By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
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By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
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Randell Mills has pledged for a decade to spark a revolution in physics that will not only overturn much of the atomic science that been taught and rewarded since the early 20th century, but will also provide a source of clean and nearly limitless energy.
But his centerpiece theorythat one could harness such fuel by shrinking hydrogen atoms into so-called hydrinoshas never fired so much as a single light bulb for public confirmation. A casual observer would say that instead of changing the world, Mills has built a cult following and a company, BlackLight Power Inc., embroiled in lawsuits over lost patents and continually broadsided by critics in the scientific media. More quietly, however, some scientists are taking notice. The National Aeronautic and Space Administration dispatched mechanical engineering professor Anthony Marchese from Rowan University to BlackLight's labs in Cranbury, NJ, to investigate whether energy plasmashot, charged gases produced by Mills might be harnessed for a new generation of rockets. Marchese reported back to his sponsor on Monday, the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, that indeed the plasma was so far unexplainably energetic.
"Something interesting, something unexplained is happening in those cells," Marchese told the Voice. For now, the energy appears to be just hydrogen atoms bouncing around randomly at extremely high speedsto create thrust for a rocket, in his next phase of research, Marchese will have to find a way to direct them out of the nozzle. Still, his findings indicate that Mills may indeed be on to something. Meanwhile, Mills's research is getting another kind of validation, from a perhaps even more surprising quarterthe stringent academic press. A paper by Mills and BlackLight research staff on their plasma work is set to appear next week in the prestigious Journal of Applied Physics. "I've been avoiding the media because we've gotten hit pretty hard there," Mills says. "But we've been publishing academic papers at a remarkably steady rate. I love this workwe're not slowing down."
The editor of the Journal of Applied Physics, James Viccaro, defends the decision to give space to the maverick. "His paper underwent formal review and was accepted for publication based on review. The findings are quite interesting and the reviewers found them relevant to the field," Viccaro says. "I'm actually kind of interested to see what happens now, when the news hits."
Marchese says he remains agnostic about the existence of hydrinos, and Millss paper doesnt mention them, either. Rather, the report simply notes that these high-energy plasmas are created only with the companys catalysts. Hydrino theory has been blasted as a crackpot idea, and a member of the Hydrino Study Group once wrote a comprehensive refutation of Mills' ideas in Skeptic Magazine. Astrophysicist Aaron Barth cited "errors in Mills work which render the hydrino idea meaningless as a physical theory." He also pointed out that Mills has given sloppy attribution for lengthy passages of standard physics background in endnotes rather than footnotes.
Marchese says BlackLights experiments wouldnt be difficult for a serious lab to reproduce. "I have not been one to explore anything beyond the fringes of science until this point in my career, and I may never do it again," says Marchese, 35, who got a $75,000 grant from NIAC to conduct the initial six-month investigation. The funding was mocked by Robert Park of the American Physical Society, best known as a debunker of what he terms voodoo science, as soon as it was announced. NIAC and Marchese proceeded anyway.
"I was there quite a bit and really looked around, kicked the tires, talked at length with their engineers, observed their experiments, and did my own," Marchese says. "I'm really pretty confident as I'm ever going to be that there's no fudging going on. For me to not continue with this study would be unethical to the scientific community. The only reason not to pursue this would be because of being afraid of being bullied."
Viccaro of Applied Physics knows the feeling. He says publication of the paper shouldnt be read as an embrace of hydrino theory. "I guess we are sticking our necks out, but I can't just reject it because I have some preconditioned thinking about it, Viccaro says. He made it through fair and squarehe answered all the questions."
The debate over Millss work has long since left the realm of pure science. Mills has won patents only to have them stripped away after public and private objections from people like Robert Park. Park even went so far as to falsely charge in Forbes magazine that Mills was claiming a cancer cure from hydrinos. In 1988, Mills published a paper on cancer therapy in the journal Nature that relied on conventional physics he hadn't conceived of the hydrino yet.
Still, it's been over a decade since Mills first proposed the hydrino theory and the public doesn't have so much as a flashlight based on it. As Skeptic publisher Michael Shermer says, "The proof is in the hydrino pudding. The question is, when are you going to have desktop hydrino pudding?"
Outsiders, even sympathetic ones, complain that the company has shifted its proving grounds from heat measurements to electricity from plasmas, to materials and now a dense liquid hydrogen. Mills describes the seemingly meandering work as a "whole laundry list of stuff, questions to answer as milestones to reach before commercialization. We've basically rammed things down over the past year and a half. We've gone through about 150 catalysts and 50 variant cells."
Investors have been patient. Having garnered about $30 million from prominent backers since the founding of his company, Mills says he's close to wrapping up the fundraising phase . "We're almost completely done with the core science. We're getting to the point where we're not going to need a lot of money, he explains. Our focus is on scaling up for commercial applications." One likely early product is a simple space heater, he says. If true, that would finally put the revolution squarely in the corner of the room.