From wacky and pseudo to cutting edge, Indians probe the limits of science

Indian Scientist on superconductivity, cold fusion and perpetual motion - The Federal
Illustration: Prathap Ravishankar

Most engineers his age have settled down at mid-level positions in companies. Tabrez Ahmed of Chennai quit his job eight years ago and initiated a startup. His company is a one-man show and its aim is not to make money. It seeks to disprove the second law of thermodynamics.

It’s a project that engineering students sometimes imagine in the second year of their college when they are exposed to the depressing law that when energy is transferred or transformed, it inevitably gets wasted. They are told that when they need to produce power, they need to burn fuel and the products of combustion will have energy that can never be recovered. It’s not even a zero sum, it’s a losing proposition, they are told.

Most students give up after a few flights of imagination to disprove the law. But Tabrez apparently hasn’t, 25 years later. He is trying to construct a machine that would disprove the law, which engineering calls a perpetual motion machine – one that derives energy out of nothing.

While Tabrez may be dismissed more easily as a crank tinkering at his garage, there are scientists with credentials and peer reviewed published papers to their credit who are working on less implausible but equally daunting projects. They are unfettered by the constraints of laws and seek to disprove them. From concepts bordering on the wacky to those that evoke a “well, maybe” reaction, they are all being probed somewhere in the country.

Producing energy magically

Tabrez explains what a perpetual motion machine is. He says a motor and a generator coupled together and providing power to run a bulb would be a perpetual motion machine. In the real world, a motor rotates if provided with electricity. The generator, if it is rotated by a diesel engine, it generates electricity. But what if the motor runs the generator and the power produced by the generator is fed back to the motor?

The second law says this is a closed loop from which no energy can be extracted, and the system may die down after frictional losses eat up the initial energy supplied. “Well, not really! You can keep running the machine without providing energy and take some energy out of it to use elsewhere, too,” Tabarez adds.

Many people – established scientists and serious enthusiasts alike – claim to have built perpetual motion machines. A quick search on the internet for “free energy” generates a slew of videos that depict a simple setup involving a DC motor and a set of magnets. With an infinitesimal amount of energy (that is disproportionate to the output that will be generated), the machine is set in motion.

“There is heavy skepticism around the concept of free energy as it goes against the basic concepts of science,” says Tabrez Ahmed. “But that doesn’t mean it will not work,” remarks Tabrez, who claims to have set up a free energy generator at home using a motor and a set of gears. “I have been working on this for the past seven years and have done the required R&D at home,” he says, adding that he was able to harness energy.  “I am waiting for like-minded people to join me in this project to make its functionality mainstream,” he adds.

Scientist Mahadeva Srinivasan echoes Tabrez’s sentiment as far as free energy is concerned. M Srinivasan is no amateur. He played a key role in India’s nuclear programme as a scientist at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai. Among his jobs were writing the equations for the Pokhran II blast. Free energy, he says, if realized, has the potential to change the face of science and industries.

Towards the later part of his career, Srinivasan became a champion of a controversial topic – dismissed as crank science by some. Cold fusion is a hypothetical nuclear reaction where hydrogen fusion takes place at room temperature. The results of an experiment by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons in 1989 caused widespread intrigue in the scientific community because cold fusion would be a cost-effective way to generate clean energy. However, scientists were unable to replicate the experiment and achieve similar results, and since then, the phenomenon has remained elusive.

What is cold fusion?

Nuclear fusion is a process in which multiple nuclei join together to form a heavier nucleus, which in turn will lead to the release of energy. Fusion typically occurs only under extreme heat and pressure. It occurs naturally in the sun and in other stars and is the primary process through which elements are created. Cold fusion attempts to release energy without any radiation and without use of complex equipment. However, there are no conclusive theories explaining the phenomenon.

Research in India

In India, after a hiatus, three research groups began experiments in 2018 to research ways to produce nuclear energy without radiation.

A research group in IIT Kanpur is working on transmutation of elements at lower temperatures, while another in IIT Bombay was working on an apparatus that produced energy spikes. However, Kannan Iyer, professor with the mechanical engineering department, said, “We could not get any sustained energy release. Hence we have closed the project.”

Another group at the Center for Energy Research of the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samasthana (S-Vyasa) in Bengaluru is working on triggering fusion in hydrogen on the surface of nickel, which has hydrogen-soaking properties. As of January 2019, they have upgraded their equipment and are still working on the experiment, said Shree Varaprasad, a researcher.

Meanwhile Google embarked on a project to develop “rigorous experiments” and protocols that could be reproduced in similar conditions helping to recreate cold fusion. The group was aiming to develop an experiment that could act as a benchmark for the scientific community.

The USD 10 million project looked at three set-ups to generate cold fusion. Two used palladium and hydrogen, and one used metallic powders and hydrogen. However, none of the experiments could prove cold fusion. The results were published across 12 papers — nine in peer-reviewed journals and three on arXiv – a preprint portal, according to Nature magazine.

Nuclear scientist Srinivasan had in 1990 helped validate the original Fleischmann-Pons cold fusion experiment in BARC. He has consistently pushed for results and has advocated the idea of cold fusion among researchers. “Even though efforts are going on internationally, it has cooled down in the country. Both the government and the department of atomic research have resisted efforts on cold fusion,” he said. When asked if this means if it is the end of the road for cold fusion in India, he says, “Probably”.

Superconductivity – at room temperature

If cold fusion was the holy grail of scientists and chemists in the 1990s, superconductivity is the hot topic of today. In 1911, Dutch physicist Heike Kemerlingh Onnes discovered the phenomenon while working with mercury. When he cooled the metal to -269°C, he was surprised to find that its resistance dropped to zero.

A conductor is any metal that is capable of carrying electrical current. The current provides energy which in turn helps power a host of appliances. Conductors like copper and steel offer resistance to the current passing through, resulting in a loss of electricity. A superconductor, however, conducts electricity without offering any resistance, meaning the electricity will flow forever without dissipating. This means there will be no loss of current.

However, superconductors work only in extremely low temperatures, often close to absolute zero (0K or -273 degrees Celsius), and the best superconductor still needs to be cooled to 90K (-183 degrees Celsius). Constant cooling and achieving such temperatures has proven to be very expensive, thus serving as a deterrent for scientists.

Since its discovery, in the subsequent decades, scientists have concluded that superconductivity can be achieved only at very cold temperatures. However, that has not stopped them from trying to achieve the phenomenon at room temperature.

Rumours of a breakthrough

In July 2018, two researchers from the Indian Institute of Science (IISC) published a preprint that claimed to have observed superconductivity at room temperature. The findings by Anshu Pandey and Dev Kumar Thapa stirred up furious debate in the scientific community because achieving superconductivity at room temperature has been consistently eluding scientists for years now.

In August that year, an MIT scientist, Brian Skinner, discovered an anomaly in the Thapa and Pandey’s findings. In a now-viral Twitter thread, Skinner pointed out that the data from the findings, when plotted on a graph, showed the same patterns of noise. Noise, in the context of an experiment, is a disturbance or fluctuation. It is by nature is random, uncontrollable and cannot be replicated.

Scientists found the exactly duplicated noise pattern suspicious and called it improbable. While a faction of scientists called the data “fabricated”, another faction said the data could have misrepresented or mis-presented. However, nearly a year later, Thapa and Pandey have submitted a revised preprint. With eight additional authors and new data, the revised paper has made a few modifications to the study including a significantly higher number of samples (125), details on methods and processes used.

Interestingly, the issue of noise — which was part of the original controversy — has not been resolved yet. The original data for “repeated noise” is still unchanged. The paper is pending review and is yet to be published in a scientific journal. If true, the

Superconductors are currently used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and in particle accelerators. If superconductivity can be achieved at room temperature, it will change the way electricity is generated and consumed, and can be eventually used in power grids, telecommunication and magnetic levitation such as the Hyperloop. If Pandey and Thapa’s findings are indeed what they claim to be, it could be potentially the biggest breakthrough the field of physics has seen in a while.