Cold Fusion's Chilly Comeback
Call It Fraud or Junk Science, But Don't Be Surprised If It Returns
That's the prevailing spirit within a tenacious community of true believers who insist that cold fusion is far from being declared another chapter in the long history of bad science.
If the believers are to be believed, a limitless, clean and cheap source of energy will emerge within decades -- despite claims from some leading physicists and the U.S. Department of Energy that cold fusion simply does not work, and may even be a hoax.
Reputable scientists, thinkers and industrialists continue to hedge their bets. Physics Nobel Laureate Julian Schwinger is a cold-fusion supporter. Arthur Clarke, the noted science fiction writer and scientist in his own right, has publicly urged Vice President Al Gore to rethink the U.S. government's longstanding position that cold fusion is un-fundable. And on Capitol Hill, the technology is attracting some advocates.
But perhaps the biggest vote of confidence came this December at the Fourth International Conference on Cold Fusion in Maui, Hawaii, where Japan's powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry announced a four-year, $30 million cold fusion research program. Though small by many government technology-research standards, that figure is exactly $30 million more than the U.S. government is spending on cold fusion. And the program comes more than five years since scientists around the world have attempted -- with mixed success -- to verify and reproduce the experiment that launched the controversy on March 23, 1989.
On that day, two University of Utah-sponsored chemists -- Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons -- stunned the world by announcing they had discovered a technique for room-temperature fusion. They claimed to have yielded four watts of output for every one watt in an experiment that was astoundingly simple, but which turned out to be devilishly hard to duplicate with any reliability.
In hot fusion, two atomic nuclei, both with a positive electric charge, are forced to join. They overcome their natural repulsion, known as the coulombic barrier, when heated to millions of degrees, generating tremendous amounts of energy when they crash together. The process itself gives off tritium, helium and showers of neutron and gamma radiation -- nuclear ash.
Cold fusion supporters claimed to have fused nuclei at room temperature, in effect, overcoming the coulombic barrier without having to heat nuclei to many millions of degrees. If true, cold fusion would be far more practical for energy production than hot fusion -- which, despite millions in government funding, has yet to produce an economically viable fusion reaction.
Accordingly, Pons and Fleischmann dipped a strip of palladium, surrounded by a coil of platinum, in a jar of "heavy" water known as deuterium -- water with an extra neutron in its nucleus. They added salt to the mixture to improve conductivity. When they passed a current through the water, somehow the deuterium was dissolved in the palladium, and a fusion occurred between the two -- though even advocates today admit that the word "fusion" in that sense may be a misnomer.
But researchers were stymied in the months following the announcement in their attempt to replicate the results.
When they did produce more energy than they put into their systems, they were unable to measure enough fusion byproducts -- the nuclear ash -- to definitively prove a "fusion" reaction occurred. Yet the energy produced was far beyond what any known chemical reaction could yield.
These facts, combined with the inability to duplicate the phenomenon, prompted a special Department of Energy panel chaired by the respected physicist John Huizenga, to issue a blistering report in November 1989. That report recommended against any government funding and outlined what panel members saw as glaring deficiencies in the conduct of experiments.
Huizenga has since gone on to write a scathing attack on cold fusion advocates, branding the field as "pathological science" on a par with Lysenko's biology in Soviet Russia, a Stalin-sponsored theory which held that acquired traits could be passed on genetically.
He continues to hold that absent nuclear fusion byproducts, or ash, heat generation in cold fusion experiments can't be due to a nuclear fusion reaction. "Fleischmann has publicly admitted that when excess heat is found, there should be a commensurate amount of nuclear ash. The time has come to hold him accountable for this equivalence," Huizenga writes in his 1993 book Cold Fusion, The Scientific Fiasco of the Century.
Furthermore, where excess power coming out of these experiments has been measured, Huizenga argues that heat-measuring techniques have been sloppy or ineffective -- all the more so because the phenomenon, if true, violates all known scientific theory. His conclusion: cold fusion is, at best, an experimental error, the result of wishful thinking, greed, bad science and irresponsible academic journals. At worst, it is fraud.
Yet, researchers continue to report the phenomenon, even if they don't have an adequate theory to explain it.
And advocates claim that documented cases of excess heat -- sometimes in bursts up to 15,000 times energy input -- can no longer be ignored or attributed to imprecise measurements.
"It is beyond serious dispute any more that anomalous amounts of energy are being produced from hydrogen by some unknown reaction," said Arthur Clarke, speaking before a crowd of international military officers in Sri Lanka in March, 1993. "The term 'cold fusion,' 'C/F,' has stuck because no one can think of anything better."
Indeed, the Japanese have sought to minimize conflict with the established fusion community by avoiding the term altogether and simply calling it "new hydrogen energy."
And despite hostility from the U.S. scientific community, cold fusion advocates appear to have gained key support. Pons and Fleischmann, with funding from a Toyota-backed company called Technova, continue to perfect their results in a Japanese-funded laboratory in Nice, France.
Japan's NTT has been selling cold fusion kits for about $500,000 since late 1992. A conference in Minsk, Belorussia, is scheduled later this month. The Electrical Power Research Institute, the R&D arm of the U.S. utilities industry, continues a $12 million cold fusion research effort that began in 1991.
And with the support and funding of Byte magazine founder Wayne Green, a glossy monthly magazine called Cold Fusion debuted its first issue this month. The 99-page magazine contains ads from a number of cold fusion startups, including a Salt Lake City, Utah-based company called Eneco, which has been buying up cold fusion patent rights worldwide.
Make no mistake: Cold Fusion, the magazine, is unabashedly about making money. One ad from the Cold Fusion Co. in Guttenberg, N.J., hawks ceremonial palladium medallions -- in anticipation of the expected run on palladium as cold fusion takes off. Another article discusses the implications of cold fusion for energy stocks.
Is this activity enough to prompt second thoughts in the Washington political establishment?
So far, the answer is no.
With the damning report from DoE in 1989 as its foundation, the U.S. government has yet to allocate a single dollar for cold fusion.
And the Patent Office has reportedly held up more than 200 cold-fusion related applications pending more concrete evidence, according to the Cold Fusion's editors.
Nonetheless, there are powerful cold fusion advocates -- or at least fence-sitters -- on Capitol Hill.
In February, 1993, Rep. Dick Swett, D-NH, inserted into the Congressional record a statement urging a re-evaluation of cold fusion in light of promising new research. George Brown, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, held hearings last May on fusion. He later issued an official statement urging further government-sponsored research into cold-fusion claims.
Finally, Ira Magaziner, Clinton's senior adviser for healthcare, had earlier worked as lead lobbyist for cold-fusion funding. That effort ultimately failed, but cold fusion supporters are hopeful they may at least have the ear of President Clinton, who this November acknowledged that he would ask the Office of Science and Technology Policy to consider cold fusion anew.
Thus, after more than five years in exile from the mainstream scientific community, advocates of cold fusion are redoubling efforts to woo investors and convince hardened skeptics in the federal government to cough up grant money.
One thing is sure: the final word on cold fusion has yet to be written.
Indeed, if there has truly been anything resembling a fusion reaction, it has been in the publishing business. In the past year, three books on the topic -- two against from science writers Gary Taubes and Frank Close and one for from Eugene Mallove -- have either been published on the topic or updated and reissued.
The May/June issue of Technology Review, the respected alumni publication for MIT, devoted its cover story to Edmund Storms, a retired DoE researcher and cold-fusion advocate.