NASA, Widom-Larsen and Weak Interactions

Low Energy Nuclear Reaction (LENR) advocates love to drop names. Andrea Rossi invoked Underwriter’s Laboratories and Siemens to pump up his ephemeral E-Cat. Rossi once tried to involve the physics department of the University of Bologna in his research, but when he didn’t pay them, they wisely disengaged themselves from Rossi’s Universe of Baloney.

When, a few years ago, NASA released a video explaining a patent application for an LENR process, the alt energy community went hog-wild, some claiming that NASA had validated cold fusion, others claiming that NASA had been sandbagging Pons and Fleischmann all along. About a year ago, on his own blog, NASA scientist Joe Zawodny attempted to clarify what was real and what wasn’t:

If a patent application is filed, a video may be produced to inform the general public of the nature of the invention or innovation.  It may be a non-technical piece that communicates what this invention is about and why people might care. … There have been many attempts to twist the release of this video into NASA’s support for LENR or as proof that Rossi’s e-cat really works. Many extraordinary claims have been made in 2010. In my scientific opinion, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I find a distinct absence of the latter. So let me be very clear here. While I personally find sufficient demonstration that LENR effects warrant further investigation, I remain skeptical. Furthermore, I am unaware of any clear and convincing demonstrations of any viable commercial device producing useful amounts of net energy.

Sebastian Anthony has written not-too-skeptically about hydrogen fusion for Extreme Tech before, so when I saw the headline, NASA’s cold fusion tech could put a nuclear reactor in every home, car, and plane, I thought, “Here we go again”:

So far, NASA’s best effort involves a nickel lattice and hydrogen ions. The hydrogen ions are sucked into the nickel lattice, and then the lattice is oscillated at a very high frequency (between 5 and 30 terahertz). This oscillation excites the nickel’s electrons, which are forced into the hydrogen ions (protons), forming slow-moving neutrons. The nickel immediately absorbs these neutrons, making it unstable. To regain its stability, the nickel strips a neutron of its electron so that it becomes a proton — a reaction that turns the nickel into copper and creates a lot of energy in the process.

The key to LENR’s cleanliness and safety seems to be the slow-moving neutrons. Whereas fission creates fast neutrons (neutrons with energies over 1 megaelectron volt), LENR utilizes neutrons with an energy below 1eV — less than a millionth of the energy of a fast neutron. Whereas fast neutrons create one hell of a mess, LENR’s slow neutrons don’t generate ionizing radiation or radioactive waste. It is because of this sedate gentility that LENR lends itself very well to vehicular and at-home nuclear reactors that provide both heat and electricity.

Why is NASA now spending time on, and risking its reputation with, LENR? According to a NASA News Item, The nuclear reactor in your basement,  it is because the LENR patent app that NASA was asked to review wasn’t based on Pons-Fleischmann, it was based on Widom-Larsen:

“For NASA Langley,… the epiphany moment on LENR was the publication of the Widom-Larsen Weak Interaction LENR Theory,” which was published in 2006. According to Zawodny and Bushnell, this theory provides a better explanation than “cold fusion” for the results which researchers have obtained over the last couple of decades. And it might explain much more than that. At a meeting of the American Nuclear Society in November 2012, the theory’s co-developer, Lewis Larsen, speculated that LENR may occur naturally in lightning — not only on present-day Earth, but also in the primordial cloud of gas and dust that became our solar system. If true, LENR might solve a mystery uncovered by NASA’s Genesis mission, that the pattern of oxygen isotopes on the sun differs greatly from that of Earth.

Zawodny seems downright enthusiastic compared to last January, but notes that Widom-Larsen is still theoretical:

So what’s the hitch?  It’s creating the right oscillation. “It turns out that the frequencies that we have to work at are in what I call a valley of inaccessibility,” Zawodny said. “Between, say, 5 or 7 THz and 30 THz, we don’t have any really good sources to make our own controlled frequency.”

But solving that problem can wait until the theory is better understood. “From my perspective, this is still a physics experiment,” Zawodny said. “I’m interested in understanding whether the phenomenon is real, what it’s all about. Then the next step is to develop the rules for engineering. Once you have that, I’m going to let the engineers have all the fun.”

And he is sure that if the Widom-Larsen theory is shown to be correct, resources to support the necessary technological breakthroughs will come flooding in. “All we really need is that one bit of irrefutable, reproducible proof that we have a system that works,” Zawodny said. “As soon as you have that, everybody is going to throw their assets at it. And then I want to buy one of these things and put it in my house.”

From what I can glean, the process theorized by Widom-Larsen is low-energy, and nuclear, but neither fission nor fusion. Larsen is an entrepreneur, president of Lattice Energy LLC, and Widom is a theoretical physicist from Northeastern University. They claim that the absorption of a neutron relies on the weak force, and requires no new physics to explain.

That’s all well and good, but I recall that not too long ago, CERN researchers claimed that  a beam of neutrinos had traveled faster than the speed of light. For a few days there was rampant speculation, but the claim was eventually withdrawn after further testing. So I won’t be clearing out a space in my basement just yet.


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2 responses to “NASA, Widom-Larsen and Weak Interactions”

  1. cmaukonen says :

    Not to worry. Some clown who does not understand physics enough for it not to work will eventually get it working. They generally do.

    Hell….Lee DeForest – a physicist – got the vacuum tube triode to work and had no clue how or why it did at the time.

    I guess he just thought it was way cool.


    • Donal says :

      There was a scifi short story like that. The scientist showed that a force field led to an explosion; the engineer lost an eye but eventually figured out that an alternating on/off field could be stable.


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