The E-Cat and the EmDrive, two unicorns that might change the world tomorrow

While the world is occupied with the day to day struggle, to make tomorrow’s deadline and to meet the next GDP target, in a world consumed by crises, hunger and the usual territorial and resource conflict, there are two technologies are creeping up to us that are straight out of the science fiction literature: The E-CAT Cold Fusion Device and the EmDrive. Needless to say, the controversy around these devices is so fierce that one risks being burnt at stake, professionally and reputationally speaking, for even entertaining the possibility that these devices might actually be real, and not hoaxes.

Cold fusion is not a new concept. It has been the alchemy of the 20th century and many scientist have lost their career trying to crack a nut that according to many is uncrackable. The promise is proportional with the stake: unlimited, cheap or free energy. Of course, when you hear unlimited, and free, you are entitled to be suspicious, after all, we are coming from a culture where nothing is free, and most certainly nothing lasts forever. This however, is not necessarily true for everything. We do know of objects that are capable of incomprehensible (at least not in human terms) energy outputs for incredibly large periods of time; periods that in human terms can comfortably be associated with infinity. What stars do seems to defy reason: they create new, heavier materials, from lighter ones and instead of consuming energy, they produce more of that too… and lots of it. The trick up their sleeve is called fusion, a well known physical process that, up to a point at least, produces large amounts of energy. Unlike fission, fusion, does not generate radioactive waste and it does not rely on rear substances, on the contrary, it relies on the most abundant substance in the universe: Hydrogen. Hydrogen is a component of water, and it turns out that we have so much of it here on the planet that we could sustain our energy needs (in terms of current needs) for billions of years. There is a catch though: fusion needs temperature that can only be naturally found in the cores of stars, and as such, it is a daunting task to contain it.

Enter cold fusion, a mythical concept, a unicorn, according to many, which as the name says can achieve fusion (and as a consequence free energy output) at temperatures comparable to room temperature. The only problem is that it contradicts the laws of physics (at least the way we know them). This, did not stop many scientists to research the subject and it turns out that certain kinds of low energy nuclear reactions (LENRs, a new name created probably to avoid the stigma associated with cold fusion) are physically possible, given certain conditions. The E-CAT (Energy Catalyzer) built by Italian inventor Dr. Andrea Rossi is one such device which lately received a lot of media attention. Extraordinary claims however, require extraordinary proof, and the cloak-and-dagger approach that the inventor pursuing, which may be motivated by the fear of his invention being stolen, does not help in alleviating the hot controversy around the device, on the contrary, it fueles them. With all the mystery, scandal and name callings that surrounds the device and its inventors there is, however mounting evidence that the device might turn out to be real (forbes.com), an interesting outlook on the future of energy, the least to say.

The EmDrive, or Relativity Drive, is a propulsion system proposed by Roger Shawyer, more popularly known as the Impulse Drive, which is present in virtually every science fiction book or film that have space crafts in them being responsible with moving the space crafts at subluminal speed. When I say that out loud like that, it does sound a little riduculous, perhaps even more so than the E-CAT.

The EmDrive uses no propulsion material: nothing comes out at the end of it yet it still generates forward motion, which according to Newton (conservation of momentum) and most physicists, is impossible. The theory behind the device is not new. It has been theorized in the 1950′s by Allen Cullen, and supporters claim that the laws of conservation of momentum are not violated, as they appear to be according to classical physics, because the device is based on phenomenons that are explained by relativity. While the claims are still highly contested, even ridiculed, same as in case of the E-CAT, there is some evidence that the device actually does what the inventor claims. This year a research team from Northwestern Polytechnic University in Xi’an, China, led by Yang Juan (dailytech.com), reported that they reproduced the device and confirmed the results of Roger Shawyer. While the present thrust output of the device is not enough to lift an apple, it would have significant applicability in space, alongside (but better than) established, state of the art technologies, like the Ion Drive. Ion Drives still rely on propellant but use it very efficiently. Their output thrust is on the order of a few grams (can lift something on the order of a sheet of paper), but they can sustain it for years, as opposed to a few minutes like conventional rockets do. The EmDrive, on the other hand, does not need propellant at all. Therefore, as long as it has electricity, which can be generated by solar panels in space as long as the sun shines, it can continue to operate. The story gets even better. The scientists claim that a superconducting version of the same device can output a thrust of 2 Tons/Kilowatt, which is enough to lift a car, and if we think that the average car engine has in excess of 100 Kilowatts of power, it’s is safe to say that the technology has potential: from flying cars and floating buildings to space elevators and interplanetary buses, we might find ourselves in a brand new world.

Energy and transportation are two of the most important elements of our existence. If they come at no cost, or at least no significant cost, everything is possible: We can produce and ship limitless food, limitless clear water, housing, medication, we can spend more time on education and other quality of life improving activities. All this at no environmental cost, such as global warming, or destruction of Earth’s flora and the fauna. We could find ourselves in the utopian world of Star Trek with no unfulfillable needs, no hunger on the world, nothing but the drive of curiosity, to explore, to better ourselves.

It certainly sounds all too good to be true, but this may be just the usual denial surrounding our nature. The facts point, cautiously, to the possibility that we might wake up in 2016 (three years from now, that is) that we have unlimited free energy and it is cheaper to go to the moon than it is today to fly from America to Europe. Weirder yet, with energy being free, the word cheap might not even have a sense any more. With this evidence in place, as thin as it may seem, suddenly the harder question becomes not if these technologies materialize but whether we, humans, will be able to absorb it. Are we mature enough to make use of such a gift, such an enormous power? or are we going to try to monetize that which is free, or at least has the potential to be more free (if there is such a thing) than air. With people entrenched in the need for power and our debilitating mental inertia, we might end up barbequing the unicorn and killing each other over who should eat the best part.

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