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EHydrino and metal compounds make for super-strong coatings, some of which could make ships rustproof, dramatically reducing crew complements.
There are "millions and millions of possible combinations" in the commercial world, Mills says, revealing himself as a practical, earthy businessman.
These qualities emerged in his teens when he made good money raising corn and hay on land he leased. He had no college plans, and skipped so many high school classes his diploma was in doubt. But when he sliced up his hand and arm in an accident falling into a glass door, the five hours of surgery rattled his sense of immortality.
"At that point," Mills recalls, "I figured if I'm going to die eventually, I'd like to at least know why. I wanted to know how it works. All of it, from the human brain to the universe."
He used profits from the farm to cover the tuition at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he graduated first in his class. After that he breezed through medical school at Harvard University, while simultaneously taking science courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The son of a farmer, and a farmer himself, turned out to be an academic superstar.
"It's the American story," says Dr. Robert Park of the American Physical Society. "But he's still wrong."
Park has concluded that the hydrino theory is wrong in his upcoming book, Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud. Park is not alone is being rankled by hydrinos. The hydrogen atom is the simplest, most common, and most tested element. It's nearly universally agreed that a free-floating hydrogen atom is in what's called "the ground state"you can't bring its electron closer into its nucleus. Telling physicists that they've got that wrong is like telling mothers across America that they've misunderstood apple pie. It's that fundamental.
"If you could fuck around with the hydrogen atom, you could fuck around with the energy process in the sun. You could fuck around with life itself," claims Dr. Phillip Anderson, a Nobel laureate in physics at Princeton University. "Everything we know about everything would be a bunch of nonsense. That's why I'm so sure that it's a fraud."
Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist based at City University of New York, adds that "the only law that this business with Mills is proving is that a fool and his money are easily parted." Kaku is a cofounder of "string"-field theory, which posits that all matter and energy are actually manifestations of vibrations occurring in 11 dimensions. String-field theory, considered radical when it was introduced, is now pretty much the only game in town for mainstream physicists seeking a grand unified theory.
BlackLight Power boosters scoff that they've seen no practical application of quantum theory since the atomic bomb and nuclear power, and say they have little time for theorists who call Mills a charlatan while teaching that the fundamental mechanics of cause and effect are subverted at the subatomic level. Mills's camp responds: Fraud? Let's talk about fraud. Quantumists have us living in myriad dimensions filled with "probability waves" and unobservable "virtual particles" that flit in and out of existence, and they say we may one day slip through wormholes in space to visit other universes or go back in time.
Kaku insists that such seemingly far-out visions direct us toward truths we can't yet see, whereas Mills, Kaku contends, is promoting something already shown to be impossible.
"I'll have demonstrated an entirely new form of energy production by the end of 2000," Mills responds. "If Dr. Kaku has escaped our universe through a wormhole by then, I'll send my first $1000 in profits to his new address."
And there's the nub, Mills's critics also charge. They're talking the scientific method, and he's already spending his profits.
"The history of science in America since money became so easily available to people making outrageous claims has gotten very complicated," says Dr. Robert Cava, a materials science expert at Princeton. "Scientists are constantly in competition and constantly under extreme scrutiny. Don't think it's a picnic. So when someone comes along and makes a big splash without going through the rigors of peer review, it makes us think that the guy has no business doing it."
Dr. Richard Wilson, a research professor of physics at Harvard who says he's still skeptical of Mills's theory after a visit to BlackLight Power's labs, says the culture clash between scientists and captains of industry is natural.
"In my experience in science," Wilson says, "no one's more gullible than the wildcatter in the oil industry. But they're both gullible and successful. Sometimes they happen to be right. They take chances. That's their game, but that's not what scientists usually do."
The booming stock market of the 1990s has loosed a torrent of cash in all industries, but wallets have been especially fat in the U.S. utility industry in the last couple of years since that $215 billion business began deregulating. States have pushed electric companies to sell power plants to new competitors at open auctions. The result: In addition to coal, they have cash to burn.