4. Oct. 2021
The European Union's FET Proactive – Boosting Emerging Technologies program supports research and development projects that deliver radically new results with significant potential for use in science and technology. The international project HERMES, which deals with breakthrough energy production with zero emissions by means of cold fusion of the hydrogen-palladium system, also succeeded. A team of scientists from CEITEC BUT under the leadership of Jan Macák also participates in it.
In the project, you deal with the production of energy with zero emissions using a hydrogen-palladium system. Can you describe more precisely what it is?
In principle, we work on the assumption of cold fusion. This is simply a fusion that, unlike nuclear, can take place under laboratory conditions and at relatively low temperatures similar to room temperature. Scientists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons first came up with the idea, mixing a precious metal, specifically palladium, with hydrogen and finding that an enormous amount of heat was released during the reaction. For a better idea, they built a small reactor under laboratory conditions, working with palladium plates, into which they injected hydrogen. And they found out that a reaction was taking place that they had not yet named exactly. They published their study in 1989.
And how did the knowledge of cold fusion evolve?
In the 1990s, various scientific institutions around the world tried to replicate the experiment. Even famous institutions, such as Caltech, the California Institute of Technology, have commissioned prominent scientists. But no one managed to repeat it properly. So speculation began to emerge that it was a fraud. The whole thing was very controversial at that time, and this is the reason why it fell down into oblivion.
So why did you decide to work with this unconventional idea again right now?
We believe we can find out exactly how cold fusion occurs in palladium hydrides. The perception of cold fusion now seems to be reversing. It turns out to be one of the last, if not the last, under-explored options we have left if we want to achieve carbon neutrality. That is, of course, in addition to conventional nuclear energy and other alternative sources. It is necessary to return to this also because in those more than thirty years, everything has moved forward technologically. Techniques have changed to measure exactly what is happening in palladium atoms. And the synthetic capabilities of metals and their compounds have also improved. Techniques that did not exist before also emerged.
So what is the specific goal of your project?
We will try to replicate the experiment – we will take palladium nanoparticles with a large specific area per unit weight so that hydrogen has better access to the crystal lattice of the palladium particle and we will try to create substances called hydrides. Under certain conditions, you should be able to release a huge amount of energy. We will therefore try to replicate the previously described procedure as much as possible under standardized conditions, but with far better calorimeters that can determine much more accurately how much heat will be released. Due to this and other improvements, we will hopefully be successful. We already have considerable know-how about precious metals in general. And we also have top equipment that was not there before. We will also try to figure out what exactly the cold fusion is – because the reaction should be able to start in some way, but also to slow down or stop. Using state-of-the-art microscopes, we should be able to look exactly at the structure of palladium and investigate exactly what is happening there at its atomic level. So the whole project is about developing palladium particles, testing at different levels whether cold fusion is real or not. If it were real, then we must also define the conditions under which it works. And it will, of course, be our responsibility to provide the information so that society can benefit as well.
In addition to the team from CEITEC BUT, a team from Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Ireland also participates in the project. What exactly is the role of your team?
We are working on the development of palladium nanoparticles and we are therefore at the beginning of the process itself. We have great preconditions for this, not only top scientists, but also excellent equipment for the production of nanoparticles and an excellent microscope so that we can observe those particles. Even so, it is a great challenge for us, but we love it. Colleagues in France will then work with optimized nanoparticles, pumping hydrogen into them and trying to create a reaction that releases energy, especially thermal energy. Subsequently, the nanoparticles will return to us and we will examine them retrospectively in terms of structure to understand exactly what is happening to them.
The project has been running since the end of 2020. So at what stage are you currently?
For the last six months, we have been intensively preparing various types of nanoparticles. We try different chemical and physical approaches and optimize everything. We have already sent several batches to France and are waiting for the first results. Of course, the work on the project was complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, because we could only meet online and some teams were completely banned from accessing the laboratories. Fortunately, we were able to perform laboratory experiments in a certain regime. But I'm already looking forward to a personal meeting of the whole team on an international level.
How did you manage to get support in the prestigious FET Proactive – Boosting Emerging Technologies program, in which you succeeded with an international team?
I think we came up with the right idea at the right time. Of course, we knew that such a call for proposals was open. And at one conference, during a friendly meeting with several colleagues, the idea for this particular project arose. Within a few months, we managed to put together its final version, and in an open challenge, we managed to succeed among huge competition. The fact that we have worked together in an international team before and have had many successful publications has certainly helped a lot. In this way, we were able to prove that we can not only work together, but also finish things together.
If we are a little ahead of schedule, in case you will be able to replicate the cold fusion under standardized conditions, would you follow up on this project with another one?
Sure, but it's still a long way off. There are some visions, but I can't specify now what future developments will look like. Wish us luck.
Author: Aneta Matysová