Twenty years ago it appeared, for a moment, that all our energy problems could be solved. It was the announcement of cold fusion – nuclear energy like that which powers the sun – but at room temperature on a table top. It promised to be cheap, limitless and clean. Cold fusion would end our dependence on the Middle East and stop those greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. It would change everything.
But then, just as quickly as it was announced, it was discredited. So thoroughly, that cold fusion became a catch phrase for junk science. Well, a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion – for many scientists today, cold fusion is hot again.
“We can yield the power of nuclear physics on a tabletop. The potential is unlimited. That is the most powerful energy source known to man,” researcher Michael McKubre told 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley.
McKubre says he has seen that energy more than 50 times in cold fusion experiments he’s doing at SRI International, a respected California lab that does extensive work for the government.
McKubre is an electro-chemist who imagines, in 20 years, the creation of a clean nuclear battery. “For example, a laptop would come pre-charged with all of the energy that you would ever intend to use. You’re now decoupled from your charger and the wall socket,” he explained.
Magicians have long created the illusion of levitating objects in the air. Now researchers have actually levitated an object, suspending it without the need for external support. Working at the molecular level, the researchers relied on the tendency of certain combinations of molecules to repel each other at close contact, effectively suspending one surface above another by a microscopic distance.
Researchers from Harvard University and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have measured, for the first time, a repulsive quantum mechanical force that could be harnessed and tailored for a wide range of new nanotechnology applications.
The study, led by Federico Capasso, Robert L. Wallace Professor of Applied Physics at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), will be published as the January 8 cover story of Nature.
The discovery builds on previous work related to what is called the Casimir force. While long considered only of theoretical interest, physicists discovered that this attractive force, caused by quantum fluctuations of the energy associated with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, becomes significant when the space between two metallic surfaces, such as two mirrors facing one another, measures less than about 100 nanometers.
Finally experiments have been funded to test the viability of diamond mechanosynthesis as described in detail by Robert Freitas and Ralph Merkle. This is a major step towards achieving the long held vision of molecular nanotechnology as envisioned by Eric Drexler.
Professor Philip Moriarty of the Nanoscience Group in the School of Physics at the University of Nottingham (U.K.) has been awarded a five-year £1.67M ($3.3M) grant by the U.K. Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to perform a series of laboratory experiments designed to investigate the possibility of diamond mechanosynthesis (DMS). DMS is a proposed method for building diamond nanostructures, atom by atom, using the techniques of scanning probe microscopy under ultra-high vacuum conditions. Moriarty’s project, titled “Digital Matter? Towards Mechanised Mechanosynthesis,” was funded under the Leadership Fellowship program of EPSRC. Moriarty’s experiments begin in October 2008.
This is an important step for nanotechnology.