September 1, 2012

Two decades later, embattled cold fusion research lives on

For over 20 years, the Progressive Review has been one of the few non-scientific American publications to take this issue seriously - not because of assurance that the theory would work out, but because the available facts and the rampant criticisms didn't add up.

James Burgess of Oilprice,  CNBC - Back in 1989 two of the greatest electrochemists in the world, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, made a remarkable announcement. They had witnessed low energy nuclear reactions  at an atomic level, which generated excess heat. It was the first ever account of cold fusion, a third type of nuclear reaction after fission and fusion.

However, Pons and Fleishman could not consistently reproduce their results, and this led to the rejection of cold fusion, the discrediting of the two scientists by the general scientific community.

Cold fusion became a complete dead end. Two different Department of Energy panels dismissed cold fusion theories and recommended against creating a program to study it. No one would risk putting major funding into any research projects, and no reputable scientists were willing to risk their reputations by pursuing a science that many considered equal to alchemy.

However, following recent LENR demonstrations at reputable institutions such as MIT, the University of Missouri, and the University of Bologna, as well as presentations by the world's largest instrument companies, National Instruments, a report by the European Commission's research and development center that suggests LENR has its place in the future of renewable energy, and most impressively of all, the fact that NASA is interested and reportedly filed two LENR patents last year; serious companies are now considering the possibilities of LENR and investing in certain research projects. There are rumors that Boeing is working with NASA to test LENR powered aircraft.

The promise of discovering a clean, green, safe, and (due to the fact that it is fueled by the most abundant metal and gas on the planet, nickel and hydrogen) cheap renewable energy source is causing many investors and scientists to overcome their previous reluctance and enter the field.

I am not saying that the companies such as Boeing  of National Instruments, or agencies such as NASA, the US Navy, or the DOE will publicly admit to spending large amounts on cold fusion research. In fact the Navy had to shut down its LENR research in California after a news report attracted unwanted public attention.

Brian Josephson, Guardian, UK- Accounts of the cold fusion claims of the Czech-born electrochemist Martin Fleischmann, who has died aged 85, and his American-French former student Stanley Pons often assert that their results could not be replicated. This implies that their original experiments, carried out at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, in the 1980s were flawed. Cold fusion has since come to be commonly regarded as a delusion, but the true situation is more complicated.

The Fleischmann-Pons experiments were motivated by the idea that hydrogen fusion, the source of the sun's heat, which goes very slowly at ordinary temperatures, might go significantly faster if the nuclei involved were brought closer together, as when hydrogen is absorbed at high density in a material such as palladium. The project was more successful than anticipated: returning to the laboratory after one weekend, when the apparatus had been turned off, the pair found that so much heat had been produced that a large hole had been melted into the bench and concrete floor. As a precaution they reduced the scale of the experiment and announced their findings at a press conference in 1989.

While the original nuclear claims appear to have been erroneous – it was not their area of expertise – the parallel claim relating to excess heat production is different. Some scientists failed to replicate this, but others were successful, notably Michael McKubre of SRI International, California. At the Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, a nuclear product, tritium, was detected, indicating that nuclear processes were indeed occurring.

Fleischmann and Pons continued their efforts in France from 1992 until Fleischmann retired three years later and returned to Britain. In 2004 a US Department of Energy report supported the view that the excess heat claims were valid, but had little influence on general opinion. Though the nuclear difficulties were eventually resolved, the fact that heat had been observed in excess of anything that can be explained on the basis of the usual mechanisms was neglected, or talked away.

The fact that many who tried to reproduce the phenomenon failed should not have been considered conclusive, since phenomena in materials are sometimes difficult to reproduce. Scientists convinced that there was a real effect continued work in the area over the years in several countries, including France, Italy, the US, and Japan, often with government support. Some, hopeful that the process might ultimately become a useful source of energy, concentrated on increasing the power generated.

Progressive Review, 2004 – It’s not often that we're stunned by the Washington Post, but we were amazed to find featured in the paper's Sunday magazine section a balanced article about cold fusion, the first such piece in a major publication in years.

We got interested in the issue - and became a lonely media voice on the subject for nearly 15 years - largely because we were fascinated by the depths of hostility towards it by the energy and science establishment and the press. These folks don't get so worked up over nothing. We were further struck by the dramatic difference between the way cold fusion was being treated in the US and elsewhere.

Of course, if cold fusion proved real it would completely change the nature of energy policy, not to mention the economics of this country. At this point the theory is still far short of such practical impact but perhaps looming energy crises including the prospect of running out of oil has softened up the opposition against even investigating the matter. Even the Department of Energy now has research on the matter under consideration.

As the Post noted, chemist and cold fusion investigator Michael McKrube "the main reason cold fusion has been belittled all these years is that the mainstream scientists who dug in their heels long ago can't change their minds now: "If it turns out these people are wrong, they're dead. They're scientifically dead." So, let's say he's right, and the majority of scientists are wrong, and cold fusion does work. What will it take for the critics to accept it? McKubre quotes Max Planck, the father of quantum theory: "Science advances one funeral at a time."

Progressive Review, June 1992 -  You may recall the flurry of stories three years ago about that miracle of physics, cold fusion, that turned out, we were told, to be a flop, if not a scientific fraud. That's where the American media left us, but in the process may be missing one of the biggest stories of our time.

Cold fusion is a phenomenon that some researchers believe occurs when a special form of hydrogen interacts with certain metals. It is argued that this interaction releases quantities of energy far beyond that occurring in an ordinary chemical reaction. And it does so with little radiation and potentially at very little expense.

 Despite an American media blackout on the subject, there are at present some 200 scientists around the world actively studying cold fusion. The Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., which does research for the electric utilities, has spent $2 million on cold fusion research since 1989 and budgeted another $3 million to be spent in 1992. On January 27, top cold fusion researchers gathered in Nagoya, Japan, to bear a series of reports on cold fusion projects. Major Japanese newspaper covered the event. The Japanese, it is estimated, are spending $10-$15 million a year on cold fusion research and the leading journal Bungeishunju says that cold fusion "is no longer open to discussion. Cold fusion experiments and replication left those levels of doubt a long time ago, and entered a more concrete stage of development. Anyone who still says, 'such nonsense, it can't be!' is simply not looking at reality.

Meanwhile, in the United States, no federal or state money is being spent on cold fusion and as recently as last November The Washington Post ran a review by the director of the American Physical Society that attacked the cold fusionists with less than scientific reserve:

If everyone knows it is wrong, why are they doing it? Inept scientists whose reputations would be tarnished, greedy administrators.... gullible politicians who had squandered the taxpayers' dollars, lazy journalists... — all had an interest in making it appear that the issue had not been settled. Their easy corruption was one of the most chilling aspects of this sad comedy. To be sure, there are true believers among the cold-fusion acolytes, just as there are sincere scientists who believe in psychokinesis, flying saucers, creationism and the Chicago Cubs. A Phd in sciences in not inoculation against foolishness. — or mendacity.

When Jed Rothwell, who heads Cold Fusion Research Advocates, asked the editor of Scientific American why his journal had not covered the cold fusion story, he described it as "pathological science" with no merit whatsoever.

Yet the Japanese version of the same publication ran a two-page story in March. And the signers of a petition to Congress to hold hearings on the matter include the names of a Nobel Laureate in physics; scientists from MIT, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Tufts, the US Army, Rockwell, Dow, and Motorola; the chair of the atomic energy commission of India, and leading scientists in Japan, China and Russia. Will cold fusion pan out? Who knows? But the indifference of the media, Congress and the Bush administration to an idea that is being treated seriously in as serious a country as Japan, that even has attracted the attention of the American utility industry, seems strange at best. At worst, it could provide highly dramatic evidence that America's genius for invention and discovery is well on the decline.


Anonymous said...

In many chemical activities, scale is a factor. What works one way at one scale works another way - or not at all - at a different scale.

AlainCo said...

Nice article.
Things are getting momentum.
at, we wrote an openletter for deciders ...
hope that like your article it can make things go faster.

Anonymous said...

Good read article. Thanks.

Dennis Nilsson, Sweden said...

"In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual."

- Galileo Galilei