Did Businessweek fall for a 30-year-old hoax?October 28, 2013 8:54 pm
Whatever else can be said about Imelda Marcos, she certainly does know how to attract attention. Thanks to Mrs. Marcos, some Facebook habitués ended last week on an optimistic note, enthusiastically sharing links to an October 24 Businessweek article filed by Bloomberg LP’s chief content officer Norman Pearlstine and filed under “Energy” with the title “Imelda Marcos Has an $829 Billion Idea.”
The Imeldific plan, it turns out, is to harvest the Philippines’ astonishingly vast reserves of deuterium lying in the lower reaches of the Philippine Trench. According to Imelda, she was first informed of the country’s unknown treasure in 1971 by father of the H-Bomb Edward Teller during a visit he made to Manila, and the savvy businesswoman that she is, she has by her own admission spent “millions of dollars a year” to secure an exclusive right to extract water from the trench. Deuterium is fuel for fusion reactors and has other high-tech uses, at it is found in the Philippine Trench because it is carried there from South America by ocean currents, concentrated by the tremendous pressure of one of the ocean’s deepest places.
A huge undersea deuterium would indeed be a tremendous economic resource for the Philippines, except that it has the minor problem of being nonexistent. One hopes for Mrs. Marcos’ sake that her claim to spending “millions” to hold on to extraction rights was an idle boast on her part, because if not, she is making someone else eligible for the Scam Artist of the Millennium award.
Deuterium, as we recall from our high school chemistry lessons, is an isotope of hydrogen, usually written with the chemical symbol D, which differs from a regular hydrogen atom in that it contains a proton and a neutron in its nucleus instead of just a single proton. Deuterium is present in nature at an average concentration of 156 parts per million; in other words, for every million regular hydrogen atoms, there are 156 deuterium atoms. A trace amount can be found in the atmosphere as a gas, but most deuterium on Earth is bound up in water, where a deuterium atom replaces a regular hydrogen atom, changing H2O into HDO. The concentration of HDO in natural water averages 1 molecule in 3,200, and varies slightly according to temperature and salinity.
Deuterium oxide, D2O, otherwise known as “heavy water,” can be distilled from ordinary water and has some use as a moderator and coolant in certain types of nuclear reactors. After further processing, the deuterium can be separated from heavy water. Deuterium was first used as the fusion fuel in early versions of the hydrogen bomb, and these days is mainly used as a nonradioactive tracer in medical and scientific experiments, and fuel for experimental fusion reactors.
It is this last use that has Imelda Marcos excited; by her estimate, the imaginary deuterium in the Philippine Trench would be worth $829 billion a year for the country. Like Yamashita’s Treasure, the Philippines’ “liquid gold” is just lying there waiting for someone to find it, one of the not-so-secret sources of wealth that would put this country among the leading economic powers of the world, if only a little effort—and suspension of reason—were applied.
Of course, the big oil companies and the other usual suspects among the secret cabal that rules the world are actively preventing the Philippines from tapping this vast wealth; part of the evidence for this, according to a couple websites that still exist to promote the fantastic news about deuterium, is that scientists have been prevented from publishing studies on the Philippine’s deuterium potential.
Or maybe it’s because studying the deuterium at the bottom of the Philippine Trench would be pointlessly complicated, when even better samples could be obtained by walking down any random beach and scooping a bucketful of water from the surf. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, studies of isotopic concentrations in sea water were conducted in several deep ocean trenches, including the Philippine Trench, and found that the molecular composition of water from a depth of about 4,000 meters down to more than 10,000 meters—in other words, from samples of water taken from just far enough off the bottom of the Philippine Trench to avoid getting one that was full of mud—was more or less consistent anywhere in the world. Shallower waters, particular warm equatorial waters, actually have a slightly higher amount of deuterium than the great depths, due to heat and evaporation.
The deuterium fable first gained real traction here in the late 1980s, when an enterprising swindler named Cesar Escosa claimed to have “discovered” the deuterium mother lode, leading a number of actual scientists from the University of the Philippines (UP) called to a Congressional inquiry on the matter to complain about the Department of Science and Technology’s “silence” on the controversy and “inability to distinguish between scientific fact and fiction,” according to a March, 1988 article of The Manila Standard Today. Roger Posadas, dean of the UP College of Science at the time, offered a scathing assessment of the country’s enthusiasm for the potential of deuterium, saying the whole yarn was “a gauge of our country’s extremely unscientific culture and strong proclivity toward reliance on miracles as solutions to our national problems.”
Were the latest redux of the deuterium fable just another story from the slightly wacky world of Madame Marcos it would be amusing, but the fact that Businessweek, apart from including one brief dissenting quote from a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, otherwise takes her word for it is kind of disturbing, and not really a glowing endorsement of the value of the international media’s understanding of this country. What is even more disturbing is that Businessweek notes that “speculation abounds” about the possible candidacy of Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. for the presidency in 2016, “speculation” being a mild way to describe something which has become an “assumption” here. That would be the same Bongbong Marcos who, with the certainty of one quoting Scripture, told journalist Raissa Robles back in 2011 that, “Hydrogen is processed from deuterium, which is heavy water or hydrogen water without oxygen. This is obtained from the deep trenches of the world, and the world’s largest deposit of deuterium is in the Philippines. I filed a bill creating a hydrogen research and development center.”
That bill thankfully did not go much farther than the Senate printing office, but the prospect of a second President Marcos, whose potential candidacy has just been given a slight boost in credibility by being acknowledged by the international press, in a position to throw public money at a “miracle” no less dubious than red mercury, Starlite, Cantron, or cold fusion is extremely worrisome. Recent events might have dimmed Bongbong Marcos’ 2016 prospects a bit, but if they have not, we should hope the senator gets a reality check sometime between now and then, something that might be more likely if publications like Businessweek would bother to do a little basic fact-checking.