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No Country for Cold Fusion
Joe Romm, 21 Apr 09
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So 60 Minutes had a serious piece on cold fusion, which has been long ignored and rightfully so.  As a physicist, the story was intriguing because there might be some interesting tabletop nuclear physics going on, although nobody really knows what that might be.

As an energy technologist, however, I didn’t see anything that would suggest we’re going to see some big game changer anytime soon — and the featured scientist/advocate was guilty of some particularly unconvincing and counterproductive hype.  I’d say cold fusion may have moved from junk science to the realm of hydrogen or fusion — decades away, at best, but possibly never very useful.

Wikipedia has a good entry if you want some unhyped background on cold fusion, which came to public attention “on March 23, 1989 when Fleischmann and Pons reported producing nuclear fusion in a tabletop experiment involving electrolysis of heavy water on a palladium (Pd) electrode. They reported anomalous heat production (”excess heat”) of a magnitude they asserted would defy explanation except in terms of nuclear processes.”  Needless to say, this was a shock, since until then physicists thought you needed multi-million degree temperatures to fuse nuclei and generate energy.

Many major physics laboratories failed to reproduce the results and scientific theories explaining how it might be possible were lacking (as they pretty much are still today).

In 1989, the majority of a review panel organized by the US Department of Energy (DOE) had found that the evidence for the discovery of a new nuclear process was not persuasive. A second DOE review, convened in 2004 to look at new research, reached conclusions that were similar to those of the 1989 panel.

The 2004 DOE report is here.  A 2005 Scientific American summary of the findings was titled “Back to Square One.”  Some on the panel thought “the evidence for excess power was compelling” but “When it came to whether nuclear reactions took place in the experiments, the report noted that two thirds of reviewers found the evidence unconvincing, one person found it compelling, and the remainder were somewhat convinced.”

It is incredibly tricky to measure all of the energy inputs and outputs, which is why 60 Minutes had an independent expert come in and examine the one company’s claims.  He ended up convinced excess heat was being generated.  Richard Garwin, one of the country’s foremost authorities on nuclear physics and “the author of the actual design used in the first hydrogen bomb,” remains unconvinced.

I was very unconvinced by the over-the-top hype from the main expert on the show:

“We can yield the power of nuclear physics on a tabletop. The potential is unlimited. That is the most powerful energy source known to man,” researcher Michael McKubre told 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley.

McKubre says he has seen that energy more than 50 times in cold fusion experiments he’s doing at SRI International, a respected California lab that does extensive work for the government.

McKubre is an electro-chemist who imagines, in 20 years, the creation of a clean nuclear battery. “For example, a laptop would come pre-charged with all of the energy that you would ever intend to use. You’re now decoupled from your charger and the wall socket,” he explained.

The same would go for cars. “The potential is for an energy source that would run your car for three, four years, for example. And you’d take it in for service every four years and they’d give you a new power supply,” McKubre told Pelley.

“Power stations?” Pelley asked.

You can imagine a one for one plug in replacement for nuclear fuel rods. And the difference only would be that at the end of the lifetime of that fuel rod, you didn’t have radioactive waste that needed to be disposed of,” McKubre replied.


First off, where does this lifetime-charged laptop come from?  I thought this thing generated excess heat.  That is the last thing you want in a laptop.  I am no expert on nuclear physics or electrochemistry, but I just don’t see how this operates as a small, incredibly long-lived battery and a huge, heat-generator for a power plant.

Second, the last thing you would do is stick this in a nuke, which is an incredibly expensive power plant, wildly over engineered to deal with neutrons and radioactivity and the possibility of a meltdown.

The goal, I thought, was to boil water and drive a steam turbine.  And frankly, they have no idea whatsoever if they can do that, because they don’t even have 100% reproducibility of whatever it is they are doing, and they don’t even have an agreed-upon theory as to why it works (if it does).

Even if they are generating excess heat at a very small scale in an ideal laboratory setting, seemingly in spurts, they don’t know if this would scale up to a very high temperature steady-state real-world situation needed to generate large amounts of electricity.

And needless to say, if this isn’t being done through nuclear reactions, but through good old-fashioned chemical reactions, it is infinitely less interesting and infinitely less likely to be an energy game changer.

Frankly, this guy sounded like dozens of very smart and sincere people I’ve heard over the past 15 years give powerpoint presentations about how their amazing technology breakthrough would solve the energy crisis.

Count me unconvinced.

For more, here’s a nice post by NueroLogica blog with an extended comments discussion that includes at least one knowledgeable cold fusion advocate.

This piece originally appeared in Climate Progress.

Photo credit: flickr/Михал Орела, Creative Commons License.
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A little further down the road, and at about the same time, a couple of fellows were investigating the possibilities of muon catalysed fusion, with some tantalising results.
("Cold Nuclear Fusion" by Johann Rafelski and Steven E. Jones in Scientific American, 257, 84 (1987).)

Unfortunately, I suspect that the Pons and Fleischmann circus had an adverse effect on *any* cold fusion effort.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 21 Apr 09

I think this author is being a bit disingenuous. He didn't say it would solve the energy crisis. Just that it needs attention as one possible solution. No 'one' technology will solve the energy crisis. You need to do some more fact finding and reading sir.

Posted by: andrus on 21 Apr 09

There is a new science awakening based on skeletal catalysts and the fixed casimir cavities they harbor.
All the anomalous heat readings of cold fusion experiments, outrageous claims of fuel milage by water fuel cells and even Black Lights hydrino can be understood in terms of what QED calls "upconverting".
As spacing between casimir plates formed by cavities in Rayney nickel gets smaller the vacuum fluctuations and therefore any matter diffused therough them twist on the time axis trading spatial parameters for temporal but maintaining the same quadric volume. An atoms orbital appears smaller from our plane where it has gone wide stretched between the future and past. from the time axis perspective the nucleus is not surrounded by the orbital - the orbital is displaced behind the nucleus like a trailing halo. when the atom
translates to what Mills callls a hydrino this temporal displacement increases to maintain the ground state while the orbital diameter is free to close down far below the diameter we normally use as a measure of ground state allowing it take on many new states similar to rydberg atom but the energy is stored in temporal displacement between nucleus and orbital. The catch is that this is non radiative translation and unless a compound forms to lock the orbitals from simply translating back no energy will be harvested. A compond locks the orbitals from translating and the fixed skeletal catalyst provides the mechanical fixture to hold the plates fixed while the temporal doorway narrows for the vacuum fluctuations to accumulate and repeatedly break the compounds bonding which nature repairs immediately in a cascading emission Mills calls Black Light.

Posted by: frank roarty on 22 Apr 09

If the author bothered to look further than the Wikipedia page he might have found that there amount of evidence for cold fusion now is irrefutable. That's the reason why 60 mins did their segment on it.
Richard Garwin's attitude was reminiscent something you'd hear in a child's playground 'i don't believe I don't have to'. Patently pathetic it's that kind of arrogance and close mindedness which has hampered cold fusion for so long. If people were more careful in making such judgment calls the world would be a better place. Take a look -it's astonishing the sheer quantity and quality of work that has been ignored.
There is no certainty that cold fusion will be the great power solution. But, if there's a chance - at least give it some decent funding and then we can find out.

Posted by: stan on 22 Apr 09

Man can make and do anything his mind can think of.

All he needs is time and money.

To have negative thoughts about future possibilities is not only poor judgement but prevents ingenious youth from achieving goals that yester-year seemed impossible.

Watch what happens when the Large Hadron Collider at CERN provides new ideas.

Time and money!

Regards Holdfast

Posted by: Holdfast on 22 Apr 09

I'm no physicist but even I know that fusion reactions have to produce significant and measurable amounts of neutrons."Excess heat" can be caused by many things...radiation would be much stronger evidence of nuclear reaction.

Unfortunately, you just can't trust the mainstream media when it comes to science reporting. Buyer beware.

Posted by: Nomnomnom on 22 Apr 09

Unconvinced, but you are a notorius and despicable Internet Troll who could possibly give a damn about what you think. Your statment that you kill troll posts is more than sufficient evidence of your troll character. The one thing trolls hate the most is ... oh yeah everyone... Your comments so perfectly illustrate your egotistical determined ignorance what more proof could there be. Why wouldn't one put a new source of steam next to the generation units at a now dead reactor containment building. It would be a perfect plug in replacement.

Actually going to electricty is a useful means to cool cold fusion heat and the energetic alphas that result from cold fusion and make that heat are readily and effciently used in thermal electric conversion. Not so efficient but with lots of free power one can run good cooling.

As for the reality of running out of deuterium which makes up 1 out every 5000 atoms of hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe and on this planet, I don't think we'll run out before the sun does.

Posted by: bob on 22 Apr 09

Disappointing reaction. Take a dive in my estimation. There was an anomaly, there have been enough reruns of the experiment to give statistically convincing evidence so be generous enough to admit that. What it is and what could be done with it, well that's yet to come (and it may never be important) but as JM Keynes said "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"
Worldchanging is based on being able to see what is before you in new ways. Are you on board with this or not?

Posted by: ken w on 22 Apr 09

It seems that one of the main reasons that many scientists are skeptical is that the theory is incomplete. (There is plenty of theory but no one of them completely explains the phenomenon.) Why this lack of a satisfactory theory should make scientists diss cold fusion can be explained by scientific conceit. They are the high priests of the material world and anything that they cannot explain simply MUST be nonsense. This attitude has been holding back paranormal research in all sorts of fields of inquiry. "Telepathy cant happen (because I cant explain it and I know everything about everything), so it doesnt happen," despite the hundreds of rigorously controlled experiments proving that telepathy is a real phenomena, even though, like cold fusion, we cant predict exactly, or even if, it will happen in any particular context.
If the Wright brothers had believed all the scientists who pontificated that powered flight was impossible we would never have left the Earth.

Posted by: Dean DeHarpporte on 23 Apr 09

what if ,we use LHC as a generator of fusion in which the high energetic neutron is accelerated nearly to the speed of light and strike a D-T pellet releasing massive amount of energy. 0n1+1H2+1H3--->2He4+2(0n1)+energy

Posted by: venkatesh on 24 Apr 09

Mr ROMM is poorly informed. And there was nothing "rightful" about Pons and Fleishmann being ridiculed and ignored for the past 20-years. To the contrary, an extremely great injustice continues to be purveyed by such flourishes of ignorance.

Dr McKubre is delivering a very important message, it would be extremely careless for anyone not to form their opinions based on the facts.

Fleishmann and Pons did nothing wrong. They reported their finding truthfully. Fleishmann regrets calling it "fusion" because it's not.
The Coulomb barrier is not overcome as it is in "hot" fusion.
Thus "cold fusion" does not involve the strong force.

Concerning the myth that the phenomena can't be reproduced. To the contrary, it's highly reproducible. Sufficiently so that in the case of the 60-minutes piece, a skeptical expert was convinced. Last year in Japan, NHK broadcast a live demonstration of an experiment using an "Arata" style cell to run a small electric motor. Arata style cells are not particulars difficult or expensive to build. Anyone with the inclination can find sufficient information using Google to reproduce the findings for themselves. The surface of the metal hydride used to catalyze Hydrogen or Deuterium atoms into Helium must be properly prepared. But this is to be expected as the protons of the hydrogen need to be loaded into the metal hydrate in such a way that they behave in a coherent fashion creating regions of "nuclear abundance" which allows the electron capture effect to occur.

Neutrons *are* being produced. Niles Bohr long contended that a Hydrogen Proton without its Electron and minus its charge *is* a Neutron.
These are slow or "sub-thermal" neutrons with an extremely large cross section which causes them to be reabsorbed immediately after being generated. The Neutrons mass is thus converted into energy in the form of heat. The absorption is also causing transmutations. If this sounds like alchemy, it's because it is!
Note: The gamma-ray created when a Hydrogen proton loses its charge and becomes a Neutron is "shielded," thus no gama-rays either!

A perfect circle has been formed starting with Michael Faraday's discovery of the laws of electrolysis in 1834 and ending with Pons and Fleishmann using electrolysis to load deuterium into the crystal lattice of a Palladium metal hydride to catalyze Hydrogen into Helium and release useful energy in the form of course grade heat.

This is a new *source* of energy, in which polluting contaminants are conspicuous by their absence!

Anyone who's truly interested in understanding this phenomena should take a look at Alan Widow and Lewis Larson's explanation. They don't evoke any new physics and are able to explain all of the observed phenomena.

This is now a material science and engineering problem.
Pons and Fleishmann should be awarded the Nobel prize in Physics, and everyone who's able, should move on to the real challenges of figuring out how this miracle can safely be deployed for the betterment of humankind.


Posted by: dy on 27 Apr 09

Please read this...

Okay dismiss this, dismiss everything...
We completely understand this. It ok to argue.

Its healthy to pour out sentiment, by doing this we know that their are little scientist in every one of us.

And we will always give the benefit og the doubt...

but maybe someday, we will also be able to learn and accept the .........

Posted by: jcombalicer on 29 Apr 09

Engineers have wrestled for many years with a nasty problem associated with handling hydrogen in metal containers called "hydrogen embrittlement" failure. When hydrogen (or duterium) diffuses into the crystal lattice of a metal it distorts the crystal slightly and this often leads to micro fractures that rapidly propagate much deeper into the metal and cause failure.

It is well known that when metal fractures there is a signifcant amount of stored energy which is released in the form of heat. Everything that is done in order to induce cold fusion involves enhancing the amount of duterium that diffuses into the metal catalyst. Is it possible that some (or all) of the excess heat that is observed in cold fusion experiments is a result of the release of this stored energy as the paladium catalyst begins to develop many propagating micro fractures? I wonder if there have been any attempts to measure this energy.

One way that this fracture energy might be measured is to make two identical catalyst electrodes - only one of which is used in a cold fusion experiment. If the unused catalyst were disolved in acid, all the stored energy within the crystal will be released in the form of heat. If the the catalyst used in a fusion experiment were disolved in acid, there would be less heat released. The difference in heat would equal the amount of fracture energy released in the cold fusion experiment.

Carrying this hydrogen embrittlement concept one step further, let us suppose that cold fusion does occur. If all the fusion energy is released locally in the form of kinetic heat energy within the catalyst, I would expect there to be even more violent and rapid deterioration of the catalyst crystal structure. (The picture that comes to mind is the detonation of minature H-bombs within the catalyst.) How frequently would the catalyst material need to be re-conditioned? How much would this cost in both money and energy?

Posted by: David Thompson on 17 May 09

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