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
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
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
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.
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
.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.