If Italian inventor Andrea Rossi's cold fusion machine, called the E-Cat, really works, then the world's energy problems are all but solved. Rossi claims that a small amount of input energy drives a fusion reaction between hydrogen and nickel atoms inside his machine, producing an outpouring of surplus heat that can be used to generate electricity. And instead of the nasty radioactive byproducts given off by nuclear fission reactors — think Fukushima or Chernobyl — the E-Cat spits out just a teaspoon of copper.
In the past year, at least 15 reputable scientists have watched live demonstrations of Rossi's E-Cat (short for Energy Catalyzer) and have declared it to be a success. Government documents reveal that NASA scientists have discussed the E-Cat extensively in meetings, and in December, Rossi even visited a senator in Massachusetts to explore the possibility of opening an energy plant in the state. The E-Cat is fast becoming an international star. But most scientists couldn't raise their eyebrows any higher, and now, an Australian engineer has provided an alternative explanation for where all the E-Cat's excess heat is coming from, and how Rossi is possibly scamming the world.
Cold fusion — the term for stable atoms fusing together at room temperature — is ruled out by the laws of physics. Those laws say it takes a huge amount of energy to push atoms close enough together for them to fuse, and so nuclear fusion can happen only in scorching hot places like the sun. But two decades ago, a pair of scientists, puzzled by the results of an experiment, thought they were observing nuclear fusion at room temperature. Ever since, fringe scientists have been trying to harness the physics-defying effect they called cold fusion. They've kept at it despite the fact that the original experiment turned out to be flawed. [Cold Fusion Does the Impossible… or Does It?]
The E-Cat has gone further into mainstream acceptance than any attempted cold fusion machine before it. Though Rossi doesn't let anyone look under the E-Cat's hood, claiming the technology isn't patent-protected, he invites scientists and investors to staged demonstrations. After a demo last April, for example, a pair of Swedish physicists vouched for Rossi's work, reporting that the E-Cat produced too much excess heat to have been originating from a chemical process, and that "the only alternative explanation is that there is some kind of a nuclear process that gives rise to the measured energy production." According to their report, 400 watts was put into the machine, and this appeared to catalyze a mysterious reaction, and in the process, generate 12,400 watts of energy that slowly poured out of the machine over the next two hours.
And therein lies the alleged scam.
In December, Rossi approached Dick Smith, an Australian entrepreneur, and asked him to invest $200,000 in the development of the E-Cat. Intrigued but skeptical, Smith asked Ian Bryce, an aeronautics engineer and member of the group Australian Skeptics (a group of which Smith is a patron) to help him investigate.
The scientists note that the mis-wiring could be inadvertent. "If one of the wires in the three-core power lead" — a lead with active, neutral and ground/earth wires, all of which flow to a different prong of a three-pin plug — "was accidentally misconnected, the actual measurements of current witnessed by two Swedish scientists would not be the total power going into the reactor, and there would be an apparent power gain. One of the scientists who observed an earlier test has now agreed this could be so," Smith said. He noted that such a misconnection would be easy to make. For example, the earth lead could be touching the active wire, either within the plug, behind the wall outlet, or in the jumble of wires inside the E-Cat machine. Misconnections involving the earth and neutral wire are also possible. [DIY: How to Split Atoms In Your Kitchen]According to a report issued by the Australian Skeptics, Bryce found that in all six published tests of the E-Cat up to July — every test in which excess power production was directly measured — the setup was such that a misconnected earth lead (the wire that is usually grounded in an electric circuit) could have been funneling up to 3 kilowatts of power into the machine's steam generator long after the other wires were turned off. Because there were no power meters measuring the flow of energy in the earth lead, all this energy would seem to be surplus, and would appear as if it were being generated by reactions within the E-Cat itself.
When these arguments were put to Rossi, he responded that all wires had been monitored in previous tests. "The cables (all of them) have been checked with attention, and the absence of any cable except the ones of which the [current] have been measured has been carefully checked. This guy is insulting the professionality of all the scientists who made the tests," Rossi wrote in an email.
However, according to Steven Krivit, a journalist who covers cold fusion claims and editor-in-chief of the Nuclear Energy Encyclopedia (Wiley, 2011), this isn't the first time questions have been raised about the wiring of Rossi's machine. Mats Lewan, a Scandinavian technology writer who watched a successful E-Cat demo last year, "said afterwards that he failed to check all three wires, and he admitted the possibility [of faulty wiring]," Krivit said.
If an independent test were conducted of the E-Cat and the current in all the wires (including the earth lead) were measured, “There is little doubt that this will show that it was a misconnection of the wires that resulted in the seemingly unbelievable power gain which Mr. Rossi attributes to cold fusion," Smith said. "Hopefully this finding will prevent millions of dollars being wasted by Mr. Rossi."
Other scientists who have also been following the E-Cat story closely agree that the Australian Skeptics' argument is highly plausible — except for the part about it being an innocent mistake.
"It all makes sense to me, except the word 'inadvertent,'" said Peter Thieberger, senior physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory.
Thieberger explained that the E-Cat's circuit diagrams show that for the earth lead to be live (carrying energy), "not only would the plug need to be 'accidentally' mis-wired, but an equally unlikely 'mistake' would need to have occurred inside of the E-Cat."
He noted that we can't possibly know what Rossi is doing because he won't let outside experts examine his machine. "Once there is a suspicion of fraud, one can imagine several different ways of delivering power. For example, there could be other hidden wires somewhere else, or there could be power transmitted through induction with a coil hidden under the table, etc. That is the reason I believe that there is no substitute for an independent, professional test conducted at a neutral site. I, for one, would never give any professional opinions based on witnessing one of these Rossi shows, no matter how spectacular," he told Life's Little Mysteries.
When the possibility of faulty wiring were put to Rossi, he responded that all wireseen measured in previous tests. "The cables (all of them) have been checked with attention, and the absence of any cable except the ones of which the [current] have been measured has been carefully checked. This guy is insulting the professionality of all the scientists who made the tests," Rossi wrote in an email.
He added that the E-Cat will be on the market soon, and "the skeptics will be free to buy them and make all the tests they want."
Aside from the wiring, another reason for suspicion, Thieberger noted, is the fact that the E-Cat's copper byproduct, which Rossi claims is fused nickel and hydrogen, has been analyzed by Sven Kullander, a professor at Sweden's Uppsala University and the chairman of the Swedish Academy of Science’s Energy Committee, and the copper appears to be in its naturally-occurring form, like what you would find in a copper mine. If the sample were actually the product of fusion, it would be composed of a very different ratio of copper isotopes (varieties).
But how has Rossi convinced so many? "It's a very important question," Krivit said. Some scientists attribute it to wishful thinking on the part of Rossi's audience. But it seems the inventor may also be a talented scam artist. In the 1990s, he served prison time after claiming that a company he started, called PetrolDragon, could convert toxic waste to oil, but instead the 70,000 tons of waste accumulated by the company was left to rot on-site. Ten years later, Rossi was acquitted by the Italian government. And he's back to making miracles.
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Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.