Weird Science (Reporting)

CNN covers unfounded claims about new energy technology

I was on the treadmill at the gym this week when I switched to CNN and learned about a new source of power that is pollution-free and cheaper than fossil fuels. It’s made from water, “a form of salt,” and “other common materials.”

Poppy Harlow, a business correspondent for CNN, cheerily recounted the good news. She quoted the inventor saying that the mixture produces “a chemical reaction 200 times more powerful than gasoline,” and that the discovery is “on the scale of fire.”

The caveat? “Many scientists say the technology violates the basic laws of quantum physics.” Harlow said these words, but they didn’t seem to register with her. She might as well have said, “The only problem? It leaves a little lint in your pockets.”

Surely the timing of this story has nothing to do with CNN’s recent announcement that it is eliminating its entire science and technology unit, and laying off, among others, science correspondent Miles O’Brien. But it is an unfortunate coincidence, and a trained science reporter might have handled this story a little differently. (Disclosure: I organize the annual New Horizons in Science briefing for the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, where O’Brien sits on the board.)

A Google search would’ve shown Harlow that the technology in question – produced by Blacklight Power, Inc. of Cranbury, New Jersey – has been strenuously debunked by, among others, Dr. Robert L. Park of the University of Maryland, whose weekly e-mail column, “What’s New?”, keeps a watchful eye on unfounded scientific claims. According to Park, Blacklight was unable to get a U.S. patent for its research, and earlier this year was denied four patents in the United Kingdom. Lacking patents and independent confirmation of its findings, the company “is therefore dependent on investors with deep pockets and shallow brains,” Park wrote. In an email, Blacklight Power said it has had two patents issued in the U.S. and one in the U.K. It also said two of the denied cases in the UK were overturned by the patent court and returned to the examiners.

Those are the sorts of facts that even a cursory online search would have pulled up. It took me less than five minutes. Harlow and her producers evidently didn’t bother. The “Blacklight Process” is supposed to put hydrogen atoms into an energy state that nobody has observed—and that can’t exist, according to quantum physics. Hydrogen can exist in a high-energy, excited state or in what’s called the ground state, a kind of lowest-energy, resting state. Blacklight claims to force hydrogen into a state lower than the ground state. It calls the resulting atom a hydrino. (And remember, it does this not with the large hadron collider or some other atom smasher, but with salt water and other common materials.)

A December 11 press release, announcing that Blacklight had signed its first commercial licensing deal with Estacado Energy Services in New Mexico, may have prompted CNN’s story. According to the release, Estacado would use the Blacklight Process to produce “250 MW of continuous thermal or electric power.” The release noted that the technology has “applications to heating, distributed power generation, central power generation, and motive power,” but did not specify the cost of the deal, or whether any money had changed hands. On CNN, Harlow reported that the cost estimates range to one to two cents per kilowatt-hour, versus six to ten cents for coal or natural gas.

In support of the technology, her piece quoted Peter Jansson of Rowan University in New Jersey, whom Blacklight hired to “independently validate its claims.” But Harlow once again seemed to ignore the import of her own reporting when she added that Jansson “is one of very few in the scientific community who is convinced that Blacklight is on to something.” Harlow didn’t mention any others.

Among the people backing the company, Harlow said, are a “growing number of Wall Street and business executives” – a group that has not recently been known for its perspicacity. (According to CNN, one of the investors in Blacklight is Jim Lenehan of Cerberus, the hedge fund that bought Chrysler and has nearly driven it into bankruptcy.)

Granted, Harlow’s story was part of a CNN series called the Edge of Discovery. But reporters are supposed to be skeptical, and this thing had an appeal to skepticism written all over it—tattooed, in fact, and blazing in neon.

Add a few common materials to water and get something 200 times more potent than gasoline? Using physics that violates virtually everything known about atomic behavior? What was Harlow thinking? And if she was just reading somebody else’s words, what were the producer and news writer thinking? Was anybody home? It shouldn’t have required training in science, or science reporting, to have quashed this story.

Park made his comment about shallow brains in his column on July 6, 2008, just after did a piece on Blacklight. That story, by Mina Kimes, was far more skeptical. It had the good sense to quote Park, who said, “I don’t know of a single scientist of any reputation” who takes Blacklight’s claims seriously.

Harlow might have simply checked CNN’s own archives.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Paul Raeburn is a journalist and broadcaster, and the author, most recently, of Acquainted with the Night, a memoir about raising children with depression and bipolar disorder. His stories appear in The Huffington Post, The New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, Technology Review, Psychology Today, and on his blogs, Fathers and Families and Psychology Today's About Fathers. Raeburn has been senior editor for science and technology at BusinessWeek, science editor at The Associated Press, and is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.