In the early part of the 20th Century physicists theorized that a mysterious force held the nucleus of an atom together. When it was demonstrated that this force could be tapped, releasing tremendous amounts of energy, a wave of excitement swept the scientific world. It took only a few short years before atomic energy theories were experimentally validated in the first nuclear weapon detonations. Hiroshima and Nagasaki followed. Most of us alive today were born under the mushroom cloud that has loomed over humanity ever since. Accessing the power of the strong nuclear force has been a mixed blessing: it has brought the possibility of energy beyond our wildest dreams but with nightmarish consequences that were literally unimaginable a generation ago.
That physicists would become enamored of the strong nuclear force is understandable: the energy locked in the nucleus of the atom is potent, it is real, and the challenge of harnessing it for useful purposes has become the “holy grail” of scientific endeavor.
But could another, more subtle, “fundamental force” hold the key to our energy future?
The Fundamental Forces of Nature and the Weak Force
Of the four fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, strong nuclear force and weak nuclear force), the “weak force” is the most enigmatic. Whereas the other three forces act through attraction/repulsion mechanisms, the weak force is responsible for transmutations – changing one element into another – and incremental shifts between mass and energy at the nuclear level.
Simply put, the weak force is the way Nature seeks stability. Stability at the nuclear level permits elements to form, which make up all of the familiar stuff of our world. Without the stabilizing action of the weak force, the material world, including our physical bodies, would not exist. The weak force is responsible for the radioactive decay of heavy (radioactive) elements into their lighter, more stable forms. But the weak force is also at work in the formation of the lightest of elements, hydrogen and helium, and all the elements in between.
A good way to understand the weak force is in comparison with the actions of the other forces at work in the center of the Sun. The Sun, although extraordinarily hot (10 million degrees), is cool enough for the constituent parts of matter, quarks, to clump together to form protons. A proton is necessary to form an element, which occurs when it attracts an electron – the simplest case being hydrogen, which is composed of a single proton and a single electron. By the force of gravity, protons are pulled together until two of them touch – but because of the electrostatic repulsion of their two positive charges, their total energy becomes unstable and one of the protons undergoes a form of radioactive decay, turning it into a neutron and emitting a positron (the antiparticle of an electron) and a neutrino. This action forms a deuteron (one proton and one neutron), which is more stable than the two repelling protons. This transmutation of proton into neutron plus beta particles is mediated by the weak force.
A neutron is slightly heavier, and therefore less stable, than a proton. So the normal action of the weak force causes a neutron to decay into a proton, an electron and a neutrino. At any rate, at the center of the Sun, once a deuteron is formed, it will fuse with another free proton to form helium-3 (one neutron and two protons), releasing tremendous amounts of energy. These helium-3 atoms then fuse to form helium-4 and releasing two more protons and more energy. The release of energy in these fusion reactions from the strong force is what powers the Sun. But the entire process is set in motion by the weak force.
Enter “Cold Fusion”
When in 1989 Pons and Fleishman stunned the world by reporting nuclear reaction signatures at room temperatures, physicists were understandably baffled and skeptical. Given that virtually all nuclear physicists at the time were trained in the powerful energies of the strong force, table top fusion made no sense. The fact that the phenomenon was dubbed “cold fusion” was unfortunate and likely contributed to almost universal rejection by the scientific community. Standard theoretical models were not able to explain how cold fusion might even be possible and unless it could be understood it was pointless and a waste of time. A comment attributed to Wolfgang Pauli describes the reaction of most physicists at the time: “its not right; its not even wrong”. Without a coherent theory to explain it, it wasn’t even science at all.
This all changed in 2006 with the publication of a paper in the peer-reviewed The European Physical Journal by Allan Widom and Louis Larsen titled “Ultra low momentum neutron catalyzed nuclear reactions on metallic hydride surfaces”.
In this paper for the first time a theoretical basis was put forth that explained many of the anomalous results being reported by experimentalists in the new field of Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) – and the common explanatory action was the weak force.
As explained by Dennis Bushnell, Chief Scientist at NASA Langley Research Center in his article “Low Energy Nuclear Reactions, the Realism and the Outlook”:
“The Strong Force Particle physicists have evidently been correct all along. “Cold Fusion” is not possible. However, via collective effects/ condensed matter quantum nuclear physics, LENR is allowable without any “miracles.” The theory states that once some energy is added to surfaces loaded with hydrogen/protons, if the surface morphology enables high localized voltage gradients, then heavy electrons leading to ultra low energy neutrons will form– neutrons that never leave the surface. The neutrons set up isotope cascades which result in beta decay, heat and transmutations with the heavy electrons converting the beta decay gamma into heat.”
Brief Description of Widom-Larsen Theory
Not everyone agrees that the Widom-Larsen Theory (“WLT”) accurately explains all, or even most, of the observed phenomenon in LENR experiments. But it is worth a brief look at what WLT proposes.
In the first step of WLT, a proton captures a charged lepton (an electron) and produces a neutron and a neutrino. No Coulomb barrier inhibits the reaction. In fact, a strong Coulomb attraction that can exist between an electron and a nucleus helps the nuclear transmutation proceed.
This process is well known to occur with muons, a type of lepton that can be thought of as very heavy electrons – the increased mass is what pulls the lepton into the nucleus. For this to occur with electrons in a condensed matter hydrogen system, local electromagnetic field fluctuations are induced to increase the mass of the electron. Thus, a “mass modified” hydrogen atom can decay into a neutron and a neutrino. These neutrons are born with ultra low momentum and, because of their long wavelength, get caught in the cavity formed by oscillating protons in the metal lattice.
These ultra low momentum neutrons, which do not escape the immediate vicinity of the cavity and are therefore difficult to detect, yield interesting reaction sequences. For example, helium-3 and helium-4 are produced often yielding large quantities of heat. WLT refers to these as neutron catalyzed nuclear reactions. As Dennis Bushnell explains: “the neutrons set up isotope cascades which result in beta decay, heat and transmutations.” Nuclear fusion does not occur and therefore there is no Coulomb barrier obstruction to the resulting neutron catalyzed nuclear reaction.
Brief Description of Brillouin Theory
Robert Godes of Brillouin Energy Corp., claims that WLT explains some, but not all, of the observed LENR phenomena. As Godes understands the process, metal hydrides stimulated with precise, narrow, high voltage, bipolar pulse frequencies (“Q-pulse”) cause protons or deuterons to undergo electron capture. The metal lattice stimulation by the Q-pulse reverses the natural decay of neutrons to protons, plus beta particles, catalyzing an electron capture in a first endothermic step. When the initial proton (or deuteron) is confined in the metal lattice and the total Hamiltonian (total energy of the system) reaches a certain threshold level by means of the Q-pulse stimulation, an ultra cold neutron is formed. This ultra cold neutron occupies a position in the lattice where dissolved hydrogen tunnels and undergoes transmutation, forming a cascade of transmutations – deuteron, triton, quadrium – by capturing the cold neutron and releasing binding energy. Such a cascading reaction will result in a beta decay transmutation to helium-4, plus heat.
The Q pulse causes a dramatic increase of the phonon activity, driving the system far out of equilibrium. When this energy reaches a threshold level, neutron production via electron capture becomes a natural path to bring the system back to stability.
Theory and Experiment
Other well-known LENR theorists have implicated the weak force, including Peter Hagelstein, Tadahiko Mizuno, Yasuhiro Iwamura and Mitchell Swartz. The project now, as with all scientific endeavor, is to match experimental evidence to theory. The hope is that the electron capture/weak force theories will help guide new, even more successful experiments. This process will also allow theorists to add refinement and new thinking to their models. I am reminded of the two “laws” of physicists proposed by an early weak force pioneer:
1. Without experimentalists, theorists tend to drift.
2. Without theorists, experimentalists tend to falter.
(T.D. Lee, as quoted in “The Weak Force: From Fermi to Feynman” by A. Lesov).
Experimentalists have been reporting anomalous heat from metal hydrides since before Pons and Fleischmann. But without a cogent theory, they have had to rely on ad hoc, trial and error methods. Given this state of affairs, the progress made in the LENR field in the last twenty years is remarkable. Perhaps we are now at the beginning of a new era in which theoretical models will guide a rapid transformation of the science.
Scientists have focused on the strong nuclear force due to the immense power that can be released from breaking the nuclear bond. Less attention has been paid to the weak force, which causes transmutations and the release of energy in more subtle ways. Recent theories that explain many of the phenomena observed in low energy nuclear reactions (LENR) implicate the weak force. We are now at the stage where theory and experiment begin to complement each other to allow for the rapid transformation of the new science of LENR.
By David Niebauer
Journalistic disclosure: David Niebauer is general legal counsel to Brillouin Energy Corp.
Image: Nuclear Word Association via Shutterstock