News & Politics

Eureka?

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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 theory—that one could harness such fuel by shrinking
hydrogen atoms into so-called hydrinos—has 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 plasmas—hot, 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 speeds—to
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 quarter—the 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 work—we’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
Mills’s paper doesn’t mention them, either. Rather, the report simply
notes that these high-energy plasmas are created only with the company’s
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 BlackLight’s experiments wouldn’t 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 shouldn’t 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 square—he answered all the questions.”

The debate over Mills’s 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.