stories on cosmogenesis and the (future) evolution of the Universe. The standard story may well be summed up in the brief commentary of the HyperPhysics entry on the deuteron nucleus:
“The stability of the deuteron is an important part of the story of the universe. In the Big Bang model it is presumed that in early stages there were equal numbers of neutrons and protons since the available energies were much higher than the 0.78 MeV required to convert a proton and electron to a neutron. When the temperature dropped to the point where neutrons could no longer be produced from protons, the decay of free neutrons began to diminish their population. Those which combined with protons to form deuterons were protected from further decay. This is fortunate for us because if all the neutrons had decayed, there would be no universe as we know it, and we wouldn’t be here!“
If low-energy nuclear reactions are real – and I think they are – then the standard story about the Big Bang is obviously bogus too. I am not necessarily doubting the reality of the Big Bang itself (the ongoing expansion of the Universe is a scientific fact so, yes, the Universe must have been much smaller and (much) more energy-dense long time ago), but the standard calculations on proton-neutron reactions taking place, or not, at cut-off temperatures/energies above/below 0.78 MeV do not make sense anymore. One should, perhaps, think more in terms of how matter-antimatter ratios might or might not have evolved (and, of course, one should keep an eye on the electron-proton ratio, but that should work itself out because of charge conservation) to correctly calculate the early evolution of the Universe, rather than focusing so much on proton-neutron ratios.
Why do I say that? Because neutrons do appear to consist of a proton and an electron – rather than of quarks and gluons – and they continue to decay and then recombine again, so these proton-neutron reactions must not be thoughts of as some historic (discontinuous) process.
[…] Hmm… The more I look at the standard stories, the more holes I see… This one, however, is very serious. If LENR and/or cold fusion is real, then it will also revolutionize the theories on cosmogenesis (the evolution of the Universe). I instinctively like that, of course, because – just like quantization – I had the impression the discontinuities are there, but not quite in the way mainstream physicists – thinking more in terms of quarks and gluons rather than in terms of stuff that we can actually measure – portray the whole show.