More Free Energy and Hot Air

by Milton Rothman  - posted by Eric Krieg at

On the morning of June 11, 1997, as I was lolling in bed eating breakfast and watching the news on ABC's "Good Morning America"  (one of the perks of being ancient and retired), my interest was piqued by a breathless announcement concerning a new and unprecedented method of generating cheap energy.  I awaited this new information with bated breath.
We were first treated to a film of an elderly scientist puttering in an old garage.  That was, we were told, where the great discovery was made a year ago.  Since then, with the acquisition of extensive funding, the garage has been converted into a modern laboratory, painted white, brightly lit, with workbenches and computers galore.  The scientist was James Patterson, a retired du Pont chemist, who had invented a device for generating more power than was put into it.  (Sound familiar?)  The device was about the size and shape of a cigar.  It contained small metal spheres immersed in a liquid.  When you passed an electric current through it, you got more heat out than you put in.
What was most startling, however, was the announcement that this device would also remove radioactivity from liquids that were passed through it.  We were shown pictures of an unknown liquid passing through plastic tubes, together with shots of the output meter of a geiger counter.  Through time-lapse photography we could see the needle of this meter descending to lower and lower levels, a sign of decreasing radioactivity.  Curiously, however, the meter was labeled High-voltage, instead of the rem/hour I would expect from a geiger counter.
More curous was the fact that the various people interviewed in this segment were all in the habit of pronouncing the word "nuclear" as "nucular." [sic]  These interviewees ranged from the inventor himself to a scientist from the Hanford plant in the state of Washington, who thought that this invention was just what Hanford needed to eliminate the millions of curies of radioactive waste that had been piling up over the past fifty years.  In my experience, no true nuclear physicist uses the pronunciation "nucular."  It is a symptom of scientific illiteracy.  Or am I just being snobbish?
Personal prejudice aside, I had serious doubts about this great discovery and decided to do some research on the subject to see what Patterson had really invented.  This was an arduous task, requiring at least several minutes of searching through the internet.  What complicated the task was the fact that there is a Patterson Energy Company involved in oil and gas exploration in the west.  Ignoring references to those pages, I began to hit pay dirt.  A web page on Weird Research and Anomalous Physics led me to a listing of numerous Cold Fusion WWW pages.  How did I guess that I would run into cold fusion somewhere along the line?
One of the many titles revealed the object of my search:  CETI Clean Energy Technology Inc.  (Patterson cell).  Bingo!  However, a look at that page merely informed me that the web site was being updated.  Therefore I looked into a magazine called INFINITE ENERGY.  The issue available on the internet was Vol. 1, No. 2, 1995.  Not very current, but glowing with optimism.  We are told that in 1995 cold fusion is going commercial even in the face of opposition and disbelief from conventional scientists.  They even thank the skeptics for leaving the field open so others can become very rich.
However, in spite of their disdain for modern science, they appear to admit that scientists know something, for they habitually use words of science to explain where their energy comes from.  In cold fusion and "new energy" technologies, energy appears to materialize from "vacuum quantum fluctuations of space" (zero-point energy) or from "subtle mass conversion to energy."
A further search reveals a press release from Clean Energy Technologies, Inc. (CETI), announcing the launch of the Patterson Power Cell Research Kit.  The Patterson Power Cell uses ordinary water as fuel, and highly specialized metal microspheres to catalyze the production of excess energy.  There's a clever way of financing your research:  sell kits.
The best source of information about the Patterson Cell turned out to be a complete paper titled An Attempted Replication of the CETI Cold Fusion Experiment, by Barry Merriman, with Paul Burchard.  Their replication effort is based on CETI patents and discussions with individuals who have had experience with the device.  As we can see from a photograph, the work was done with equipment occupying a space no more than one meter wide on a laboratory workbench.  Although there is a complete description of the equipment and methods, there is no hint as to where the work was done, or what institution Barry Merriman is associated with.  This deficiency indicates an important difference between publication on the internet and publication in a traditional scientific journal.  The Merriman paper may indeed be perfectly legitimate, but I have no way of verifying this.
There are two major differences between the Patterson cell and previous cold-fusion experiments.  First, Patterson uses ordinary water instead of the usual heavy water (deuterium oxide).  Secondly, Patterson uses a pile of palladium-coated plastic beads as a cathode instead of a solid piece of palladium metal, thus increasing the surface area.  (Patterson spent much of his career working on such beads for various purposes.)  Merriman's group produced their own beads by plating palladium on 1 mm glass cores, instead of plastic.
The procedures used by Merriman are described in great detail within his report.  Much attention was paid to calibration of the calorimeters.  The final result was simple:  no measurable heat production was observed, with runs lasting up to 48 hours.  In other words, if they were producing any cold fusion it was at a level ten to twenty times below the effect publicly claimed by CETI.  While CETI claimed an output of 4 watts thermal power with an input of 0.06 watts, Merriman measured no excess heat production, with a detection limit of 0.3 watts.  Thus, if we take Merriman's experiment at face value, we must conclude that the CETI claims of energy production by cold fusion from ordinary water have no validity.
We must also note the peculiar inversion of scientific method performed by CETI.  If I were doing an experiment whose result involved a nuclear reaction in which deuterium was the essential ingredient, I would first test the equipment using ordinary hydrogen.  Since I don't expect this reaction to take place with hydrogen, the results I got would be considered a baseline or background measurement, and would indicate how the equipment was working.  For example, if the hydrogen emitted copious amounts of neutrons I would know that my neutron detectors were malfunctioning, because neutrons would not be expected from hydrogen.  (I spent years doing this when I was in high-temperature thermonuclear fusion at Princeton.)
CETI stands this logic on its head.  They see that their instruments show excess production of energy when ordinary hydrogen is used, and so they say: aha! -- our device produces cold fusion even with mere hydrogen.  We don't need deuterium after all.  By assuming that the deuterium results are correct, they ensure that hydrogen will give the same results.  Instead of asking whether their instruments give the wrong results in both experiments, they assume the instruments are correct and concoct a new theory to explain the observations.
With this kind of ad hoc theorizing, you can prove anything you want.
And this is why cold fusion research will go on forever, giving tiny, unexplained, erratic positive results.  I will believe the results are really true if they can harness the excess generated energy to feed back into the machine and keep it running without an external source of power.
* * * * * *
A press release from David Curtis is forwarded to me by Barry Karr.  It announces that the U.S. Military is developing quantum computer technology using the "spooky action-at-a-distance" of quantum mechanics to build computers that not only operate with great speed, but which possess consciousness.  He thinks this is a very dangerous business and wants us to warn the public.  Well, I will tell you that the only dangerous thing about this business is a little knowledge.  Too little knowledge and a lot of (quantum) jumping to conclusions.  (It is true that physicists are theorizing about quantum computers, but in talking about conscious computers we are entering the domain of science fiction.)
In the first paragraph of this release we are seriously informed that the act of observing a particle causes the particle to materialize into existence.  Now it is true that some quantum theorists have in the past said things like, "nothing exists until it is observed."  But these early theorists were under the influence of the 19th century Hegelian philosophy by which they were raised, causing Bertrand Russell to ask whether the wheels of a railroad car disappeared while the occupants were asleep.  This page has not enough space for me to prove the absurdity of thinking that nothing exists until it is observed.  For details, see my books A Physicist's Guide to Skepticism and The Science Gap (Prometheus Books).  Many physicists who made such statements have since retracted them.
In his paper Mr. Curtis goes on to claim that by the use of quantum effects one can build computers that communicate instantaneously.  This flies in the face of numerous proofs that whatever happens at the microscopic level (within a quantum wave packet), you cannot send information faster than the speed of light on a macroscopic level.
The final jump in logic occurs when he claims that a certain type of computer chip, detecting the results of a certain reaction, becomes "aware" of the reaction, and thus bestows consciousness on the computer.  This jump to conclusion results from saying "detection" equals "awareness" equals "consciousness."  A geiger counter detecting a  particle is not necessarily aware of it, and certainly is not conscious.
I am becoming aware that a lot of crankiness is caused by subtle misunderstandings of the meanings of words, as well as a tendency to use a perfectly good word in an idiosyncratic way.  We may call this the Humpty Dumpty syndrome, in honor of the mighty egg who said:  "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

NOTE:  I was told that there is a money back satisfaction offer for the kits mentioned above.  As of 11/99, the skeptical community has still not heard back any response from our offer to try to test these sorts of devices.

note: more information on free energy claims at:
 No such thing as a free lunch
 Milt writes about Perpetual Motion
Science Books by Milton Rothman
a leading promoter of Free Energy
an on going discussion of CETI
Eric's discussion of real forms of free energy
 great discussion of entropy
Eric's history of Perpetual Motion and Free Energy Machines
 Joe Newmans Free Energy Claims - are they valid?
 Free Energy FAQ page
 Eric's Page examining Dennis Lee's amazing claims of Better World Technology
 Get on the ONElist Free Energy Email list
 PhACT-FAQ on Heat Based Free Energy Prepared by Tom Napier
 An effort to measure cold fusion claims
 get on Eric's Free Energy email list