This is part of IEEE Spectrum's SPECIAL REPORT: WINNERS & LOSERS 2009, The Year's Best and Worst of Technology.
Wizard of Watts
Randell Mills, founder of BlackLight Power, says his reactor liberates energy from hydrogen in a totally new way.
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.