Times are tough on Robert Mills Sr.'s 91-acre grain farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania. "This year is very, very bad," he confides. "I'm glad the kids got out."
His eldest, Robert Jr., has a water well drilling business, his daughter Raeleen is a massage therapist. And his younger son, Randell, recently bought a 53,000-square-foot space satellite manufacturing plant near Princeton, New Jersey, from Lockheed Martin. He then stocked it with millions of dollars of high-tech gear. Here the younger Mills plans to overturn quantum theory as it's been understood for decades.
Randell Mills, a Harvard-trained medical doctor who also studied biotechnology and electric engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says he's found the Holy Grail of physics: a unified theory of everything. A central part of Mills's theory explains the basis of the traditional, and paradoxical, "duality" concept of the electron as both a particle and a wave with a model where electrons are charges that travel as two-dimensional disks and wrap around nuclei like fluctuating soap bubbles. He calls them "orbitspheres."
Mills says that with this new understanding he's produced clean and limitless energy and an entirely new class of materials and plasma that will reshape every industry in the coming decade. Mills also claims breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, cosmology, medicine, and perhaps even a form of gravitational jujitsu.
"I've made the electron real," the 42-year-old Mills says. "It's a revolution very fitting to the 21st century, in a chain of revolutions man has had with fire, steel, fossil fuels, and Maxwell's description of electromagnetism. This is grandiose stuff, and when I say it, it delivers a beating from critics. But on the other hand it's fun."
Though the topics he broaches could be coming from a B-movie mad scientist, Mills's cadences are more often like those of a motivational speaker. He moves his six-foot-five frame with athletic ease and drives a BMW sports car. He and his wife, an investment banker, have two young sons and another child due in March.
His company, BlackLight Power Inc., formed in 1991, expects to receive in January patents on the energy and chemicals, which Mills says derive from "shrinking" the hydrogen atom's orbitsphere. BlackLight Power, with a research staff of 25, will submit its findings to premier scholarly journals by that time, he adds.
Despite howls from the scientific establishment that Mills is a relic of the "cold fusion" trend quashed a decade ago, BlackLight Power Inc. has raised more than $25 million from about 150 investors. While that's hardly a huge sum in this Internet-crazed era, it's coming from serious money and energy people. Prominent among them are multibillion-dollar electric utilities PacifiCorp, based in Oregon, and Conectiv, which serves Mid-Atlantic states. RS Funds, Eastbourne Capital Management, and executives retired from the top echelon of Morgan Stanley have also put in millions. With Mills holding on to controlling shares, BlackLight Power now is turning away private investors.
"I'm impressed with how Randy's gone about this," a retired Morgan Stanley executive says, "with experiments to test the theory at every step. And the potential payoff is almost unimaginable."
Conectiv senior vice president David Blake concurs: "We're past the scientific verification stage. The talk now is about commercial applications," perhaps within seven years, he says. Blake sits on the BlackLight Power board of directors.
Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. is considering a public offering of BlackLight Power stock in 2000. The investment bank says that the two chief needs that will trigger an IPO are a licensing agreement with a "household name company" and more substantial academic validation of its technologies. BlackLight Power is in discussions with DaimlerChrysler, and three major corporations are already examining materials it has produced, say Mills and company executives.
In the next year, Mills promises, the revolution will be "hydrinoized."
In one of BlackLight Power's cavernous laboratories sits the prototype energy-and chemical-producing cell that is the heart of Mills's ambitions. Mills explains that in this contraption, resembling a souped-up home furnace, water is electrically then catalytically broken down into atoms of oxygen and hydrogen. Potassium atoms are introduced as a gas into the very low-pressure hydrogen gas waiting inside the cell. Under specific conditions, the potassium acts as a catalyst to collapse hydrogen's electron orbit. The energy once used to maintain the higher orbit is released as ultra-violet light, Mills says.
The heat from that process can build pressure to turn a turbine for a generator or an engine, BlackLight Power notes in a marketing plan. The smaller hydrogen atoms, called "hydrinos," remaining in the cell can then react with other elements placed there to form novel compounds with amazing properties, Mills claims. "This will change how most everyday things in the 21st century are made and used," he says. For example:
EHydrinos combined with inorganic elements produce conductive, magnetic plastics that would revolutionize circuitry and aerospace engineering, and shrink and speed up semiconductors.
EHydrinos combined with highly oxygenated matter would form the basis of batteries the size of a briefcase to drive your car 1000 miles at highway speeds on a single charge, without gasoline.
EOne type of hydrino combined with an acid would produce incredibly powerful explosives or rocket propellants.
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.
A chunk of that money has been earmarked for new energy alternatives to fossil fuels, reflecting mounting concerns about global warming that have coalesced with long-standing unease with North American, European, and East Asian dependency on unstable regions for oil supplies. In the political climate of the U.S. at least, nuclear power isn't an option.
Of course popular "green," or environmentally sensitive, energy sources like solar, wind, and small-scale hydroelectric power don't require revisions to science textbooks. Mills says BlackLight Power is moving first on the energy and materials front, even though he's more credentialed in medicine, mostly because there are fewer regulatory hassles.
Out back behind Mills's laboratories is what is essentially a 150-ton thermos that he says will be the core of his first power plant. Lockheed Martin used it to test satellite components for the cold vacuum of space. But shielding on its one-inch-thick skin could also hold in heat produced by banks of Mills's cells placed inside. Old power plants could be retrofitted with BlackLight Power reactors, which would produce no emissions or hazardous waste, Mills says.
Conectiv has the right to license the BlackLight power process to make electricity, David Blake says. Another board member is Shelby Brewer, former chairman and CEO of ABB Combustion Engineering, a leading maker of power plants and nuclear fuel. Brewer has a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from MIT, and was a top nuclear official in the Department of Energy during the Reagan administration.
"I think he has something here worth taking forward commercially," says Brewer, who now has his own energy company. But even those who say they've gotten positive results from testing Mills's energy cells stop short of endorsing his theory.
Dr. Johannes Conrads, former director of the Institute for Low Temperature Plasma Physics at Ernst Moritz Arndt University in Greifswald, Germany, told a gathering of the American Chemical Society in October that he was able to produce "remarkably high energy" from a Mills cell. But Conrads said he thought the energy could be coming from an effect within dense regions of plasma produced through the BlackLight Power process.
Dr. John A. Spitznagel, chief scientist for Siemens Westinghouse Power Corp.'s science and technology center in Pittsburgh, says that several years ago he too was intrigued by energy he was getting from a Mills cell, but that it wasn't enough to pursue at that time. But he remains "in a sort of monitoring mode" should Mills return with further verifications and the more refined approach that BlackLight Power claims to have developed.
Despite many qualms about the hydrino theory, Spitznagel says that he believes Mills "speaks with honesty and conviction." Spitznagel notes that one reason Mills didn't pursue further energy work with Siemens Westinghouse was that BlackLight Power focused for a time on the novel compounds Mills was producing.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists were also encouraged that the Mills cell seemed to be producing energy, but they couldn't rule out alternatives to the hydrino effect as the cause, says Dr. Janis Niedra of NASA's Glenn Research Center. Niedra broke with many other scientists in a letter following an interview, writing that while Mills's theory butts up against popular interpretations of quantum mechanics, "in fact, however, quantum mechanics may permit such [hydrino electron] levels."
If Mills is right, Niedra wrote, "not only would such transitions give off hard UV light, but also the probability of room temperature nuclear fusion of the shrunken hydrogen, or deuterium, atoms would be greatly increased. The continuation of such processes to higher atomic numbers would of course emulate the power generation of a star! Considering the potential value of a new energy source, it seems worthwhile to restudy the Mills [proto]type cell in configurations allowing an accurate account for recombination and water loss."
When two nuclei are forced to fuse under high temperatures and pressures, copious amounts of energy are released. It's the power behind the hydrogen bomb and the sun. But two generations of physicists have failed to master nuclear fusion despite the billions of government dollars sunk into it.
Attempts to achieve cold fusion, the same result without adding great heat and pressure, have been given the cold shoulder since 1989 when two chemists in Salt Lake City cried "Eureka!" in the media but then couldn't provide others with a systematic way of reproducing their claims. The backlash was so virulent that government and university research grant writers run from anything that smacks of cold fusion.
Mills is adamant that his work is unrelated to cold fusion, even as diehards in the field attempt to claim him as their own. Dr. Charles Haldeman says he also was tripped up in cold-fusion phobia after he produced excess energy from several variations of a Mills cell while a senior staff member at the Air Force's MIT-managed Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts.
"I got pretty good gain compared to the power I was putting in. The effect wasn't as large as Mills was getting, but it was in the direction that was predicted," Haldeman says. Because the results were smaller than he'd hoped, which he now says may have been due to contaminated materials, he wasn't in a position to fight management when funding was stopped.
"They said, 'There must be some other error that you're not including,' but I couldn't figure out what it might be and neither could they," Haldeman says. "This area is clearly not well understood. There's clearly incontrovertible evidence that there's something going on in the work of Mills and others that certainly deserves further study. It's a tragedy that the politics of cold fusion has prevented science from taking its course."
Michael Jacox, assistant director of Texas A&M's Commercial Space Center for Engineering and a nuclear engineer, says he felt compelled to study the Mills cell in relative secrecy when he was a research scientist for the Department of Energy. While at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, Jacox says he read about the Mills cell and decided in 1991 to perform independent experiments along with electrochemical experts on staff in battery development.
"We actually purchased a total of three large electrolytic cells and conducted very controlled experiments," Jacox says. "We followed the protocols Randy suggested and followed his technique and we got the same results he had," Jacox says. "We were encouraged but we determined that what we had was probably not sufficient to break a news release, especially with [cold fusion] going sour so soon before."
The team began more thorough testing, Jacox says, including side-by-side comparisons of catalyzed cells and control cells, when his bosses suddenly balked.
"In the middle of that process there was a management decision that said we should pull the plug on the whole project and not disclose that we had been involved in the project at all," Jacox says. The team decided to instead investigate hydrino compounds in "almost a clandestine operation."
"We probably have hundreds of different projects going on at all times, and this isn't one I was aware was going on," says John Walsh, a spokesman for the Idaho lab.
Researchers at other well-known government labs also say they are afraid to speak on record about their interest in Mills's work. One said that he plans to visit BlackLight Power on his vacation time. Jacox says his team found in the materials "an anomaly that we could not explain with conventional theory but that we could explain with Randy Mills's theory. That does not necessarily validate the Mills theory, but gosh."
Jacox continued to be frustrated by the proscription against testing Mills cells, "so I left the lab in large measure because of that."
Applied scientists have a rigorous standard in their work that is sometimes referred to as the Kmart Test. In other words, can the research at hand lead to an off-the-shelf product? By this criterion, the materials wing of BlackLight Power has great potential. Energy is a messy thing to measure, but as Mills says, "the good thing about materials is that they exist, or they don't. There's no argument."
BlackLight Power's marketing people say they expect far more profits from compounds than from the energy released by hydrinos. The energy portion could even be seen as a mere spin-off of the chemical manufacturing that should simply be used, rather than wasted. Even the unpersuaded Professor Wilson of Harvard offers, "Maybe he hasn't found the gold of a grand unified theory, but there could be some silver there" in the hydrino compounds.
Tests at Lehigh University are interesting, confirms Dr. Alfred Miller, a senior research scientist there who has tested BlackLight Power's compounds. Miller probed the energy levels of the atoms by bombarding them with X rays and measuring the energy of the electrons leaving the atomsa technique called X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy. "I try and exhaust all possibilities and there really aren't an enormous number of conventional explanations" for what he found.
Miller emphasizes that he didn't want his tests being interpreted as unequivocally confirming the hydrino theory, but "over the years I haven't really come across too many things that haven't been explainable. At least if you thought about it long enough and hard enough."
Because Mills has produced freely available physical materials and has been "incredibly more open in getting people to confirm what his hypothesis predicts . . . this is not the equivalent of cold fusion," Miller says. "He's serious and honest. . . . He may well have ventured upon something."
Ricerca Inc.'s lab east of Cleveland was similarly flummoxed by what it found when studying BlackLight Power's materials. "They were inorganic compounds that have organic properties. That is unusual," says Dr. Yong-Xi Li, manager of Ricerca's advanced mass spectrometry lab. "We totally don't know what's going on. The reason is that I've never seen before these kinds of properties in all my career. Probably we have to do more work."
The BlackLight Power research has excited the U.S. Navy, but the company isn't entirely thrilled with that. "It's kind of like letting a lion loose in the building," Mills remarks. "You have to remember that their goal is to find better ways of killing. But there are worse militaries [than that of the U.S.] out there."
Board members have another concern about getting too deeply involved with the armed forces. Some say they fear that the military could "black out" the project, making it a national security secret. That would deprive the company of other commercial prospects.
The issue came up at a BlackLight Power board meeting, according to sources. Executives at the meeting urged Mills to refer to energetic materials as potential propellants, and not explosives, even though a rocket is just a controlled explosion. One source says Mills bridled at the inherent intellectual dishonesty in the euphemism.
"That would be as if I pointed a duck gun at you and said not to worry, because it only kills ducks," Mills reportedly said.
BlackLight Power and researchers at the weapons division of the Naval Air Warfare Center at China Lake, California, confirm that they are heading toward a research and development pact that would allow the navy to produce energy and materials from hydrinos and to develop applications of the new compounds. A spokeswoman for the Indian Head Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Maryland says in ane-mail letter that after a meeting with Mills "there was considerable interest in the reported properties of the new hydrogen-containing compounds, and in obtaining samples for independent analysis and evaluation."
BlackLight Power's newest board member is retired vice admiral Michael P. Kalleres, who commanded the U.S. fleet in the Atlantic during the Gulf War and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's Striking Fleet. He's also a consultant for the Defense Science Board and the Naval Studies Board of the National Academy of Science.
"I feel very confident in what [Mills] has created," Kalleres says. He adds that he has no investment in BlackLight Power and takes no salary from the company, although he anticipates an option to invest later. After observing the company's practices for years, he believes that it's produced things of which the military should make use.
Ships with hydrino material cladding would likely be stealthy and rustproof, Kalleres says. Eliminating rust could radically reduce crews on some ships, savings millions of dollars.
It's not just BlackLight Power's work in bombs, rockets, and rusty ships that has the military's attention. Mills has stacks of proprietary research on artificial intelligence. In what he calls Brain Child Systems, Mills has done the math for a reasoning machine with consciousness. To advance the project, Mills may soon enter into a collaboration with the Institute for Simulation and Training at the University of Central Florida, which does the bulk of its work for the military.
But Mills wasn't thinking of the military when he began his work in artificial intelligence. Mills has a lifelong dream of making spaceships to travel at near light speed, and he says that only a mind with the switching rates of a computer could pilot them. A human brain, which Mills disdains as "wet processing," would fly into a rock before its owner could blink.
If spaceships are to hit such speeds, NASA scientists agree that rockets are a dead end. Mills says the answer may again lie in the electron, which according to his theory might be made to respond negatively to gravity. He quickly emphasizes that this part of his work awaits experimentation, and he has kept quiet about it so far because he's quite aware of how his critics will ridicule it. Mills is uncharacteristically coy in referring to the antigravity machine as a "relativity device."
There was a moment when it seemed NASA engineers might look into Mills's antigravity theory. Luke Setzer, a mechanical engineer at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida requested permission to investigate the idea's potential. Setzer says as a mechanical engineer, he's more intuitively comfortable with Mills's deterministic view of the universe.
Engineers, he says, "are used to classical physics. Mills applies classical physics to the subatomic level." Setzer was encouraged by his two managers to pursue the work, but after NASA physicists objected, "I dropped the whole thing." Without their nod, there would be no funding. "One of them kept referring to 'fictional energy' rather than theoretical energy" after glancing at Mills's self-published thousand-page tome, The Grand Unified Theory of Classical Quantum Mechanics (1995), Setzer says. "That kind of language tells me they're already shutting their minds to possibilities."
Setzer also plans to visit BlackLight Power's labs on his vacation time. "I think he's a real Renaissance man," Setzer says. "And even if reality is different than his theory, it could still be another source of energy. The Mills theory may accurately predict previously inexplicable phenomena. That doesn't mean that he's right, but string theory seems less well defined than Mills's theory yet is more accepted than Mills's."
Marc Millis, who is leading NASA's Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project, says that a major reason for not pursuing BlackLight Power projects is that tight budgets dictate that administrators approach ideas with a triage mind-set. "If someone else has the funds to get behind an idea, why should we redouble that?" he asks. "We have to use our resources for things that look promising and we know we'll have to do for ourselves."
The craft Mills imagines would be made of hydrino compounds and powered by hydrino engines and batteries. There would be pods containing intersecting helium and electron beams under a negatively charged plate. The electrons in the beam would be deformed in such a way that they would oppose gravity and push up against that electric field of the negative plate, Mills theorizes. Anything attached to the plate would also experience lift.
Every part of the craft, except the electrons, is still subject to gravity. "Once you've got it up, what would you use to travel horizontally?" Mills asks.
Mills gently waves that solution away. "Too inelegant. Try a flywheel to play off angular momentum," he suggests, "and the craft itself would act as an airfoil."
Yes, that would be a flying saucer.
The universe his flying saucers would explore was not made in six days nor in a big bang, Mills says.
"The Big Bang is not a theory. It's a fact," Dr. Michio Kaku claimed at a recent lecture at the New York Public Library.
Mills argues that the universe is forever oscillating between matter and energy over thousand-billion-year cycles, expanding and contracting between finite set points. In fact, he says, the universe doesn't get much smaller than it is now.
His theory predicted in clear language two recent astronomical discoveriesone, the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, and, two, there are stars that measure as older than the expansion of the universe itself.
He also says hydrinos explain several mysteries about the sun and are the unidentified "dark matter" that astrophysicists say makes up most of the universe. Mills sees the conversion of matter into energy as the engine of universal expansion. Einstein and others showed that a mass creates a dimple in space-time. As that mass burns itself out, throwing off energy, that dimple formed by gravity is smoothed, causing the universe to expand, Mills explains.
"The sun is turning matter into energy every second; that forces the universe to expand," Mills says. "Even, in the tiniest way, the chemical reactions in your body are pushing the universe out."
Eventually all of this action expends itself until the universe becomes a giant cloud of photons that begin to gather into themselves to create matter again.
"You're existing, maintaining your internal order as a life-form, at the expense of your surroundings. The more you do to keep yourself as you are, in that order, a being as opposed to inanimate matter, the universe is going to decay at a faster rate. Eventually your borrowed time runs out and then it's dust to dust," Mills says. "It's sad, but that unfortunately is how it is.
"It's a beautiful thing that we can exist the way that we do for the time that we do and people should appreciate it," he says.
Does it all start over again in exactly the same way, as some religions teach? Is there a God?
Mills is at first curt. "That can't be experimentally tested, so I won't speculate on it." But then he adds, "There are some questions science will never answer. That's where you have faith."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.
- Seventeen Millennials Arrested as Police Bust Elaborate Credit Card Scheme
- Video: Brooklyn Flag-Burning Protest Erupts in a Few Almost-Fights
- The NYPD Has Installed Cameras Across the City So You Won't Be Tempted to Set Off...