Friday, April 30, 2004

Second Chance for Cold Fusion?
Fifteen years ago a pair of scientists from Utah conducted the classic demonstration of how not to announce a scientific breakthrough. Cold fusion, after a few moments of startling promise, looked like another in a long line of impossible energy devices. But MIT's Technology Review now reports that physicists are taking another look at it, and the Department of Energy is considering exploring it further.

Cold fusion is only one avenue that might deliver an energy surprise. Researchers and inventors with varying amounts of scientific training are pursuing a wide array of exotic energy technologies. Zero point energy is another contender, based on a quirk of physics called the Casimir Effect. Most of these ideas have in common the potential for essentially limitless clean energy. For more information on a variety of "wild card" issues, including energy wild cards, take a look at the Arlington Institute.

I approach such things as a skeptic. In physics, as in most of life, there's no free lunch, and many of these ideas appear to require one, in order to work. Having said that, though, I also absorbed enough history of science along the way in engineering school to appreciate how much of it was discovered by people who were regarded as crackpots before they started generating reproducible results.

I find area of wild card energy intriguing, because if enough people are pursuing enough different paths, the odds of one of them eventually discovering something useful improve. Even a tiny chance of that seems worth a bit of society's time and money. With a cheap, plentiful and clean source of primary energy, an awful lot of other things that look impractical today would make sense, such as a quick transition to a hydrogen economy and a large-scale attack on climate change. Don't hold your breath, and don't sell your oil company stock, but it is certainly entertaining to think about the possibilities, occasionally.

No comments: