NASA's basement nuclear reactor
If Joseph Zawodny, a senior scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center, is correct, the future of energy may lie in a nuclear reactor small enough and safe enough to be installed where the home water heater once sat. Using weak nuclear forces that turn nickel and hydrogen into a new source of atomic energy, the process offers a light, portable means of producing tremendous amounts of energy for the amount of fuel used. It could conceivably power homes, revolutionize transportation and even clean the environment.
Currently, nuclear power means one of two approaches. There's fission, which involves splitting atoms of uranium or plutonium to release energy, and is employed in all military and civilian nuclear plants. Then there's fusion, which involves forcing together hydrogen atoms to form helium and releasing even more energy. The former has been controversial for decades while the latter has been in the research phase since the 1950s, and is still as far away from practical application now as it was then.
The problem with current nuclear technology is that fission produces nuclear wastes and has a poor public image, while both fusion and fission involve generating large amounts of dangerous ionizing radiation. It also doesn't help that both processes require large, complicated installations with heavy shielding. That's because conventional nuclear reactions rely on what are called strong nuclear forces, which are the forces that hold atoms together. Breaking heavy atoms apart or forcing light atoms together releases enough energy to run a nation or blow one up.
What Zawodny and other researchers are working on is called Low-Energy Nuclear Reactions or Lattice Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR). In the late 1980s, it went by the name of "cold fusion." Its proponents were light on theory and not very rigorous in experimenting. They thought that nuclear energy was being released by a chemical reaction, but this theory ended up being discredited. Today, not only the name has changed, but also the theory and the approach of the researchers.
"There are a lot of people who are trying to just build something without understanding anything," Zawodny said. "It worked for Edison and the light bulb, but it took him a long time and that was a simple system. This is very complex. And if they make something that just barely works, and accidentally one in a thousand works really, really well, it's going to take down a house with their trial-and-error method."
According to Zawodny, LENR isn't what was thought of as cold fusion and it doesn't involve strong nuclear forces. Instead, it uses weak nuclear forces, which are responsible for the decay of subatomic particles. The LENR process involves setting up the right conditions to turn these weak forces into energy. Instead of using radioactive elements like uranium or plutonium, LENR uses a lattice or sponge of nickel atoms, which holds ionized hydrogen atoms like a sponge holds water.
The electrons in the metal lattice are made to oscillate so that the energy applied to the electrons is concentrated into only a few of them. When they become energetic enough, the electrons are forced into the hydrogen protons to form slow neutrons. These are immediately drawn into the nickel atoms, making them unstable. This sets off a reaction in which one of the neutrons in the nickel atom splits into a proton, an electron and an antineutrino. This changes the nickel into copper, and releases energy without dangerous ionizing radiation.
The trick is to configure the process so that it releases more energy than it needs to get it going. "It turns out that the frequencies that we have to work at are in what I call a valley of inaccessibility," Zawodny said. "Between, say, 5 or 7 THz and 30 THz, we don't have any really good sources to make our own controlled frequency."
LENR is a very long way from the day when you can go out and buy a home nuclear reactor. In fact, it still has to be proven that the phenomenon even exists, but hundreds of experiments worldwide indicate that heat and transmutations with minimal radiation and low energy input do take place with yields of 10 to 100 watts.
Much work needs to be done to validate these claims, but it may already be happening outside of the laboratory. According to the theory's co-developer, Lewis Larsen, LENR may occur naturally in lightning or even in the primordial cloud of gas and dust that formed the Earth. If so, it would explain why the oxygen isotopes of our planet and the Sun are so different.
If it could be made to work, the practical applications would be as revolutionary as what fission has achieved and fusion has promised. Theoretically, the process could yield several million times more energy than chemical reactions. According to Dennis Bushnell, Chief Scientist, NASA Langley Research Center, one percent of the nickel mined per year could meet the world's energy needs for a quarter of the cost of coal. In past years, several labs have blown up while studying LENR and windows have melted – showing that if it really works, it can produce an impressive amount of energy.
Zawodny says that the most logical first application of LENR is the home reactor, which would produce heat and electricity for the home while charging the family electric car. Another area is in transportation, with the light, portable reactors powering supersonic aircraft and flying cars without the danger or radiation. It could even be used to power a space plane capable of reaching orbit without stages or external fuel tanks.
One area of particular interest is the environment, with the LENR reactor using carbon to run it, converting the element into nitrogen. According to Zawodny, this would be much better than sequestering carbon dioxide to control climate change, and could also be used to eliminate toxic carbon compounds by turning waste into fuel.
The future of LENR is a matter of taking a step back in nuclear physics. The first generation leapt straight to strong force reactions. Now the goal is to go back and study the weak forces.
"From my perspective, this is still a physics experiment," Zawodny said. "I'm interested in understanding whether the phenomenon is real, what it's all about. Then the next step is to develop the rules for engineering. Once you have that, I'm going to let the engineers have all the fun." He went on to say that, " All we really need is that one bit of irrefutable, reproducible proof that we have a system that works. As soon as you have that, everybody is going to throw their assets at it. And then I want to buy one of these things and put it in my house."