Jeff Danner

Cold Fusion Part II: History 1869 to 2015

Last week in Part I of this three column series, I discussed the science of cold fusion. I had been considering writing about cold fusion for some time. Then last month the U.S. patent office issued a patent for a fluid heater to Italian inventor Andrea Rossi that, as we will discuss further below, purports to be running on cold fusion. So I figured the time was right. From time to time, the topic I choose to write about has a pre-existing community of people who care about it passionately. This is certainly true for cold fusion. After publishing Part I, I received correspondence and comments from across the United States and Europe. Many of the comments were quite informative, so I hope that this trend continues. Since this series is bringing new people into the discussion, I thought it would be helpful to clarify my goals for Common Science®. Each week, I try to write a compelling column on a technical subject for non-scientists while attempting to constrain the length such that it can be read over a leisurely cup of coffee. (Note, you may need to drink rather slowly this week.) So I wanted to extend a warm welcome to the visitors from the cold fusion community and also manage expectations on the level of technical detail to follow. Before proceeding with a discussion of the history...

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Cold Fusion Part I: The Science

Last month Italian inventor Andrea Rossi was granted a U.S. patent for a fluid heater. At first glance, that’s not a particularly gripping opening sentence for a lively or interesting science column. But there is more to the story, a lot more. First off, the heat source in Rossi’s invention is purported to cold fusion. If Rossi really has mastered cold fusion, the world is about to become a very different place. There is also a local angle. Rossi is a partner in the Raleigh-based Industrial Heat, LLC who have been operating one of the patented fluid heaters at an undisclosed location for the last six months. There are several aspects of this story that intrigue me, so I’ve laid out a three-part exploration. This week I’ll cover the science of cold fusion. Next week I’ll discuss the history of efforts to achieve cold fusion and then conclude the following week with the potentially world-changing implications. So on to the science. Let’s start with a definition of cold fusion. Cold fusion is the generation of energy from the fusion of atomic nuclei at “reasonably” low temperatures. To me, reasonably low would be anything below 1,500 °F since this would allow us to use known types of industrial equipment. Given that nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun, generally occurs at tens of millions of degrees, 1,500 °F still...

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Oxygen Free Atmosphere versus Holding Your Breath

Twice a year I head to my home town of State College, Pennsylvania to give a presentation to freshmen Chemical Engineering students at Penn State University entitled, “What a Chemical Engineer Actually Does.” It’s a fun trip for me. I listen to an audio book on the drive, visit with my parents while my mom makes my favorite foods, and engage in my hobby of giving advice to young engineers. At the end of my lecture, I try to impress upon the students that once they are working at a manufacturing facility, they will be entrusted with protecting the safety of others. I attempt to drive that point home by giving a brief lesson on the dangers of oxygen-deficient atmospheres. While you, my dear reader, are less likely to encounter an oxygen-deficient atmosphere than a chemical plant operator, it is a risk you want to be cognizant of, and you may find the science involved to be interesting. We need to start with some background on lungs. Lungs extract oxygen from the air, transfer it into the blood stream, and allow carbon dioxide from the blood to be expelled out of the body. The average human lung has a functional volume of 3.5 liters when expanded and 3.0 liters after exhaling. By the difference in these two numbers, you see that the average volume of a breath is 0.5...

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Coal Ash, How Dry is Dry?

This week’s column assumes that the reader is familiar with the fact that Duke Energy has been tasked with closing or upgrading its coal ash lagoons across the state of North Carolina following a massive coal ash spill into the Dan River near to Eden, NC. If you are not familiar with the background, I recommend you read my previous column, A Tale of Two Spills, before proceeding. When you burn coal to make electricity, just like burning wood in a fireplace, some ash is left behind. Coal ash is hazardous since it contains a number of toxic, heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, and mercury. As a result, human beings and other animals are well advised to not ingest coal ash or, even more importantly, breathe it into their lungs. Since the greatest health risk from coal ash arises from breathing it in, coal companies immerse the ash in water in on-site lagoons to keep coal ash dust out of the air. While it is possible to recycle coal ash into concrete and several other building products, it is not an economically attractive alternative. Therefore, electric power companies all across the country have been accumulating a staggering amount of coal ash – estimates range in the trillions of tons – over the past half a century or so. Duke Energy has 108 million tons of coal ash stored...

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Pollinator Update

In the spring of 2014, I published a three-part series on the importance of pollinators – bees, butterflies, wasps, hummingbirds and a variety of other insects – and highlighted the alarming rates of decline of their populations. (Here are links to those columns, Part I, Part II, and Part III.) I also described my own efforts to build/improve pollinator habitats and promised an update in the future. So, here it is. I own two local parcels of land, a 0.15 acre plot at my house in northwestern Chapel Hill and a 16 acre tract two miles west of Carrboro which I operate as a hobby farm. Over the past several years, I have been making attempts to expand and improve pollinator habitats at both locations. At my house, I have planted several perennial and annual flowerbeds to provide nectar as food. I have also cultivated plants such as milkweed, dill, and parsley that provide food for butterfly and moth caterpillars. These efforts have led to a small but discernible increase in the number of pollinator visits. Results at my farm have been more noteworthy. Approximately 14 of the 16 acres of the land are forested and two small brooks that provide water for all sorts of wildlife border the property. In the cleared area, I have been growing vegetables, raising chickens, and planting large beds of native wildflowers. In...

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Alkali Burns at Pine Gate Apartments

As was previously reported by the news department at www.chapelboro.com, on July 8th, 10 people and 3 pets who reside at Pine Gate Apartments in Chapel Hill received chemical burns when they came in contact with an alkali-based paint removal product called Stripper Cream. As I was following the incident, I was reminded that popular culture teaches us to be afraid of acids, which is certainly appropriate, but generally overlooks the fact that alkali burns can be far worse. So let me explain why the high end of the pH range (strong bases) can be far more hazardous than the low end (strong acids). To understand what happened at Pine Gate, we need to review the science of solutions, as well as some details of acid and base chemistry. As you probably know, water is a great solvent. Often when materials are dissolved in water, they are completely disassembled into their constituent atoms. For example, table salt (NaCl) contains sodium and chlorine atoms which are bonded together in a crystal structure. If you immerse table salt in water, the crystal structure is ripped apart into individual sodium and chlorine atoms that now float around in the water on their own. In the process of being torn asunder by the water, the sodium and chlorine atoms acquire an electric charge. The sodium atoms end up with one fewer negatively-charged electrons...

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The Science of Hail

It’s summer here in the Southern Part of Heaven and that means it’s time for hail storms. So I thought a column on the science of hail would be timely. Plus, my wife recently asked me a question about hail and my explanation was a bit disorganized, so I hope this one is an improvement. Any discussion of hail should begin with a review of the temperature of the air as a function of altitude. As North Carolinians who head to the mountains in the summer know, the air gets cooler as you get higher above sea level. On...

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Missing Microbes Part IV: Epilogue

This is the conclusion of my four-part review of Missing Microbes, How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fueling our Modern Plagues, by Dr. Martin Blaser, head of the Human Microbiome Research Project at New York University. Part I explained how the human body evolved to depend on the services of its resident bacteria species, collectively the microbiome. Part II detailed the significant negative health problems that can occur when some necessary bacteria are not present in the microbiome. Part III covered some of the potential solutions to these problems. In the first three parts of this series, I tried...

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Missing Microbes Part III: Potential Solutions

This is Part III of IV of my review of Missing Microbes, How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fueling our Modern Plagues, by Dr. Martin Blaser, head of the Human Microbiome Research Project at New York University. Part I explained how the human body evolved to depend on the services of its resident bacteria, collectively the microbiome. Part II detailed why many people are missing important bacteria species from their microbiomes and the significant health problems that can occur when that happens. This week in Part III, I will discuss some of the potential solutions to those problems. Americans...

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Missing Microbes Part II: The Plague of our Times

This is Part II of my four-part series reviewing the key issues covered in Missing Microbes, How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fueling our Modern Plagues, by Martin J. Blaser, MD. In Part I, I explained that the human body has co-evolved with slate of resident bacteria, collectively our microbiome, which performs a number of vital biological tasks for us. Our reliance on these bacteria can correctly be inferred from the noteworthy fact that approximately 99% of the DNA within our bodies is theirs, not ours. Over the past several decades, due to both an increasing number of babies...

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