And it does not use hot fusion, the union of hydrogen atoms into larger elements that powers the sun and stars.
Instead, a low-energy nuclear reactor (LENR) uses common, stable elements like nickel, carbon, and hydrogen to produce stable products like copper or nitrogen, along with heat and electricity.
“It has the demonstrated ability to produce excess amounts of energy, cleanly, without hazardous ionizing radiation, without producing nasty waste,” said Joseph Zawodny, a senior research scientist with NASA’s Langley Research Center.
“The easiest implementation of this would be for the home,” he said. “You would have a unit that would replace your water heater. And you would have some sort of cycle to derive electrical energy from that.”
The LENR offers a slow-moving neutron to an element—NASA researchers are working with nickel. The nickel absorbs the extra neutron, rendering the nickel unstable. To regain stability, the acquired neutron splits into an electron and a proton.
“So where it once had an extra neutron, making it an unstable isotope of whatever element it was, it now has an extra proton instead, which makes it a more stable isotope of a different element,” Bob Silberg of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory wrote last week on the agency’s Global Climate Change blog.
“This process releases energy which, hypothetically, can be used to generate electricity.”
With its new proton, the nickel has gained stability as another element: copper.
“There are estimates using just the performance of some of the devices under study that 1 percent of the nickel mined on the planet each year could produce the world’s energy requirements at the order of 25 percent the cost of coal,” according to Dennis Bushnell, the chief scientist at Langley.
Carbon could also be used as a fuel, NASA scientists speculate, and the process would turn the carbon into nitrogen, the most abundant element in the atmosphere.
“I don’t know what could possibly be cleaner than that,” said Zawodny. “You’re not sequestering carbon, you’re totally removing carbon from the system.”
The scientists emphasize that LENR reactors are very different from the fission reactors employed today, which use highly radioactive elements, produce radioactive waste, and occasionally suffer from meltdowns. They also use the term LENR to distinguish these reactors from the chemical cold fusion reactors sought by researchers beginning in the 1980s.
“When we concentrated upon nuclear engineering beginning in the 1940′s we jumped to the strong force/particle physics and leapt over the weak force/condensed matter nuclear physics,” Bushnell said. “We are going back now to study and hopefully develop this arena.”
NASA researchers are leaning on the Widom-Larsen Theory published in 2006 by Boston physicist Allan Widom and Chicago physicist Lewis Larsen, who speculates that low energy nuclear reactions are already happening on earth—in lightning, for example. And according to Larsen, LENR reactions may be responsible for occasional fires in lithium-ion batteries.
Which underscores that even low-energy nuclear reactors can produce dangerous amounts of energy.
“Several labs have blown up studying LENR and windows have melted,” Bushnell writes, “indicating when the conditions are right prodigious amounts of energy can be produced and released.”
[UPDATE: Lewis Larsen responds to this statement in the comments below this post: "Firstly, all such violent energetic events are quite rare — only a handful have ever occurred over the past 20+ years during the course of literally hundreds of thousands of LENR experiments; most have involved water-filled reaction vessels of one kind or another . Secondly, and most importantly, NONE of these incidents were caused by a nuclear explosion per se." See Larsen's full comment on the third page of comments below.]
NASA researchers are working on producing the reactions by vibrating lattices of nickel saturated with hydrogen ions at high frequencies. Right now, those vibrations require more initial energy than the reactions produce, the same problem that has stymied efforts to produce fusion reactors. But Bushnell offers this summary of the state of low-energy nuclear reactors:
Something real is happening. The weak interaction theories [including Widom-Larsen] suggest what the physics might be. There are efforts ongoing to explore the validity of the theories. There are continuing Edisonian efforts to produce devices mainly for heat or in some cases transmutations. There are efforts to certify such devices. NASA LaRC has begun LENR design studies guided by the Weak Interaction Theory