Dream versus reality
© Getty
April 2017

Dream versus reality

Infinite energy, clean and for free – is that really just a pipe dream? Or might the right technologies make a breakthrough possible after all? Three ideas between science fiction and hard physics.

The comic book superhero Iron Man has it in his chest, Starship Enterprise uses it to fly and the Illuminati want to turn it against us as a bomb: the near-inexhaustible energy source. And what about us, in reality? We have the “choice” between CO2 emissions, radioactive waste and landscapes littered with wind turbines. Is there really nothing we can do or develop, perhaps with a really huge amount of money? At least, ideas ranging from exotic to eerie are not in short supply. Besides antimatter power plants and black holes converted into energy generators, fusion reactors capable of fusing atomic nuclei without the benefit of the several-million-degree heat of solar fire have been purported to produce a quick energy revolution. Albeit, the problem with such clean, free and near-inexhaustible energy sources available to us all is that of so many complex questions: there’s at least one big catch to them – or a closer look reveals them to be utter nonsense.

The scientific community went wild

The latter category is the one that the so-called “cold fusion” falls into as well, according to the vast majority of experts. Cold fusion is often mentioned in the same breath with Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann. In 1989, the two electrochemists claimed to have produced a fusion process similar to the one that takes place inside the Sun in a glass of water at room temperature. In an electrolysis process, hydrogen isotopes in a cathode of the rare metal palladium allegedly fused into helium, releasing an unusual amount of energy in the process. The scientific community went wild for weeks and hundreds of experiments were conducted to confirm the result. After all, this discovery would have solved the world’s energy problems at once. The fact that we’re still supplying ourselves with comparatively conventional energy anticipates the continuation of the story. Nobody was able to repeat this experiment and the term “cold fusion” became a synonym for dubious research. Fleischmann and Pons were seriously embarrassed.

Dream versus reality
Physicists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann were unable to prove the theory of “cold fusion”© Getty

“If the result could have been confirmed, the two would have become incredibly rich and no doubt have won the Nobel Prize,” says Gerald Kirchner, a reactor expert and head of Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker Center for Science and Peace Research at Hamburg University. In the light of such extremely enticing prospects, it comes as no surprise that dubious sources keep reporting alleged breakthroughs. Most recently, the Italian Andrea Rossi presented a device named E-Cat in which nuclei of nickel and hydrogen atoms allegedly fuse. “As much as I’d love for all of us to have such a reactor – that’s simply not plausible,” says Kirchner. “To create such devices, we’d have to completely ignore physics the way we know it and the ways it’s been confirmed in thousands upon thousands of experiments.” Consequently, Kirchner is not surprised at all that the E-Cat or similar devices have never worked anywhere

  • In 1926
    chemists Fritz Paneth and Kurt Peters were the first to report a successful “cold fusion” – a “false alarm” as they would later admit themselves.
  • One small black hole,
    fed with a truckload of sand or water could cover the annual energy consumption of the whole world.
  • Producing 1 gram
    of antimatter would take five billion years, according to the current state of the art.
Energy from black holes? Theoretically!

Equally exotic, but scientifically plausible, is Horst Stöcker’s idea. Ten years ago, the professor of theoretical physics at Frankfurt University presented a calculation according to which it should be possible to cleanly and simply supply our whole planet with energy by means of tiny black holes. Yes, you read correctly: black holes, these cosmic entities which, due to their enormous mass, have such humongous gravity that they’ll devour anything that comes too close to them, even light. According to Stöcker’s theory, it would be possible to create mini versions of these omnivores under certain circumstances. The way this could be done would be by firing hydrogen nuclei against each other in a particle accelerator like the “Large Hadron Collider” (LHC) at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research Center in Geneva. The resulting mini-holes could then be made to circulate in storage rings and be systematically fed with normal matter such as sand or water. According to Einstein’s formula E = mc2, mass would be transformed into radiation from which electricity could be generated. Theoretically. 

Dream versus reality
Using the LHC accelerator scientists are attempting to generate small black holes© Getty

It’s just that the mini-holes haven’t materialized yet. “Which doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” says Stöcker. If the hydrogen nuclei were to crash against each other with even greater energy than the one that’s possible in the 27-kilometer (16.7-mile) long LHC, they might still present themselves. However, this would require the “Future Circular Collider” (FCC) with a length of about 100 kilometers (622 miles) that is currently being discussed as an idea and that would be likely to cost clearly more than 20 billion Swiss francs. “However, we don’t see that happening in the next 20 years,” says Stöcker.

Five billion years for one gram of antimatter

And what’s the story with antimatter? Isn’t at least that something which could be used to generate energy? In the movie “Angels & Demons,” one gram of it almost blows up the entire Vatican. “If a gram of this would actually be accumulated, its explosive force would even be much greater than it was in the movie. It would be about twice as high as that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima,” says Markus Hüning, a scientist at the DESY research center in Hamburg that operates several particle accelerators as well. But Hüning assures us that there’s no need to be afraid: “Even if we ran all the accelerators in the world for one year and didn’t do anything except generate antimatter particles, we’d roughly get 200 picograms (0.0000000000007 oz).” Projected to time, it would take more than five billion years to produce one gram of antimatter. For that reason, if for no other, the idea of an antimatter power plant could be kissed goodbye, according to Hüning. 

However, physicist Gerald Kirchner sees us heading in the right direction even without the ultimate energy source. Technologies which in his view will represent the future include the production of hydrogen from wind power and the construction of large solar power stations in desert regions. “Our greatest potential, though, lies in more efficiently using the energy we already have today.”

Denis Dilba
Author Denis Dilba
During his research of exotic energy sources, author Denis Dilba (39) encountered a mixed picture: deep skepticism concerning results that have not been proven, contrasted by hopes that a breakthrough will one day be achieved after all. Dilba, who specializes in technology topics, particularly keeps his fingers crossed for antimatter propulsion.