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In Brief

Blog

In Brief

Brett Holverstott

This is an outline of an 18-minute TED style talk that represents a brief introduction to the topic.

The Problem

Eighty years ago, physicists had a problem. They were trying to understand the structure of the atom, according to the laws of physics known at the time. These included Newton's mechanics, and Maxwell's equations that govern electricity and magnetism.

The simplest atom is composed of an electron, orbiting a proton, in circular orbits like a planet orbiting the sun. This was the model developed by Bohr.

But there were a few problems. The most important was this: according to the laws of physics, the electron, orbiting the proton, should be shedding energy as it accelerates along a curved trajectory. It should quickly collapse into the proton.

Physicists couldn't understand how matter could be stable. [There were other problems too such as the wave-behavior of free particles.]

In response to this problem they invented a new theory of nature, which dealt exclusively with physics on the atomic scale. This is known as quantum mechanics.

But quantum mechanics was not just a new theory, it was a new way of theorizing. It described particles in terms of probabilities; it had a very murky conceptual foundation. Physicists believed that perhaps we did not need to really understand the atom. Perhaps we could just model it with mathematics.

At the end of the day, quantum mechanics is actually a pretty bad theory.

For instance: Every electron orbit has a very specific energy; to strip the electron off an atom, you must provide this amount of energy. Quantum mechanics is very bad at calculating these energies. It does well with hydrogen atom, but as soon as you move to the helium atom, it starts to fail significantly.

After the invention of quantum mechanics, a few isolated physicists continued to think about the problem of the electron orbit. An important paper was published here or there, but generally ignored. It was no longer in vogue to think about the atom this way. [These included Schott, Goedecke, Abbot & Griffiths, Pearle, and Haus - who are discussed in the book.]

But an important discovery was made. If the electron was not a point, but instead an extended surface, like a shell or a membrane, it could, perhaps, be stable.

A New Theory

In 1990, Randell Mills was a graduate student at MIT. His professor wrote an important paper on this topic, and handed him a copy. [In this paper Herman Haus rederives Goedecke's general criterion for no radiation in any accelerating charge distribution.]

Mills used it as the foundation for a new theory of the atom. Instead of a point, the electron was a spherical shell surrounding the nucleus.

We expect good theories to explain known facts, and Mills' theory did a fantastic job of calculating the experimental values electron energies, not just for hydrogen, but for the rest of the periodic table.

[Mills has published high accuracy calculations for the ionization energies of every atom and ion in the first twenty atoms in the periodic table, as well as the state lifetimes and line intensities of hydrogen excited states; the energies of helium excited states; as well as a plethora of atomic parameters such as the fine structure, hyperfine structure, and Lamb shift, from simple equations.]

If Mills was right, he had just swept away 65 years of quantum theory, explaining the behavior of particles and atoms with the physics known prior to 1925.

New Energy Source

We also expect new theories of nature to tell us something new about the world. And Mills's theory certainly did.

We know that the electron in the hydrogen atom can absorb light and jump to different orbits. Almost as if the planet Mercury could jump to the orbit of Venus, or the Earth. But the electron always falls back to its ground state orbit - the smallest orbit that it can occupy.

Mills predicted that it is possible to shrink the orbit of the electron below that ground state, using a specific chemical process. Doing so results in a new kind of hydrogen atom, with very different chemical properties.

The allowed orbits are integer-fractions of the ground state: 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5, and so on. So these are literally shrunken hydrogen atoms. Mills called them hydrinos.

Now, the electron and the proton are opposite charges, negative and positive. This means they attract, and when you bring them closer together, you need to release energy from the atom. In fact, all chemical reactions are based on bringing electrons closer to protons - this is where the energy comes from.

But hydrino atoms bring the electron way closer to the proton than conventional chemical reactions. If you can create a hydrino, you can release hundreds of times more energy than combustion.

So Mills' new theory had solved a very old problem in basic physics, and predicted a new way of extracting energy from the atom, and it opened up a new field of hydrogen chemistry.

Mills began experiments, first with test tubes in his kitchen sink, and after successful early trials, raised millions in venture capital. He employed a team of Ph.D. scientists at a large facility outside Princeton.

For 25 years he explored hydrino chemistry, publishing heavily on the topic. He produced hydrino gas and a new class of hydrino hydrides; he uncovered unique light signatures from hydrino reactions, found evidence for hydrino in the sun, and in space. He also produced heat from the reaction with several generation of prototypes.

But his work was considered fringe; no Nobel Prizes came his way for his discoveries; both he and his collaborators were ignored and often ridiculed. In my book I go into the psychological and sociological reasons why we let our biases blind us to new realities; but suffice to say Mills was trying to overturn a scientific paradigm.

But 25 years later,  100 million in venture capital, and thousands of experiments , Mills and his team are now commercializing a new energy source.

The Breakthrough

The problem for Mills and his team had always been the reaction rate: how much of the stuff you put into a cell reacts in a given time? The reaction rate was always low.

But in 2014, he made a breakthrough. He was able to create micro-explosions from small samples of material, in which all the hydrogen was being transformed into hydrino, in a violent burst. This demonstrated a necessary condition for enabling the reaction [a highly conductive matrix in liquid or gas phase].

Mills has cried wolf before. He has repeatedly told the press that he is near a viable commercial prototype, only for nothing to emerge. He has been heavily criticized for this. After all, those in business know it is always better to dampen expectations and surprise your investors with good news rather than to oversell and under-deliver. Only if you look seriously at the research can you see how he has made progress.

But this time, they really have something. They have turned these explosive bursts into a continuous and controllable explosive reaction.

Mills' company, Brilliant Light Power, is now in collaboration with a major prototyping firm Columbia Technologies and photovoltaic manufacturer Masimo Semiconductor. The CTO of Columbia Tech has publicly said that all engineering barriers to commercialization have been overcome.

They are now building the alpha prototype reactor and hope (again - expectations) to field deploy units for off-site testing later this year. It will probably take a little longer than that. But nevertheless.

The reactor on the bench right now produces a blindingly bright, explosive hydrogen plasma. It takes place in this spherical reaction cell. The cell heats up to 3,000 degrees and emits a bright white light, which may be captured with a geodesic array of photovoltaics.

It is solar power, with thousands of times the power of natural sunlight, generated from an artificial sun! Mills calls it the Suncell.

The power density of this reactor is enormous. The biggest issue they have had in its development is how to avoid melting down the entire apparatus.

I'll give an example. In order to keep the reaction going you need to deliver some electric current. Originally, they had used solid tungsten bars to to do this, but the reaction vaporized the tungsten in seconds - and the vaporization point is 12,000 degrees. They solved that problem by using two streams of molten silver injected into the reaction cell and recirculated, which act as the electrodes. When they collide, a current arcs across them, and looks like something you would see in a ghostbusters movie.

suncell.png

These solar panels being designed by Masimo are high capacity solar collector cells. They are triple junction to absorb a broad spectrum of light. This is not your typical rooftop PV, it can generate electricity at up to 45% efficiency; the other half is lost as heat. And unlike rooftop solar, which operates at full capacity only during peak periods, the SunCell will be able to run all day and night - so it will have a very high capacity factor

For comparison, your car engine is about 20% efficient; a microturbine using natural gas is about the same. Large power plants are usually much higher efficiency, but over 95% is lost in transmission, in just delivering it to your home.

The reactor is about the size of a refrigerator and is expected to deliver up to 250 kW of power. This is enough to power about 200 homes. Instead of being generated at a large power plant, this can be micro-distributed throughout the grid, with very small power districts, so less is lost in transmission.

Aside from the solar, the guts of this thing is pretty simple technology, with no moving parts. It might last twenty years without significant maintenance.

Economics

The reactor consumes hydrogen, which may be supplied by water. We don't usually obtain hydrogen from water if we want to burn it because the energy we get out of hydrogen-oxygen combustion is equal (or less) than what it takes to split hydrogen and oxygen in the first place. But we aren't burning it, we are hydrino-catalyzing it.

Splitting water [electrolysis] costs about 1.5% of the output power. Desalination from seawater costs only 5 ten-thousands of a percent.

Let's take a glass of water for reference. That's half a liter. The reactor can extract about 1 billion joules. At 250kW, this would power two hundred homes for about 30 minutes. Or, it could be an onboard charger for your electric car. It would allow my Nissan Leaf to drive 1,400 kilometers.

In Seattle we pay about 11 cents per kWh, and that is low compared to other areas in the country. Because ordinary water is fuel for the reaction, hydrino power has a long-term anticipated cost of millicents ($ 0.001) per kWh.

Of course, even selling it at a cent per kWh will allow BLP to bulldoze all existing forms of power generation, driven by pure economics.

The world consumes about 105,000 tWh of power annually. About 48 million units could provide this capacity, if it were not for the billion cars on the road.

The Solution to Climate Change

The SunCell represents a globally transformative, new source of clean and abundant power.

The fuel is hydrogen, and the only product of the reaction is hydrino gas - a very inert, tightly bound state of hydrogen. It can be safely released into the atmosphere. Earth's gravity is not strong enough to trap either hydrogen or helium gasses in its atmosphere, so it will vent into space.

It is important to realize that the process removes hydrogen permanently from our biosphere.

However, this may not be as scary as it sounds. The Earth is big. It is estimated that there is 60 tons of dust and ice falling on Earth from space every day; and there is an enormous amount of hydrogen that humanity has already released into the biosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels. [I have not yet calculated exact numbers.]

Importantly, the energy is carbon free.

In the coming decade or two, we will see the decommissioning of 450 nuclear reactors, 55,000 large dams, thousands of coal power plants, and over one billion vehicles powered by internal combustion. We will end the production of radioactive waste; we will unblock our rivers; we will massively drop the quantities of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur and nitrogen oxides released into the atmosphere, as well as heavy metals from the burning of coal. We will no longer need to risk dumping oil in oceans or rivers. No need to frack. No need for pipelines. Sea levels and ocean acidity will stabilize.

The transformation will start here. The United States generates about 15% of global carbon emissions and among the most per capita.

But this technology will be deployed around the world, even in developing countries, as a simultaneous solution to the problems of rural electrification, water access and sanitation, in a microdistributed infrastructure that can serve the billion people in the world still without these basic services.

This is the solution to climate change.

It is a solution that will not require advocacy or collective will to bring into being. It will require us to do what we as a species are good at doing: adapt.

Corporations will go bankrupt and jobs will be lost as demand begins to fall and funds are diverted from fossil fuel extraction. It certainly won't happen overnight. Brilliant Light Power is now a 10 billion dollar company in private valuation, but the global energy market measures in the trillions. In preparation for deployment, the company is building a network of early adopters and business partners that include titans of industry. We may see some large corporations divest from fossil fuels and partner in the transition.

This technology seems to be uniting both climate change activists and those vested in the fossil fuel industry. There is a planet to save and money to be made.

There will be growing pains, and there are some issues we ought to worry about. I am most worried about the people who live in centrally planned, developing economies and rely on fossil fuel exports for a significant portion of their GDP. These countries will need to adapt quickly or we may have a a significant humanitarian crisis.

But the promise of cheap, clean power will make itself felt everywhere. Not just what we pay in the electricity and gas, but what those who build and ship the stuff we buy pay in electricity and gas.

Electrification will open up new markets. Unfettered trade will be paramount to lifting economies around the world. What we lose in local manufacturing we stand to gain in being the epicenter of a global transition.

Fossil fuels have given us science, medicine, industry, democracy, flight. Now we look to the future: What will the hydrino age bring?