Breakthrough in Extracting Energy from Hydrogen?

Alternative Approaches to Energy Generation - Part 1

Peak oil is now, according to The Energy Watch Group, who predict that by 2030 Germany may not be able to import crude oil. Other fossil fuels, such as coal, do not burn cleanly and uranium fission is risky. Renewable energies and nuclear fusion give hope as energy sources. Hydrogen is often considered as an energy carrier. Wind farms or solar arrays produce electricity to extract hydrogen from water. The hydrogen gas is carried to a point of use, where it burns cleanly. But the US company BlackLight Power claims the possibility to extract from hydrogen 100 times the energy of ordinary combustion. A prototype is said to produce 50k Watt of heat power on demand. This claim has now been scrutinized and confirmed by a US university. Is hydrogen not only an energy carrier, but also an energy source?

If we can trust in the BlackLight Power information released in May, they have developed a revolutionary technique for extraction of extraordinary energy from hydrogen gas. A fraction of that energy is used to split water to get the hydrogen. Accordingly ordinary water would be a fuel. A prototype is said to produce 50k Watt of heat power “on demand.” The technique could replace the burning of fossil fuels in power plants. Also planned is a unit for service stations to provide hydrogen for automobiles converted to use hydrogen. “We are projecting that we will be at the scale of power generation necessary for a power plant to replace the gasoline pumped in a day at a station with hydrogen from water in approximately 24 months,” founder Randell Mills says. This would be the beginning of the hydrogen economy. But is the claim to good to be true?

The company BlackLight Power is situated in the US state of New Jersey and has 25 employees, eleven of them scientists. “Within the next two years, we're going to grow to 500, maybe 1,000 employees. This could satisfy a majority of the world's power needs, and the demand is going to be huge,” Mills told CNNMoney.com. He received his M.D. from Harvard and studied electrical engineering at MIT. He founded the company in 1991 and is now Chairman of the Board, President and CEO. Interview requests by email have not been answered. Reportedly the stock is $60 million in venture capital. More was not necessary, hence sparse public relations.

A look at the Board of Directors shows BlackLight’s presence in the financial, energy, and military sectors. Among the Directors you find Shelby T. Brewer, Assistant Secretary of Nuclear Energy in the Reagan Administration; the former commander of the U.S. Second Fleet, Vice Admiral Michael P. Kalleres; the former Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Merrill A. McPeak; the former Chief Financial Officer of Credit Suisse Investment Bank, Neil Moskowitz; and Michael H. Jordan, a former CEO of Westinghouse and current CEO of Electronic Data Systems. Jordan is quoted in the press release the “breakthrough” would “go down as one of the most important advances in the field of energy in the last fifty years.” BlackLight investor Jim Lenehan, a senior consultant at hedge fund Cerberus, told CNNMoney.com, the investment was no longer a high-risk part of his portfolio.

In 2006 the retired head of energy banking at Morgan Stanley had told the Wall Street Journal it was “highly likely that [Dr. Mills] has a new form of science.” Now nobody will be surprised that investors compliment their investments. Observers of the 19 years history of BlackLight Power remember that in Mills had said in an Infinite Energy interview in 1997 that they were about six months from having built a 100kW thermal unit. So what does BlackLight have to offer scientifically?

Hydrino Theory Scares Off Scientists

Mills and co-workers have published more than 60 papers in peer-reviewed science journals, theoretical and empirical works, but mostly intertwined. Mills sticks to the rules of normal science – except to those: his results cannot be explained conventionally and his theory contradicts established quantum mechanics. Mills lays out his theory in his book The Grand Unified Theory of Classical Physics. It is based on the principal that the laws of physics should be the same, from the atomic to cosmic scales. Departing from Maxwell’s equations on electricity and magnetism and Newton’s laws of motion Mills claims to derive quantum mechanical phenomena and even the gravitational constant. Many of the formulas are reproduced in Excel files.

As is known a hydrogen atom consists of a proton in its core and an electron. According to quantum mechanics in the hydrogen ground state the electron is closest to the core. It cannot get closer. When energy is added to the atom the electron jumps to a higher, precisely calculable energy level. When it falls back to a lower level the stored energy is released again in the form of light. Now Mills claims that there are 137 energy states below the ground state. If an electron fell to one of those levels accordingly more energy was released. Hydrogen atoms below ground state are called “hydrinos.” Because those are stable energy could effectively and permanently be extracted from hydrogen. If true, hydrogen not only was an energy carrier, but also an energy source.

In the so-called BlackLight Process hydrogen was induced to take hydrino states. To achieve this, special catalysts were used as energy sinks. Those had to be able to exactly receive the transferred energy which is why not every element could act as a catalyst. But if a suitable catalyst was used an unexpected plasma and more energy in the form of heat than was fed into the system would form. Importantly, according to quantum mechanics there should not be a difference at all for different catalysts.

The “breakthrough” proclaimed in May is said to rest on the development of a new cyclic catalytic process. The announcement of a 50k Watt prototype is remarkable because the power generation in preceding publications was typically 1000 times smaller. But in August a detailed research report was released that reported a single operating cell that actually produced “a power in excess of 50 kW.” In multiple patents Mills and co-workers have secured their intellectual property.

Multiple Experimental Confirmations

Meanwhile scientists at Rowan University in New Jersey have scrutinized and confirmed the 50k Watt claim. To generate the according amount of heat (1 million Joule) 1.5kg of a catalytic substance were used. „These results are unexpected given conventional chemistry and may represent a validation the BLP scientists have indeed uncovered a novel technology for producing energy from the hydrogen atom,“ a recently published interim report concludes. Controlled experiments have been conducted by students led by engineering professor Peter Jansson in Rowan laboratories under initial guidance by BlackLight scientists. According to Jansson they have shown that „repeatable heat experiments based on [BLP] technology can be replicated by independent scientists.“ It is still unclear if the study was commissioned by BlackLight Power.

Rowan scientists had already checked BlackLight claims in 2002 in a NASA sponsored study and found “a clear, repeatable difference” between catalyzed and control experiments. They concluded that there indeed appeared to be “something unique” about certain hydrogen plasmas.

To gain more certainty in 2005 Greenpeace and other environmental NGOs had charged researchers at the University of North Carolina to independently assess the claims. Chemist Richard Maas and physicist Randy Booker got five days unfettered access to the BlackLight facility and conducted their own measurements. “We went in with a healthy amount of scepticism,” Mass told The Guardian, but “all of us who are not quantum physicists are looking at Dr Mills’s data and we find it very compelling.” They wrote in their report, “each of our experiments produced results that were consistent with those reported previously ... by Mills et al.” Kert Davies, research director of Greenpeace USA, expressed “cautious optimism.” They believed the process had “the potential to solve our dependence on oil.”

Critics object that such confirmations cannot be labelled “independent” because BlackLight Power was either in a consultant role or their laboratory had been used. Both has been avoided by German physics professor Johannes Conrads. The plasma researcher had a private interest in this work but the employer he had worked for for 30 years, the Jülich Research Center, feared repercussions if he engaged in experiments. He found an open ear at Bochum Ruhr University provided that no “crazy theories” were involved. But Mills’ plasma lamp burned. “I very well remember the sunburn I had the next day,” says Thomas Wrubel who was involved in the experiment. The BlackLight Power reaction produces intense ultraviolet light. “Such an extreme ultraviolet emission is not expected,” Gerrit Kroesen from the Technical University of Eindhoven comments who is currently engaged in studying the BlackLight Process himself. “You have to make very difficult mental bends to explain it.”

Conrads and Wrubel tried to get to the bottom of the mysterious light emission using well-founded and established methods, even modifying the experiment. For one year they worked on the experiment on and off. But they never found an explanation for the plasma because “the minimally required energy was by all the rules not available. We either have a new chemical reaction we could not nail down or it is something else strange,” Wrubel looks back wondering. For the 2003 publication Mills was added as a co-author because he had supplied the reaction vessel. Wrubel does not work in research anymore.

One Pro for Each Contra

Hans-Joachim Kunze, the now retired director of the institute in Bochum, could not lay Mills’ claims to rest until this day. “Standards that we have in physics for 100 years simply don’t matter for Mills.” Last year he wrote a short comment about alleged hydrino measurements. The spectroscope was not sensitive enough in the region of measurement. Mills hydrino traces had to be artifacts. But proponents respond that a lack of sensitivity was compensated for by the strength of the signal.

Also among theoreticians a stimulated debate has flared up. The ESA scientist Andreas Rathke reproached Mills with mathematical errors. But that was common for new theories, Belgian physics professor Jan Naudts replies, who has found arguments that could lead to a backdoor for hydrinos within the standard theory of quantum mechanics. And like this, for every critic who keeps up the established paradigm, someone can be found who defends Mills. Naudts’ colleague Norman Dombey thinks the backdoor was “unphysical” while physicist Ronald Bourgoin thinks it may even lead to exactly 137 hydrino states that Mills has been writing about. Mills’ rebuttal to Rathke is 165 pages long.

Still many are kept from taking BlackLight Power’s claims serious for theoretical reasons. But should the US company really have developed a technology that eventually made ordinary water a fuel, theory would certainly become secondary.

Many eyes now rest on Dutch physics professor Kroesen. He has just started “totally independent” experiments and does not want to publish anything that is not absolutely certain. “It’s important that we do our job as scientists in a careful and sincere way. This is expected from us anytime, but with this topic it is even more necessary.” But progress is slow, without a dedicated budget, working with students and equipment that has been borrowed here and there. “Some colleagues believe this is all bull. But some like it, even though they may not acknowledge this in public,” Kroesen says. Kunze welcomes Kroesen’s efforts. “He’s a good physicist. What he finds will be correct.”

Mike Carrell contributed to this report. (Haiko Lietz)

Anzeige