Loser: Hot or Not?

BlackLight Power says it’s developing a revolutionary energy source—and it won’t let the laws of physics stand in its way


This is part of IEEE Spectrum’s SPECIAL REPORT: WINNERS & LOSERS 2009, The Year's Best and Worst of Technology.

Imagine that you could make hydrogen atoms do something that quantum mechanics says they can’t: slip into an energy state below the ground state, the collapse releasing 100 times as much energy as you’d get by just burning the hydrogen. If you could harness the heat to produce power, using hydrogen from water as fuel, you’d consume no oil, create no fumes, and solve the problems of energy and global warming forever.

Of course, first you’d have to overturn a century’s worth of physical theory, prove your point experimentally, and demonstrate its feasibility in a prototype power-producing system. Yet this is precisely what a company called BlackLight Power says it has done. The company, based near Princeton, N.J., has raised US $60 million, equipped massive labs, hired two dozen employees, gotten some high-profile executives to serve on its board, and attracted a devoted following of fans to online discussion boards.

Last year BlackLight announced that it had a prototype reactor capable of putting out 50 kilowatts of thermal power using a tiny amount of hydrogen. The company said that the device releases energy in one short burst and that it’s working to make the reaction continuous. It also said it planned to scale up for pilot operation sometime this year, estimating that its technology could produce electricity for under 2 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s on a par with nuclear and coal power plants and considerably better than gas and petroleum plants.

Is this real, or just fodder for a science-fiction TV show?

Ask experts in atomic physics and you’ll hear that a new form of hydrogen is just fantasy.

“This is scientific nonsense—there is no state of hydrogen lower than the ground state,” says Wolfgang Ketterle, an MIT scientist and a Nobel Prize laureate in physics. “Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and it’s had time enough to find its ground state.”

Anthony Leggett, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and also a Nobel laureate, says that quantum mechanics is “consistent with just about everything we know about atomic physics, so the onus is firmly on anyone who wants to discard it to prove his case.” He adds, “I don’t see that [BlackLight] has got anywhere near doing this.”

But turn to Randell Mills, the founder, chairman, chief executive, and president of BlackLight Power, and he’ll tell you that this lower-energy hydrogen, which he calls hydrino, is very real indeed.

“We produce hydrino on demand,” he tells IEEE Spectrum, adding that his team has isolated and characterized hydrino’s properties using spectroscopy and has even created hydrino-rich materials it can provide for analysis.

Mills is unfazed by the criticism, having faced down the physics establishment since he first put forward his hydrino theory some 20 years ago. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, he veered into physics after taking some courses at MIT in the late 1980s. His theory has been evolving since then. Not only does it explicitly reject quantum mechanics as it is currently understood, it also attempts to explain physics and chemistry “from the scale of quarks to cosmos,” as Mills puts it. Unlike quantum theory’s statistical approach, his theory is completely deterministic.

You can read about it all in his magnum opus, The Grand Unified Theory of Classical Physics, a 1771-page work that he’s self-published on his Web site. It claims to offer explanations with no “spookiness or weirdness” for quantum phenomena like entanglement, as well as some extraordinary predictions: that under certain conditions electrons acquire antigravity properties, which Mills calls “the fifth force,” and that the mysterious dark matter permeating the universe consists of large hydrino agglomerations.

Mills says he’s published numerous papers describing his theoretical results in peer-reviewed journals. But critics counter by saying that the papers appeared in publications that focus on speculative work and that his theory has deep flaws that he hasn’t addressed.

Mills first tried to make something of his theory in the early 1990s, when he started a company called HydroCatalysis Power, which experimented with heat-producing electrolysis cells. A few years later he shifted to electrical discharges in gases, changing the company’s name to BlackLight Power, a reference to the emissions of ultraviolet light he observed. More recently he’s focused on a solid-fuel design, which he says is the most promising configuration for producing power.

All the while Mills has proved himself a terrific salesman. He has raised capital from various sources, including utilities Conectiv Energy Supply and PacifiCorp and private investors like former Johnson & Johnson president Jim Lenehan.

BlackLight’s current prototype reactor consists of a steel cylinder containing 1 kilogram of an industrial chemical called Raney nickel—a powdery, porous nickel-aluminum alloy that traps hydrogen gas—coated with a few grams of sodium hydroxide. According to Mills, when you raise the cylinder’s temperature, the reactants form sodium hydride. This material acts as a catalyst, absorbing just the right amount of energy—a multiple of 27.2 electron volts—to produce sodium ions and hydrinos while generating lots of heat.

The company reports that after an input of 1396 kilojoules, it obtained an output of 2149.1 kJ—a 753.1-kJ difference that raised the temperature of the reactor from 85.6 to 518 °C in just 35 seconds. Then, according to Mills, comes the best part: if you inject more hydrogen into the reactor, it will combine with the sodium atoms and regenerate the sodium hydride catalyst, which then produces more hydrinos and energy. To obtain the additional hydrogen, Mills says, a fraction of the output energy could be diverted to electrolyze water. “A billion-watt power plant would consume about 1 liter of water per second,” he says.

Mills also claims that the hydrinos, far from being mere waste products, will themselves constitute a pot of gold. Hydrino compounds, he says, have unique properties and could be used in semiconductor devices, high-voltage batteries, synthetic diamonds, anticorrosive coatings, and rocket fuel.

This past October, BlackLight announced the “independent validation” of its solid-fuel reactor by a group led by Peter Jansson, a professor of engineering at Rowan University, in Glassboro, N.J. The Rowan group performed its own experiments and reported that the significant energy release could not be explained by “conventional chemistry” and may support BlackLight’s claim that it has found a novel technology for producing energy.

In a statement after the report was issued, Michael H. Jordan, former CEO of Westinghouse Electric and a board member of BlackLight, said that the company’s technology “will go down as one of the most important advances in the field of energy in the last 50 years.”

But critics have raised questions about the replication. They point out that the Rowan group simply borrowed reactors from BlackLight instead of preparing their own from scratch and that Jansson has been a collaborator of Mills’s. And they say there isn’t enough detail to tell whether BlackLight ruled out all possible sources of error in its calorimetry tests, which used temperature measurements of water surrounding the reactor to derive the energy input and output.

“Calorimetry experiments are notoriously touchy—it’s easy to fool yourself,” says Joshua Halpern, a professor of chemistry at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. He notes that it was the controversy over calorimeter experiments that undermined claims for cold fusion in the late 1980s. Small variations in temperature data and water flow can wildly distort results.

And even if there’s an energy release, he says, the chemical reactions could be much more complex than what BlackLight accounted for. The heat, he says, may come from other reactions—for instance, between hydrogen gas and oxidized nickel, a highly exothermic process. “Raney nickel,” he says, “can ignite after certain hydrogenation reactions.”

William H. Green, a professor of chemical engineering at MIT, says that the BlackLight concept is “inconsistent with experiment,” because many people have made sodium hydride before without seeing it decompose into sodium and an anomalous form of hydrogen. And then there’s the issue of turning the burst of energy into a continuous process that could be harnessed for power production. BlackLight hasn’t explained in detail how it plans to feed hydrogen and a catalyst into the reactor to keep the process going. “For a useful large-scale energy process, one cannot be consuming nickel or the sodium compounds, both of which take a lot of energy to produce,” Green says.

Mills dismisses the criticism as small practical issues that his company has been able to deal with. He says BlackLight did account for all conventional chemical reactions and that the most exothermic of them—the formation of aluminum oxide—produces only 1 percent of the heat measured. As for making the operation continuous, he says his company is pursuing two approaches. One would be to continuously feed hydrogen into the reactor in such a manner that the reaction would proceed without any significant degradation of the catalyst. The other would use a batch operation, in which some catalyst is successively retrieved, recycled, and reinserted for a new cycle.

Mills says BlackLight has operated the reactor continuously for two hours and that it’s investigating a new type of fuel that yields 10 times as much energy per weight as the sodium hydroxide–doped Raney nickel. He insists the company has disclosed the experiment in detail in a paper available on its Web site, only retaining “some know-how in order to maintain our technical lead.” He says BlackLight is “open to host validators” and is “willing to supply the fuel under an academic license or commercial license.” Eventually, he contends, others will be able to make the fuel themselves.

“Based on the response to our announcement,” Mills says, “it appears that the engineering and business communities are ready to take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity and engage at this point in the development.”

Critics, however, remain unconvinced. They say that BlackLight has made similar claims before, announcing that it was on the brink of commercializing its revolutionary technology but failing to deliver.

“This claim has been around for several years, and I know of no hard evidence provided by BlackLight Power to substantiate their claims,” says Stanford physicist and Nobel laureate Douglas Osheroff.

“I would say without reservation that if Mills were proved right, it would revolutionize physics and solve the world’s energy problems overnight, and he would easily win a Nobel Prize and become a multibillionaire,” says John Connett, a mathematician at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, who’s tracked Mills’s ideas for several years. “But extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and at this point it appears to me that the proof side of the equation is very sadly lacking.”

For more articles, go to Winners & Losers 2009 Special Report.

Snapshot:Water Into Watts

Goal: To develop a power-producing reactor that unleashes energy by inducing hydrogen atoms to transition to an energy state below the ground state.

Why it’s a loser: Most experts don’t believe such lower states exist, and they say the experiments don’t present convincing evidence.

Who: BlackLight Power

Where: Cranbury, N.J.

Staff: 25 full-time employees and 20 consultants

Budget: US $60 million

When: Pilot plants projected for mid- to late 2009