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infinite energy


Cold Fusion and the Future
Part 1 - Revolutionary Technology
by Jed Rothwell
(Originally Published January-February, 1997 In Infinite Energy Magazine Issue #12)


continued from page 1

Takes Getting Used To
Martin Fleischmann once said that cold fusion is like an old bicycle: you have to get used to it before you can believe it. The ramifications of cold fusion also take time to sink in. It is surprising how many experts overlook them at first. I have discussed cold fusion with petroleum experts several times. They begin by saying that it will not matter in the long run if the market for oil fuel dwindles away, because oil has many other uses as an industrial raw material for things like plastic. At present, 19% of oil is used in nonenergy applications, but experts say that the market will grow in the future.

Clarke has said that in the future oil will be too valuable to burn. Hal Puthoff said that in a meeting, the presidents of Pennzoil, Texaco, Marathon, Coastal, and other oil companies told him they would welcome zero-cost energy. He paraphrased them: "When we take our precious resource out of the ground to make nylons, plastics, drugs, etc., we don't use up much and we have a large profit margin. When we take it out of the ground to power automobiles and heat people's homes, it's like heating your home by burning van Goghs and Picassos. Please take this burden off our industry. And, by the way, let us buy some to make our refineries more efficient." With all due respect, I think they were kidding him. I cannot believe these executives would be so sanguine at the prospect of losing 81% of their business. They get the same amount of money per barrel whether people burn the stuff or make nylon out of it. Why should they care what the customer does? In any case, I think they are wrong. They will lose 100% of their market. Oil will be worth nothing. I have asked experts: "Could you synthesize oil from raw materials? If I gave you carbon and water, could you make any hydrocarbon petrochemical you like?" They say yes, but it would take fantastic amounts of energy. It would be the most uneconomical chemical plant on earth. It does not occur to them, at first, that this would not be the case if energy costs nothing. I believe it will eventually be safer, more convenient and cheaper to synthesize petrochemicals at the plastics factory where they are needed, rather than digging them out of the ground and transporting them over great distances.

As engineers find novel ways to use zero-cost energy they will soon come up with machines which it would be crazy to manufacture today. When a core technology changes or drops in price, it blossoms unpredictably. When computers became cheap in the 1980s, they were used in toys, fuel injection controllers, spreadsheets, word processors, e-mail, video cameras, and thousands of other ways nobody imagined earlier. It would have been absurd to develop such things for mainframe or minicomputers. Only a millionaire could have run a computer game on a mainframe computer.

The New Imitates the Old at First . . .   
The first automobiles looked like horseless carriages. The first cold fusion powered automobiles will look like today's models. They will have the same kind of body, tires, controls and electronics. Years ago, automobiles came in many different shapes and sizes. Because of safety regulations and aerodynamics, they all look about the same now. The cold fusion car will look the same externally. Under the hood it will have a smaller engine that develops more power. There will be no exhaust pipe or muffler, no pollution controls, no gas tank or fuel gauge. A car will come with a permanent supply of fuel built in: a cupful of water. This water may have to be changed out annually to reduce contamination. Or it may last for years, like the acid in an automobile battery. During the lifetime of the car, only a tiny fraction of the water will be used up. The rest will be disposed of when the car engine is scrapped. Although heavy water is toxic when drunk in large quantities, when it is mixed with ordinary water it rapidly disperses to its natural concentration (1 part in 6000). It is hygroscopic. When exposed to air it absorbs ordinary water and gradually returns to the natural concentration.

The first cold fusion generators will also look like today's models. The designer will take out the coal-fired boiler, put in a cold fusion heated boiler, and leave the steam turbine and other components unchanged as much as possible. Engineers prefer tried-and-true designs; they only innovate when they have to. Space heaters will attach to the same hot air ducts or radiators. They will be subject to the same safety and installation laws. Electric generators will be connected to the fuse box where the power company line now comes.

New technology often starts out as a one-for-one replacement for the old. New materials are sometimes literally interwoven with the old, like the iron in 19th century wooden ships:

Early practice was to have an iron part similar to every wooden part . . . Many shipowners were prejudiced against iron, and so before it could be fully adopted there was an interim phase of the composite ship, in which iron framing and tie plates were used with wood planking and decking . . .14

New technology often starts out imitating older forms, even when it would work better if it did not. Early Chinese clay pots were modeled to look like woven baskets. The first plastic household objects and furniture were made to look like wood, wicker, and other traditional materials. In the 1960s plastic chairs began to look like plastic. Years ago I saw a demonstration of a word processor designed to look like a typewriter. New text appeared only on the bottom line of the screen, the cursor did not move around. To change a line you had to "roll" the text down, like an imaginary sheet of paper. With great ingenuity, the limitations of the old technology were imposed on the new. The salesman explained that this would make secretaries feel at home with the machine. Electric power plant control rooms have unnecessarily large controls built like old-fashioned J-handle ("pistol-grip") switches to press small electric contacts. In older plants these controls had to be large because they were mechanically connected to the equipment they actuated. An official study concluded that this was one of the contributing factors to the Three Mile Island accident. "Valuable control space is wasted and other controls are put out of the operators' reach by the failure to scale down control size."15

New technology can cause social change, or it can prop up obsolescent technology and social customs. Antebellum slavery in the U.S. was declining until Eli Whitney introduced the cotton gin, making cotton more competitive with other fibers. Many observers feel that modern Japanese orthography is too difficult for the average reader.16 For a while it appeared to be in decline. People forget how to write the more complex characters. They substitute syllabary (kana) instead. Young people watch television and read comic books with simplified writing, instead of reading novels and newspapers. But the boom in low cost word processors has turned the situation around, at least temporarily. People's ability to write characters by hand is probably at an all-time postwar low, but everyone can churn them out with word processors that are as cheap as electronic typewriters in the U.S. The machines are so addictive some people write grocery lists with them.

With cold fusion, people will try to prolong the life of obsolescent machines. They may succeed in some cases. Sailing ships achieved a final, short-lived heyday in the 1860s, forty years after the first steamship crossed the Atlantic. This success was due to improved marine engineering and to the use of steam tugboats, which allowed large, unwieldy wooden sailing ships to dock, maneuver in tight channels, and reach the open sea before setting sail. Steam engines first prolonged the age of sail, then slowly brought it to an end. People will try to prop up the electric power companies with cold fusion, by developing large, central power generators with cold fusion in place of coal or fission. In the long run they will fail, for five reasons:

1. Large, central generators are good because they are fuel efficient. Over the life of the equipment, the fuel costs more than the machinery. With cold fusion the fuel cost will be zero with any generator, of any size or efficiency. There are no economies of scale.

2. The power companies have to pay for transmission grid: the network of high tension power lines, poles, transformers, the computer monitoring. This cost will be eliminated with decentralized generators.

3. Central generators are complex, dangerous machines, because they are optimized to be efficient. Home generators will be optimized to be maintenance free instead. They will trade off efficiency (which will no longer matter) for low maintenance.

4. Central generators are maintained by experts to keep pollution at a minimum. This will not be an issue with cold fusion.

5. The equipment cost of central generators is cheaper per capita. With central generating, you share capacity, and you only use it when you need it. Large factories use electricity at night at lower rates, when extra capacity is available. This is true, but it will be irrelevant to the consumer. The economics will change, making it cheaper for a homeowner to purchase all of the generating capacity he needs, rather than sharing equipment.

Let us look closer at some of these points. A hurricane can cause millions of dollars in damage to the power distribution network, and black out whole cities for days. Skilled crews of highly paid workers maintain the network and repair damage. Eight percent of electricity is lost in transmission across the network.17 With cold fusion there will be no network to maintain, and no economic losses from massive power failures. Individual generators will break occasionally, as do refrigerators, water heaters and furnaces today.

Electric generators are complex, dangerous machines that require constant attention by experts, and frequent scheduled maintenance. Power company engineers say that an ordinary person could not maintain such a complicated machine in his basement. This is like saying that a person could never manage an IBM 360 mainframe computer in his den. A personal computer is nothing like a 1965 mainframe. Home generators will not be scaled-down power plants. They will be based on simpler designs. They will be fully automatic and maintenance-free for long periods of time. Eventually, they will have no moving parts, like the thermoelectric generators used in spacecraft, which work reliably for decades without maintenance. Central generators will also evolve into maintenance free machines, but they will lag, just as mainframe computers have never been as easy to use and maintain as small computers.

Central generators must be kept at peak performance and closely monitored to reduce air pollution to the lowest possible level. A million distributed gas or oil cogenerators would be the responsibility of a million householders. People would neglect them, just as they neglect automobiles. The cogenerators would produce more pollution than a central generator generating an equivalent amount of electricity. But a cold fusion generator will produce no pollution, no matter how much the homeowner neglects it.

Central power generators are cheaper per capita. It would cost thousands of dollars to install enough generating capacity in your house to meet peak demands. With central generating, you share capacity. Large customers use electricity at night at lower rates. With individual generators, every house, shopping mall, and factory would waste most generator capacity most hours of the day. This is true but irrelevant to the consumer. We waste the unused capacity of our automobiles when we leave them parked most hours of the day. We could take a train or taxicab instead, which would conserve equipment, but it would waste our time, which is more valuable. The homeowner will find it more economical to purchase generating equipment and leave it idle most of the day, rather than renting a smaller share of a central generator. There are two reasons:

1. As noted above, you do not have to pay for your share of the power distribution network when the entire generator fits in your house.
2. A homeowner can take advantage of the new technology and begin pocketing the savings immediately; the power company cannot.

Homeowners will leapfrog the power companies because they do not have an installed base of equipment. Assume a cold fusion co-generator costs the same as a gas-fired one: $8,500.18 Assume it lasts 15 years and saves $200 per month on average, offsetting both gas and electric bills. It would pay for itself in three and half years, and save an additional $27,500 before it wears out. That is $1800 per year over the life of the machine, a 22% return on investment. (It is 28% if you factor in the money you would have to spend for a furnace anyway.) The power company cannot offer you the same savings because it cannot scrap its installed base of equipment overnight. Massive power generators take years to plan, approve, and install. A household appliance can be replaced in a week, on a whim. The decision is made by a homeowner without hearings or committees.

Electric companies have survived with large scale equipment, planning, overhead, complexity, and the burden of paying expert management because these things serve useful purposes. They enhance efficiency and reliability, and reduce pollution. They reduce cost. These advantages will disappear with cold fusion.

Revolutionary Products    
Automobiles and electric generators will come first. Other machines will soon take advantage of unlimited energy. Many could be made today but they would not be economically practical. Others would be impossible. Here are some of my favorite possibilities. Many are borrowed from Clarke's Profiles of the Future. Some of these will require breakthroughs in other areas, like thermoelectric chips and spacecraft propulsion. Cold fusion will act as a spur to these breakthroughs. It will enable rapid development of these other machines, the way steam locomotives spurred the development of air brakes.

...Portable computers, telephone repeaters, cellular phones, aircraft black box recorders and other electronic devices that operate continuously for decades without recharging, with thermoelectric batteries.
.New forms of aircraft with much larger payloads. These might be hovercraft, vertical take off and landing (VTOL) airplanes, or possibly airships (zeppelins). Airplanes and helicopters will have unlimited range. Spacecraft will carry larger payloads, but range will still be limited by the need to carry propellant.
.Small, pilotless, propeller driven drone aircraft that fly thousands of meters high and circle around a small area, staying in same position for months. They will carry TV, radio and telephone repeaters, like geostationary satellites. They will cover less area than satellites. This might be an advantage for cellular telephone applications. They could be used far north or south of the equator, or even over the North Pole. In northern Canada and Alaska geostationary satellites are too low on the horizon for good reception.
.Cold fusion transport will culminate with the invention of the ultimate liberation machine: a cost effective, reusable space rocket that will allow us to fly to the Moon as cheaply as we fly from New York to Tokyo today.

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