The querelle on the device patented by Andrea Rossi, the E-CAT, which allegedly produces heat from nuclear fusion processes inside a small cylindrical reactor fueled with Hydrogen and Nickel powder, continues to draw the attention of the gullible as well as that of the knowledgeable. It is just entertaining to both!

Recently I mentioned here the results of an "independent" test (by G. Levi et al.) of two of the "energy catalyzers" invented by Rossi, pointing out the relevance of the claim that the authors were making. For those who can read between the lines, that does not mean of course that I believed the conclusions of the paper: rather,  that I believed somebody was putting their scientific reputation at stake big time by publishing it.

Many readers of this column pointed out how the tests had been made in a very unsatisfactory way - both as far as the scientific method is concerned, and as far as the way that some of the reported measurements had been performed. I cannot repeat the issues here, but maybe just mention that if one is not allowed to look inside the black box to see what is reacting, at least one should make darn sure that one understands the input power that the electric cables are providing to the system. Anyway, let us see what the new paper says instead.

The  paper by Ericsson and Pomp, who are both from Uppsala university, is quite hard on the authors of the previous "independent" study. Already in the abstract they make clear that they consider that study pseudo-scientific, and that "the circumstances and the people involved in the test make it far from being an independent one". Further, they claim that "authors seem to jump to conclusions fitting pre-conceived ideas".

The paper starts by listing features of the "independent" study which are disappointing, on general grounds. It also points out how G. Levi, the first author, had been in the past in close contact with Andrea Rossi, so he cannot really be considered an independent reviewer; other authors of the "independent" study have also collaborated with Rossi in the past. All this is well known to all who have followed the story in the recent past.

The central issue of course is how the measurements of electrical power in, and thermal power out, are performed. Here Ericsson and Pomp mention that input power from ground leads may be something that was to be monitored by has not - note, this is probably the best candidate trick to make the E-CAT appear to consume only a small part of the electrical power it receives.

A mention is also made of the fact that the testers were prevented from examining the content of the catalyzer, with the result that they certainly cannot claim that it contains hydrogen and nickel. I already made this point also from a quantitative level when I discussed the paper by Levi et al:: the determination of the amount of reactant was made by means of a ridiculous subtraction of weight before and after the removal of the latter by the Rossi team - who could have removed from the device half a kilogram of plutonium and reinserted 499.7 grams of blue cheese, as far as we know.

The report by Ericsson and Pomp then discusses in more detail each of the three tests performed in November 2012, December 2012, and March 2013, producing a long list of questions which the Levi paper does not address or specifically avoids to answer.  An important note concerns the source of the "excess" heat:

"The authors half acknowledge the extremely high energy densities implied by their measurements, but do not carry the discussion to the logical end. The only processes we know of today that can give such energy densities are nuclear. This would normally be associated with strong emission of radiation, in particular, gamma, but also neutrons, beta and even some heavier charged particles (depending on the exact nuclear transformations involved). It would also cause nuclear transmutations of the fuel. In view of this background, which must have been very clear to the authors as they include several experts in nuclear physics and measurements, it is surprising that the investigations of radiation emitted during the operation of the device are not presented as part of the report [...]"

In their conclusions, Ericsson and Pomp insist on their hard-pounding the authors of the study by Levi et al., talking of "wishful thinking" and again of pseudo-science. In academic terms, this is about as bad as it gets. The next step is defenestration from one's sixth-floor office.

It would be very entertaining to expect a rebuttal of the Ericsson and Pomp criticism, perhaps in the form of a new independent study including fancy particle detectors and independent referees chosen at random and brought overnight to a secret location. Unfortunately, I doubt that the story will have other chapters to unfold. The trick is in the electric box, as several by-standers with some background in electrical engineering have already pointed out in various occasions.

It remains for me to note, as I think I also did before, that I don't believe that much harm has been done by the E-CAT to the perception of this science by the general public. When interest is raised on otherwise distant and arcane topics, we always win. As Oscar Wilde once noted, it is not important what they say about you; more important is that they talk about you! So let's keep talking about cold fusion and keep by-standers interested: with their help and support, maybe some honest version of Andrea Rossi, somebody with a truly working idea, will one day indeed come out of the woods and change our life...