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infinite energy


Cold Fusion and New Energy-
An Environmentalist's Perspective
by Nick Palmer, group coordinator and energy compaigner for Jersey (UK) Friends of the Earth
(Originally Published March-April, 1996 In Infinite Energy Magazine Issue #7)
When I first saw cold fusion demonstrated on television, back in 1989, I was enthused with what the future could hold. Subsequently, it was apparently discredited and I thought I'd been fooled. Having rediscovered the topic on Compuserve last year, and followed it up, I am now happy to report that I had been fooled again! This time, it looks real because there is just too much reliable evidence piling up -when the walls of the old physics paradigm finally crumble, it will unleash a tidal wave of change throughout the world.

This article was hard to write because I found that there was an almost physical force that tried to make me put off doing it. Whilst my conscious mind is thrilled about the future that these devices may lead to, I have found that other parts of my awareness seem to resent the large amount of rethinking that the environmental movement will have to do to assimilate the changes in outlook that the new energy devices will necessitate.

In the environmental movement, we had our strategy all mapped out to achieve a sustainable and equitable world civilization based upon the efficient use of the minimum of renewable energy and a greatly decreased consumption of raw materials. This would have needed tough decisions and discipline, but, as the consequences of not doing so would have been eventually catastrophic, it was something that had to be done. A lot of people have invested a lot of time working out Green theories and strategy and one of the biggest aspects of this was how we would have to rely upon sustainable, renewable energy sources in the future. This would have had consequences for virtually every aspect of the developed nations' world and also for the third world too as they attempted to industrialize. Then along come new technologies, without any definite theoretical basis, that threaten or promise (depending on one's point of view) to completely alter all this. No wonder some are wary of commitment to them.

So, why is there this resistance? - simply, it is the classic psychological dilemma of the gambler on a losing streak. Having once started to lose, the only way one can regain the losses is to carry on gambling. Quitting the game means a definite loss, whereas further, and probably wilder, gambling hold out the slight prospect of the recapture of losses. Similarly, having talked to colleagues at American Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and UK Friends of the Earth, I must say that while they don't display the rabid scepticism that much of the scientific establishment is showing, their initial enthusiasm seems to be hard to translate into action-they all like the sound of it, but I sense a certain reluctance to train the big guns of the movement upon the topic. I think this is because accepting the reality of these devices means that a lot of the textbooks will have to be thrown away and, more significantly, those with expertise and careers in the area of future sustainable energy supply will find that much of their life's work is now redundant. This can be a frightening prospect, but the environmental movement has always been more open minded and fluid in its thinking than the mainstream, so I hope we will be able to make the change fairly smoothly. It must be much more daunting if one has made a career in "hot fusion" research to see one's research funds drying up and even more galling and humiliating to see what you can just about do with enormously expensive and powerful machinery being achieved almost at the garage inventor level no wonder, like the gambler in the dilemma, mainstream "priest class" scientists will continue to cling onto a hope that they won't have to throw out their life's work.

An energy report commissioned
Friends of the Earth UK has commissioned a report into the energy sector as a whole, and our energy campaign group has asked the researcher to look into cold fusion et al. They have passed on a letter that I sent, plus various information on the new energy inventions, to him.

I also intend to take a motion to our UK Conference, in the Autumn, suggesting that we thoroughly investigate all the ramifications of these new energy sources, once we have satisfied ourselves of their reality and potential. Having done this, we should then heavily promote them as a solution to global warming and the general energy crisis that looms ahead. Of course, these devices mean the effective end of our old enemy, the nuclear power industry and so I think, on balance, that we will embrace this technology.

I anticipate that the environmental organizations will adopt different campaign priorities which take into account the fundamental change in energy supply options for the future that these devices will cause. There will be some aspects that may seem to act against current environmental campaigning; for example, if cars in the future are pollution-free, quiet, and don't contribute towards climate change, much of our current arguments will be dissipated. Of course there are many other perfectly good reasons why unlimited personal transport isn't good, environmentally speaking, and so our case won't be terminally weakened-it will enable us to focus more on certain aspects of our civilization that need addressing.

Barring hidden drawbacks, and given what could be a relatively small amount of additional technological and engineering development, these assorted new energy devices herald the effective end of the nuclear and fossil fueled industries and give us a quick fix for climate instability caused by human instigated global warming. Not so obviously, they should lead to the breaking of the grip on supply of energy by those favoured nations with re-sources of oil, coal or fissionable nuclear material. It is also likely that many large corporations will fade away as the supply of "point of use" energy that these devices herald will tend to enable nations, states, districts, and even individuals to become progressively more autonomous. There is much in environmental theory about the benefits of "small is beautiful" which boils down to the fact that the more human scale any nation, economy, industry, technology or whatever is, the more satisfying it is for the human spirit. Cold fusion and the other devices could free us from our top-heavy Mega-corporations, not with revolution or strict legislation, but just by their very nature. It is probable that what started out as fractions of a watt excess energy in the beakers of Pons and Fleischmann will lead to a very different type of civilization. It will be less possible for powerful nations or large corporations to "corner the market" or gain a strangle hold on supplies -their excess political and financial power will evaporate.

As if to temper all this wild enthusiasm about free energy, some have pointed out that even though such devices as solar cells supply "free" energy, they still cannot compete with conventional sources because the fuel cost is not the only economic factor. If we get unlimited energy from the new devices, it wouldn't be quite so world shaking if their capital cost and maintenance proved expensive by comparison with nuclear or fossil fueled power sources. As environmentalists, however, we would still be for them, almost regardless of cost, because of their obvious benefits in reducing or eliminating, in double quick time, pollution and -the big one - global warming. As it hap-pens, it looks as if they will not only supply abundant clean energy, but they will also prove to be cheap to buy and possibly free to run too - the solar-cell argument above, meant to subdue excess extrapolation, doesn't hold.

Freedom from the "grid" will lead to virtual independence of supply for individuals. The Third World will have access to the "energy slaves" that have kept us so comfortable in the West - energy is fundamental to an acceptable quality of life. The remotest villages will no longer have to deforest for firewood; they will be able to purify water; they will have easy refrigeration - improved hygiene will lead to a falling off of disease and epidemics. The Third World won't need the fortune that they haven't yet got to catch up with us by buying expensive western technology; having the latest technology to achieve any goal becomes much less relevant, because with unlimited energy it won't matter so much if any process is relatively energy inefficient. The developing Third World is a crucial aspect of any environmental strategy. If the Third world industrializes to the same degree that we in the developed world have, a simple calculation shows that total demand for resources, by the middle of the next century, will rise to around ten times current levels which is undoubtedly unsustainable, but the Third World must develop to stabilize world population and so environmentalists were rather caught on the horns of a dilemma. What needed to be done to re-jig the consumer society was so huge that I frankly doubted that we could have done it in time. New Energy will give us that time.

A Dutch study concluded that one's fair share of air travel in a fully sustainable world was just one transatlantic flight in a lifetime. How would we have sold this notion to travel consumers, some of whom take two to three long-haul holidays every year? It would have been difficult, to say the least. If fuel weight and capacity is no longer a consideration, planes and boats etc. can be bigger. Range will be indefinite. We may very well end up with our own personal air transport, in the longer term, which would lead to a withering away of the roads network. Magnetic levitation trains may become much more viable.

If we have air transport "fuelled" by clean energy, the future of tourism will not be blighted by the application of current environmental theory, but this doesn't mean, of course, that one can neglect the other environmentally destructive effects of mass tourism because these will become even more important. Again, we will be able to focus on such issues more.

Design of many machines and consumer products could change because there will no longer need to be such a trade-off to achieve such aims as a good power to weight ratio to achieve fuel efficiency. The "embodied energy" in a product, currently a significant aspect of manufacturing costs, would not matter too much. Things could be engineered to last a lot longer, so, for example, cars could be made with heavier grade steel (much more resistant to corrosion) and notwithstanding crash protection "crumple zones," they could be made much more robust so they didn't fall apart after ten years or so.

Some recycling or reuse is criticised on the grounds that the amount of energy saved by the process is comparable with that needed to manufacture the item or substance from virgin material in the first place - a similar argument also applies to the amount of pollution created or avoided. It is just not viable to recycle some types of material because the energy balance is actually negative - it would take more energy for the recycling process than would be saved. Calculations such as these are called Life Cycle Analyses (L.C.A's) and they are a rather powerful tool that some governments and corporations are using against our argument that we should change our profligate ways. Cold fusion and the other new energy devices will heavily alter the energy dynamics in favor of recycling and reuse as transport/reprocessing energy will no longer need to be considered in L.C.A.'s. The recovery of material resources will become much easier with abundant clean energy, and once a nation has acquired material resources, it will be able to reuse and recycle them much longer and, hopefully, indefinitely. This should increase general sustainable wealth.

A future developed world, with few, if any, areas subject to resource starvation, would tend to have a stable population, both numerically and psychologically. Most of the traditional causes of wars would have evaporated and any future conflicts may just come down to petty squabbles about territory.

Rapid development and a Golden Age
Once affordable devices are being manufactured, New Energy will be embraced by the people at a rate that will astonish the world; whether the existing energy supply corporations help or hinder the process, it will happen regardless. The first reaction of some to news of these developments is to assert that the oil companies will suppress them but, in this age of the Internet, I don't see this as possible any more - the genie is out of the bottle and we will have to ride any economic, institutional or social disruption that is coming our way. We can only hope that it will not be too dramatic, because the long-term gains, from this perspective look to be so far reaching that we may indeed be heading for a Golden Age of political stability, universal prosperity and environmental friendliness; this will surely be worth a period of uncertainty.

Our most urgent and powerful argument for radical change of society - the threat of climate change - looks like it has been diminished to non-significance. Society will probably change radically anyway. From all the thinking I have done on the subject, I believe that the overall effect of this will be a greener, more decentralized, civilization. Economies will be much more equitable because, once they have obtained raw materials, they will be able to keep on reusing, and then recycling, them almost indefinitely. The new energy sources will allow us to continue resetting the entropic clock that makes some sustainable practices rather impractical today. Those nations that are resource-rich will still have an initial advantage, but as time goes on this will tend to equalize towards the median -what will define the success, or otherwise, of nations in the future will be the industry, the talent, and the desires of the people. Whilst the future playing field will not be boringly level, it will not have the extreme peaks and troughs that cause excess, on the one hand, and such misery on the other.

It is quite clear that we have to achieve much greater recycling and reuse rates than we currently do - new energy will be just what is needed for this, but unfortunately there is always the possibility that access to abundant energy will lead to an increase in consumption over and above what is already forecast - this could be disastrous and so the environmental movement will still have much work to do here.

There is the physical and logical aspect of being Green which suggests that environmental problems can be solved by controlling use of energy, pollution and resources; there is also the spiritual dimension of being Green. We get a lot of the strength of our support from the fact that many people are dissatisfied with our profligate lifestyles and the basic values of the people and societies that espouse such values; it is debatable whether, chicken and egg fashion, a love of shallow, wasteful materialism is a consequence of something lacking in the modern Western way of life or whether it is the cause of the dissatisfaction that many feel. With access to abundant, virtually free, energy it would seem that people may be tempted to treat energy and the things it will bring us, as trivial and not to be conserved, rather as those people who pay a flat rate for their water supply tend to use more than those who have their supply metered. It looks as if the environmental movement can now concentrate on conserving and preserving our resources by encouraging people to treat them with respect - our task has been made simpler and less daunting because some aspects of Green thought, recently overshadowed by the urgent necessity of solving the mechanical problems of energy and pollution, can now come closer to the fore and we can concentrate more on encouraging a satisfying, less trivial, lifestyle that respects the Earth and the other life that we share it with. Ultimately, of course, to want a genuinely satisfying life is self-centred, but how much more viable it will be than our current selfish consumerism that had set us on a one way journey towards exhausting the resources of the Planet. Earlier, I touched on why the advent of abundant energy will lead to the fading away of consumerism and the seemingly paradoxical enrichment of the majority of humanity. I could be wrong, but the prospect is now before us and I think we should work towards it.

There is one group who claim to have a device that turns radioactive thorium into its normal decay products in half an hour [Ed. note-see IE #5&6.] - this technology may eventually hold out the prospect of remediating nuclear waste and disposing of the large amount of plutonium cluttering up the Planet that is the legacy of the nuclear industry. The sky looks like the limit -nobody yet knows all that we will be able to do with these inventions and the knowledge that will follow from them - what is certain is that we will eventually be able to do things that we haven't even thought of yet.

As environmentalists we cannot op-pose these new energy sources, although some factions of the movement, those prone to the more Thoreau'esque senti-ments, will continue to root for a back-to-nature way of life. Ironically, this may come about - with energy on tap it will be possible to "homestead" in the wilds with most of the comforts of civilization -what this will do to the heart and soul of such people is anyone's guess as yet, but it will have to be healthier than being a powerless cog in a giant and impersonal corporation in an increasingly anonymous world.

Arthur C. Clarke made a brief appearance in the BBC Equinox programme which featured cold fusion. He made an important point that if we do get access to all the energy our hearts desire, then we may generate a different form of global warming because of the waste heat that we would create. It's not much good solving global warming by returning greenhouse gases to normal levels if we then proceed to destabilize the atmosphere in another way. Considering that the Patterson CF cell has operated at a power density of around 35 watts/ml recently, I think we should watch this aspect. This power density doesn't sound much but, scaling up, it becomes 35 kilowatts per liter and a staggering 35 megawatts per cubic meter. The human population is forecast to stabilize at around 11 billion by the middle of the next century, and if each human was then using a constant 30 kilowatts, which may very well happen if we have unlimited energy to run our homes, transport, and manufacturing processes etc., then we would be adding around an extra 1/750 of the heat that Earth inter-cepts from the sun. This might be insignificant globally, but as the climate seems to have a fractal nature and be vulnerable to the "butterfly effect," it may conversely have large effects. Fractional changes in the solar insolation due to tiny variations in Earth's orbit are thought to account for the periodicity of ice ages. In any event, the outpouring of so much waste heat in areas of high population density would certainly have an effect on the local micro-climate, and so this effect should be guarded against - it may be that we will need to radiate the waste heat into the night sky to get rid of it.

Arthur C. Clarke was also featured in the first issue of Infinite Energy and so I think it appropriate to finish off this article with a reference to his famous novel "2001 - A Space Odyssey." At the end of "2001" the newly created and fantastically powerful Star Child floats in space, near to Earth; it didn't know yet what it would do next, BUT IT WOULD THINK OF SOMETHING. The same infinite destiny could await us.



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