I forgive you for believing that Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) are not possible. Most people scoff at “cold fusion.” I could point out the statements from Bushnell, Storms, and others, who stepped in front of a double-decker bus full of theory-psychopomps to say that LENR has demonstrated something anomalous, worthy of research, and is potentially world-changing. I could dredge-up links to the work from Mitsubishi and Toyota on nuclear transmutations, which they consider worthy of examination — enough to devote serious scientists, labs, and budgets. I could mention the quiet shift among patent offices worldwide, that now accept LENR patents, or the companies and moneyed individuals who now squabble for those patents and the commercial rights entailed. (Bill Gates is one of them, guys.) Plenty of websites curate this stuff for me, though. I’ll save my breath.
In the next few weeks, a jury in Florida will decide on the case of Leonardo Corp v. Industrial Heat — the long-awaited slug-fest between LENR creator Andrea Rossi, and the investment arm of Tom Darden’s Cherokee funds, which backed Rossi’s device, promoted it to investors, scooped up $200mil+, then claimed his work was impossible… after it worked for a year. There are dozens of other researchers who have observed energies an order of magnitude beyond what chemical reactions could produce, so this court case cannot squelch the burgeoning field. It may, however, give publicity and funding to the multitude of experimentalists and theorists who are now pushing this work forward. You can keep laughing. I’ll just short oil, while you do. ;)
This post is a revival of a concept I floated on one of those cold-fusion-fanatic websites. I hope Medium readers may prepare, because the scenario it predicts will be… interesting.
The Kitchen Sink:
Capital comes in many forms. Sometimes, capital is ubiquitous — everyone who can afford it will have a kitchen sink, and at least a few pots and pans. Other times, capital is bottled behind a factory’s fence: computer chip fabrication facilities, for example. Whether a new technology ends up in your living room, or in a superstructure in China, depends upon ONE dominant factor: the shoulder of the QUALITY curve. I’ll explain with examples.
Most people are familiar with the concept that “a big factory, pumping out millions of units per day, can produce products at a lower cost than a dinky homebrew set-up.” THAT is the QUANTITY side of mass production. Less familiar is the QUALITY side: “A fancy restaurant, because it is equipped with every imaginable implement, can produce five-star soufflés' and mushu like you couldn’t.”
So, let us focus on that QUALITY component, for a moment. Given the same ingredients, someone with a campfire and a pointy stick will not (usually) produce the same quality meal as someone with a stove, spatula, knives, and sink. With only a small investment, you get a big improvement in quality.
Ramp-up to a decent restaurant’s kitchen (or the one at your wealthy in-law’s), and the quality improves, again. But only somewhat. Add millions of dollars, for the five-star chef experience, and quality improves a little. (Just enough for the critics, really.) If you graph the expenditure-on-equipment against the quality-of-food, you get a sharp ‘S’ curve. That is what most quality curves will look like.
Because the quality curve improves so much, early on, we all like to have at least a kitchenette. It’s a big improvement in quality, so it’s worth the small expense. A quality curve with an early rise = abundant access to production.
Contrast that with the quality curve of semiconductors. With a soldering iron and a pile of sand, you might manage a simple XOR gate or two, but it won’t be very reliable. Quality is poor, never mind the cost per unit. To get a high-quality computer chip, you’ll need a clean room, and lasers, and robotic arms, and… lots of stuff. That’s why you don’t just ‘buy a chip fab for your home electronic needs.’ Intel can produce the quality you need, because they sunk billions of dollars into quality. And, because they have a billion-dollar fabricator making high-quality chips, your personal chip-fabrication set-up is worthless.
This is true of any technology. Cold fusion, too.
These quality curves matter more, especially for emerging technologies, because quality differentiates the product. If your jet engine is 10% cheaper than your competitor, regional availability still matters, customer service matters, and cost and time shipping can put their jet engine on par with yours. But, if your reliability is 10% higher, people will gladly pay much more than a 10% premium, especially for the use-cases where reliability really matters. This applies to cold fusion, too.
So, the landscape of LENR producers will be guided by the quality curve. And, if decent quality LENR devices require multi-million dollar fabricators, there will NOT be a market for home-brew cold fusion. However, if good quality can be achieved with filaments that you bake in your oven, then everyone will be expected to have a “LENR-kit” in their garage, same as they have a CD burner on their desktop computer. Those two scenarios mean two different kinds of world, for cold fusion…
- Home-Brew Wins:
If quality LENR filaments can be produced by craft-labs, each region will have their own, competing varietals. R&D will advance primarily through random experimentation, and stylistic differences will be numerous. Look at bicycles. Buyers will go to their local suppliers, who can retain customers through personalized service and a peer-to-peer reputation. This will put money into the pockets of local service workers and shops, and small towns will flourish in a future where the cost of transport drops.
Even distant back-roads in impoverished nations will rapidly acquire the basic equipment. Bicycles, again. The kids down the street might stop by, watch LENR filaments being made, and become inspired to learn how to make their own. People will be in-touch with their technology.
2. Mega-Industry Wins:
However, if a reliable and safe LENR device requires clean rooms, expect it to be fast-tracked by governments. The ultra-durable military applications will supersede home-brews; small-time producers may even be declared unsafe. Like with Stanford’s government backing, a few LENR-centric research hubs will spawn their own city-of-tech, with a handful of companies vying for government contracts, and pushing later generations of those products down into consumer markets that reach every corner of the globe. Like jet engines, and semiconductors.
To work at one of those places, you’ll have to push past all the grad students flying in from major institutions. Hands-on experience will happen after you are hired. The rest of us will watch, as these ‘rock stars’ walk away with mansions, and robots punch the clock. Decisions about LENR will be made by lobbyists, not by the stylistic preferences of craft-innovators. You can buy one, but you void your warranty if you try to take it apart. And, you may even be arrested for trying.
I do not know which world would be ‘better’ — if a device that is accessible to anyone, and that adds to local economies, may spur a humanist scope to its use, or cause us to wallow in kitch addendums? In previous eras, when an important technology was easy for farmers to make on their own, it usually empowered them to decentralize (often violently), and this could be painful for parts of the world which already struggle with insurgents and violence among factions. Would a corporate-brand-cum-contract-lobby be better, lining the pockets of another Thiel or Carnegie? We may not have many earth-shakingly singular technologies like this left ahead of us. If LENR is as disruptive as I expect it will be, the global order may be written by its quality curve. Thankfully, I don’t have to make that choice. Nature already did, and we’ll all find out what she had in store for us, soon enough.