Week of October 12

This week we're posting but a single story, albeit an interesting one, and one of possibly considerable moment.

This last week a company calling itself Blacklight Power, Inc. claimed that a process it has purportedly developed for generating thermal energy has been validated by an independent team of scientific researchers at Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ.

Now Blacklight Power was a firm that was much in the news at the beginning of the decade. It was the type of new energy technology firm that managed to arouse the interest of the Wired Magazine staff and plenty of other folks in Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley. It was kind of a big deal.

Blacklight Power promised—well, they promised the moon. They claimed they could produce far more energy out of a certain hydrogen reaction than was required to produce hydrogen by electrolysis or by other chemical reactions involving various hydrogen compounds. Normally individuals and organizations making such a claim don't get much of hearing simply because, irrefutably, more energy is lost to electrolysis or thermo-chemical hydrogen cracking than is produced by combusting hydrogen or consuming it in a fuel cell, but Randell Mills, M.D., the founder, advanced a novel claim that did not fail to intrigue the Tech press, of which I was a member in good standing at the time.

What Mills said, and he based his claims on some controversial scientific papers published by certain Russian physicists back in the nineties, was that hydrogen atoms, under certain circumstances, could enter a lower energy state than they occupied as free hydrogen molecules in a gaseous state. Hydrogen, as you'll recall, consists of one proton at the nucleus and one electron in an orbital state, and normally individual hydrogen atoms form pairs, constituting the molecule H2.

The low energy hydrogen atom, designated a "hydrino" by the Russian researchers, supposedly underwent a transformation in which the orbiting electron dropped to a lower orbit, giving up a tremendous amount of energy as it did so. Once it had completed the transformation it was stable in the sense that it had no more energy to give up, and it would tend to form stable chemical bonds with a number of elements, leading to new compounds with novel properties. Or such was the theory.

The existence of hydrinos has been hotly disputed by orthodox physicists, and Mills himself has been dismissed as either a crank or a charlatan by many scientists, and his company lumped with the "over-unity" crowd, who claim to be able to draw "zero point energy" from the aether. Mills himself responded to such critiques by hiring a throng of credentialed scientists who have published many scientific papers in peer reviewed journals arguing the validity of the hydrino theory and reporting the results of experiments that would appear to support it. The company itself has succeeded in attracting many rich and patient investors, and has a well equipped laboratory of its own at its headquarters in Cranbury, NJ.

So Mills is not your average energy crackpot with a Website full of incomprehensible equations and a fanatical contingent of flamers hanging on his every word. His is a fairly serious effort to promote a highly controversial theory and to develop real products based upon it. Nevertheless, through the long years spanning the Administration of the younger Bush, no products were forthcoming from Blacklight Power, and most of us reporting on the alternative energy business simply forgot about it.

So what do hydrinos have to do with alternative energy generation, assuming that they even exist, and what is the breakthrough that Blacklight Power has purportedly demonstrated?

The Mills process consists of generating hydrogen by conventional means, an energy inefficient process to be sure, and then creating hydrinos out of the hydrogen gas in a reaction chamber where they are exposed to moderate heat and a proprietary catalyst. This supposedly results in a tremendous release of thermal energy intermediate in intensity between fission reactions and conventional chemical reactions, but it does not result in electromagnetic radiation.

The resulting hydrinos are then used to form stable solid compounds, one of which supposedly provides the basis for novel battery chemistry of unprecedented energy density. Thus there is no waste to dispose of but instead a new miracle reagent that will form the basis of yet another breakthrough technology.

Interestingly, Blacklight never received any support whatsoever from the hydrogen economy contingent which was still very numerous when first Blacklight surfaced. Blacklight never showed up at any of the hydrogen conferences or for that matter at any of the more diversified alternative energy trade events. They gave interviews to sympathetic journalists and publicized themselves adroitly, but they didn't form the kind of industrial alliances that would seem to indicate that they really had a business plan.

Now we have a report from Rowan University which doesn't in fact claim that hydrinos exist or that the theory behind them is correct. Instead what they're saying is simply that known chemical reactions involving reactants placed in the chamber provided by Blacklight Power couldn't account for the large amount of energy generated during the periods when the reactor was operating. So what they're stating in effect is that something's going on that they can't explain.

I recall a firm called Saturna Technologies, a contemporary of Blacklight Power, which claimed to have perfected a type of tabletop fusion reactor. They too claimed third party validation for their technology, but they disappeared nonetheless, being unable to summon sufficient funding to continue. Saturna, I might add, was founded by physicists rather than hiring them subsequently, and never made any claims that their process could not be explained by accepted scientific theories.

So what's it all mean? If Blacklight Power can duplicate what they've shown in the lab in a pilot reactor, they'll get fresh investment even in these troubled times. I would say, however, that small scale lab testing of the sort they're reporting, represents a level of technology development that would be unlikely to lead to commercial power generation for many years at best.

I'd like to believe that there's really something there, but I've followed too failed technologies to be easily convinced that real solutions to our energy problems are imminent.