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A Nuclear Reactor in Every Home?

Chicago entrepreneur Lewis Larsen claims a small device could power your house, diminish fossil fuel use, even shift the global balance of power. But to get it made, he must persuade investors to look past one of science's most embarrassing scandals.

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The device Lewis Larsen plans to build is about the size of a microwave oven. He figures it will sell for less than a conventional home furnace. The fuel—small amounts of lithium and hydrogen—will be cheaper too. Two of these devices, he says, could supply all the heat and electricity needs of a 2,500-3,000-square-foot single-family home without generating greenhouse gases, dangerous radiation, or nuclear waste, reducing gas heating costs by 90 percent and electric costs by 10 to 20 percent.

Larsen, who co-owns Chicago-based Lattice Energy, says the fundamental research and patents are there. "What's left is engineering. I don't know any technological roadblocks." He says he's three to five years and $25 million away from a prototype.

So why aren't investors beating down his door?

Larsen's power source is a low-energy nuclear reaction, or LENR—which some think of as cold fusion by another name. And cold fusion was one of the biggest scientific scandals of the 20th century.

In 1989, University of Utah chemists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, racing against competing researchers at Brigham Young University, bypassed the normal scientific review process and held a press conference to announce that they'd found a clean, accessible, inexpensive new way to produce energy—cold fusion. Fleischmann and Pons became overnight celebrities, subject to death threats and protected by bodyguards. A breathless media declared an energy revolution. But the honeymoon was short-lived.

The sun is powered by nuclear fusion, a process in which light atoms are joined to create heavier ones. It's the reverse of fission—used in nuclear reactors and weapons—in which atoms are split. Physicists have been able to mimic the sun's "hot" fusion, but it's a terrifically expensive process requiring tremendous amounts of energy. Cold fusion, Fleischmann and Pons claimed, could be produced with small amounts of energy and everyday materials.

Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann
  • Diana Walker/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
  • Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann testifying before the House Committee on Science and Technology in 1989

Their idea was to immerse a strip of the precious metal palladium in a flask of heavy water—water with the hydrogen isotope deuterium instead of hydrogen atoms—and stimulate it with an electric charge that they claimed caused the deuterium atoms to pack ever more densely into the palladium's latticelike atomic structure. Over weeks, all that deuterium crowding into the palladium would supposedly generate sufficient pressure to stimulate fusion, yielding ordinary water, helium, and excess heat that Pons and Fleischmann argued could be a source for cheap, clean, plentiful energy.

Detractors objected on several fronts: The electrolysis couldn't possibly be powerful enough to cause fusion; the measurements of helium and excess heat must've been the result of experimental error. And where was the neutron radiation that would be an expected by-product of fusion?

"Physicists have been trying for decades to make fusion happen with enormous heat and billions of dollars, with only moderate success," says Clayton Brown, who's codirecting a film about the cold-fusion controversy titled "The Believers." (It'll be shown as a work in progress this fall at New York's Independent Film Week.) "The idea that cold fusion can happen for a few hundred bucks on a tabletop at room temperature in an off-the-shelf chemistry experiment—this makes physicists insane. It violates everything they feel they know about the universe."

Scientists all over the world tried and failed to duplicate Fleischmann and Pons's results. Eight of the nine members of an authoritative American Physical Society review panel rejected their data. Fleischmann and Pons themselves were derided as incompetent, fraudulent, or both. Cold fusion research largely went underground: most mainstream scientists shunned it as too risky, too difficult to fund, or just plain fantastical.

Still, over the years a growing number of the researchers who've stuck with it have reported surprising results in variations on the Fleischmann-Pons experiment—though no one's been able to generate heat consistently enough to pass the "teacup test," which, according to Monica Long Ross, Brown's collaborator on "The Believers," requires the ability to "reliably heat up enough water for a cup of tea." Some still call their field of study cold fusion, others prefer the less-tainted LENR. But they agree on the bottom line: electrical stimulation of some metals and heavy water produces more energy than it consumes.

Larsen, 63, grew up in Menominee, Michigan, where the Upper Peninsula meets northeast Wisconsin. "Not many people went to college," he says. "Most of the people I went to high school with went to work in the mills or logging." But Larsen was fascinated by stars and had his sights set on astrophysics. He left Menominee High School at 16 to take advantage of an early-entrance program at the University of Chicago. There he learned about the transmutation of elements that occurs in the sun.

But "they were making all kinds of fundamental discoveries in the field of biochemistry at that point," Larsen says, so he went that way. After earning a bachelor's in biology from the U. of C. in 1968, he did some course work toward a PhD there, then switched to the MBA program—partly, he says, because he thought that would make him more employable and partly to avoid the draft. The two-year business master's "was the only program that matched up with the two-year ROTC program at Loyola. It was either that or go to Vietnam."

time-magazine.jpg

In the 1970s and '80s Larsen bounced around various financial firms, working as a computer systems planner, grain trader, and investment banker. In 1985 he developed a theory about how technological developments would revolutionize manufacturing and allow U.S. firms to regain market share they'd lost to Japan. Barron's writer Jonathan Laing hailed Larsen as a "futurist" and referred to his ideas in a series of articles on macroeconomic trends. During the tech bubble, he extolled Larsen's "dead-on prediction that a coming technology revolution would vault the U.S. decisively ahead of the Japanese."

In the 90s Larsen ran a technology consulting firm. While exploring alternative energy opportunities for a client, he came across the work of George Miley, a professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign who's been studying ways to build on Fleischmann-Pons—experimenting with various metal alloys in order to improve the consistency and efficiency of heat production in heavy-water electrolysis. Recalling his astrophysics studies, Larsen decided that this line of research could lead to a new source of cheap, clean energy. "I thought it was doable," Larsen says. "I was reasonably confident I could figure it out, and if we could do this, we could make a big difference." He took a gamble, leaving the consulting firm to devote himself to exploring LENRs.

Larsen and his partners incorporated Lattice Energy in 2000. By 2001 they'd raised enough venture capital to fund research by Miley and other scientists at the U. of I. and the Russian Academy of Sciences, aimed at developing a practical LENR-based power supply. But keeping information private in the university environment became a problem, Larsen says, so in 2003 they shifted their research to the Santa Fe home laboratory of retired Los Alamos physicist Edmund Storms.

Ross and Brown interviewed Storms last year for their documentary. "We're the Wright Brothers," he told them. "We can't make a 747, but we know it can fly.'"

Larsen says four years of experiments yielded "positive results but no controllable technology." In 2006, he discontinued the experimental program and teamed up with Northeastern University physicist Allan Widom to "get the theory down." Building on the work of Miley and other researchers, they developed the Widom-Larsen Theory, which rejects fusion as the explanation for the heat produced in palladium-deuterium electrolysis. Instead, Widom-Larsen argues that the effects noted by Fleischmann and Pons were the result of decay at the atomic level, brought on by one of the four fundamental forces governing the behavior of elementary particles: the weak nuclear interaction.

Miley calls the Widom-Larsen Theory—a version of which is slated for publication in a refereed Indian physics journal Pramana this year—a "very serious attempt to explain the LENR physics from first principles." Larsen claims it not only explains Fleischmann and Pons's results but fixes the problems with their initial experiment, paving the way for a practical technology. "Because of the absence of a viable theory," he says, "the field was unable to understand the good results they had or improve their experiments so they could get the effects to be routinely reproducible."

Edmund Storms

Larsen believes that Fleischmann and Pons "had the right data but the wrong interpretation. There's no compelling evidence for fusion in these systems. We use established, accepted physics, and the standard model of the weak nuclear interaction" rather than fusion to explain the phenomenon.

The theory is controversial even among the minority of scientists who take LENR seriously, and the detractors include Larsen's erstwhile collaborator Edmund Storms. Larsen, Storms wrote in an e-mail to me, "terminated our relationship, partly over my rejection of the theory that Widom developed. The theory is not consistent with what is observed by people exploring cold fusion and it rests on several ad hoc assumptions for which no evidence exists in any field of science. Many 'theories' have been suggested, all of which are inadequate to explain all of the observations. . . . Larsen is the only person who claims to have the correct answer."

As the most prominent local figure in the field, Larsen was the first person that Brown and Moss tapped for "The Believers." "He had a ton of information, almost more than we knew what to do with," Brown recalls. But when the time came to film, "at first he didn't want to do an interview at all. Then he said he might be willing to do it if we obscured his face. It caught us off guard. We said, 'It would be a little strange. You'd be the only person with your face obscured.' But he was insistent. He has expressed concerns for his own safety, because his information is so sensitive."

The address of Larsen's home office in the New Eastside neighborhood (between Randolph and Wacker along the lakefront) is public and his name is all over LENR literature, but he won't identify his business partners on the record and he declined to have his face photographed for this article. "Lattice Energy doesn't have a public website, and my image doesn't appear anywhere on the Internet because of security concerns," Larsen told me. "We've had repeated issues with foreign intelligence services that have been a source of these security concerns."

Larsen would not speak for the record about the precise nature of those "repeated issues," but he thinks his reasons for caution should be obvious. "If LENR is successfully commercialized, it upends a lot of apple carts. It's an enormously disruptive technology. It scares the government a little. What if the price of energy were decoupled from petroleum? It changes balance of power on energy, shifts it away from the Middle East."

Larsen's fears aren't unique. Some LENR advocates suspect that the 2004 murder of science writer Eugene Mallove was motivated by his work in championing the field. In the January 29, 2010, issue of the LENR-centric online magazine New Energy Times, for instance, editor Steven Krivit calls Mallove LENR's "most outspoken proponent" and points out that Mallove was killed just as the Department of Energy was beginning a new review of the evidence for LENR. "The initial speculation, that Mallove walked into his parents' house in Connecticut and startled burglars, doesn't work for several reasons," Krivit writes. He later asserts that "Mallove was not lacking for enemies" but doesn't finger anyone in particular. (Recently a judge in Connecticut found probable cause to prosecute a suspect whose motive appears related to the eviction of his family from a house owned by Mallove's family.)

George Miley

The perceived dangers notwithstanding, it's clear that cold fusion and LENR are being studied in some corners of the scientific establishment. The U.S. Navy has been quietly pursuing the subject since 1989, and at a March 2009 American Chemical Society conference navy scientists declared that they had detected "the production of highly energetic neutrons" in palladium-deuterium reactions, indicating fusion. The claim, however, is still widely disputed.

Five months after the ACS conference, Joseph Zawodny, a senior research scientist with NASA's Langley Research Center, endorsed LENRs, writing that they "could replace coal, oil, [and] natural gas-fired power plant heat sources with minimal impact to the extant generation and distribution infrastructure. . . . LENRs could be drop-in replacements for conventional nuclear reactor heat sources in nuclear power plants. . . . LENR-powered desalination plants could produce fresh water while simultaneously producing power."

Zawodny has also made positive comments about the Widom-Larsen Theory. "Of all the possible explanations of LENR, the Widom-Larsen Theory is currently one of the few, perhaps the only one, that makes specific and testable predictions," he says. "[It] explains very nicely why the experiments run to date have produced such sporadic results and why the overall quality of heat being produced is so poor. I think it has promise, but ask me again after we have completed our testing."

Statements like this have yet to translate into anywhere near the $25 million Larsen needs to build his prototype. He predicts that after it's built it'll take another "couple years" and $50-$100 million to begin mass-producing fuel cells with an industrial partner. "We're in due diligence with a number of major partners," Larsen says, allowing that "there's still substantial risk. It hasn't been done yet. But we're confident we can do it."   

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