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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cold Fusion: A Heated History

Air Date: Week of

Bruce Gellerman continues his investigation into the future of fusion with a look at the latest research in the field of cold fusion, the science of creating a nuclear reaction at room temperature. Most scientists call sustained cold fusion reactions impossible, but others say their experiments are producing energy.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood, and our investigation into what could be a major energy source of the future continues at a recent meeting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


CURWOOD: This seems like any one of the hundreds of gatherings that take place each year on MIT's campus.

NAGEL: Just walk in and listen. You cannot tell that you are anywhere but a scientific conference.

[TAPE: Though it's not related technically.]

CURWOOD: There are some of the best minds in the country discussing cutting edge science.

SWARTZ: I have two doctorates, one in medicine from Harvard and a doctorate in electrical engineering from MIT.

CURWOOD: Presenting their latest research.

NAGEL: These are skilled people who have done careful experiments and calculations, who stand up and tell you what they've done and what they've found, they respond to all your questions. They publish the information, they respond. This is an area of scientific research.

CURWOOD: And, of course, there are venture capitalists investigating the science, seeking to catch the wave on the next big thing in technology.

MALE: Clearly, there have been many advances on both the theoretical level and there are people who have experimental results that require attention.

CURWOOD: But what separates this conference and this crowd is the field they're investigating. It's cold fusion. And while few scientists are willing to accept it as a proven phenomenon, its advocates say it could provide vast amounts of non-polluting energy.

SWARTZ: It offers a chance to have the United States make the Kyoto agreement moot, and make greenhouse warming moot.

CURWOOD: What has been called "the most enormous conflict in basic science of the 20th century" began on March 23, 1989.

ROBERT SIEGEL ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED: Scientists in Utah today made an extraordinary claim. They announced that they've created fusion energy at room temperature in a simple test tube.

CURWOOD: Cold fusion was soon being hyped and hailed as the greatest discovery since fire, and, almost as soon, it was being assailed by critics as a hoax. Bruce Gellerman reports on what went wrong and what might be right about cold fusion.

GELLERMAN: Looking back, it's easy to see how a series of blunders nearly doomed cold fusion from the start. The first mistake, science by media circus.

NEWSCAST: We are here today to consider the implications of a scientific experiment....

GELLERMAN: Reporter questions are no match for scrutiny by fellow scientists, but University of Utah officials didn't want to follow standard scientific procedures and first publish the discovery in a scholarly journal. They were afraid someone would steal it so they hastily held a press conference. At times, the announcement seemed more like stand-up than scientific method

FLEISCHMANN: It's a pretty big kitchen (LAUGHTER)

GELLERMAN: Dr. Martin Fleischmann was clearly enjoying himself. And why not? He was possibly the greatest electrochemist of his day, and after five years of working in secret, in a basement laboratory with Stanley Pons, chairman of Utah's chemistry department, cold fusion was easily his greatest discovery.

FLEISCHMANN: Stan and I thought this experience was so stupid that we financed it ourselves.

GELLERMAN: As relaxed as Martin Fleischmann was, Stanley Pons was nervous. He had published 150 scientific papers, but now he didn't even have time to prepare notes. At the podium, Pons almost dropped the experimental cold fusion device he and Fleischmann had developed.

PONS: Basically, we've established a sustained nuclear fusion reaction by means which are considerably simpler than the conventional techniques. And with this process there is a considerable release of energy and we've demonstrated it can be sustained on its own. In other words, much more energy is coming out than we're putting in.

GELLERMAN: Pons and Fleischmann claimed their fusion device generated four times more energy then they put in. The extra heat they got out was hundreds of times more energy than any chemical reaction could have possibly produced. And all it took, they said, was some basic laboratory equipment. A battery, an electrode made out of the metal palladium, and a test tube filled with heavy water -- that's water made from a form of hydrogen called deuterium.

When the scientists passed an electric current through the palladium, the electrode absorbed the deuterium like a sponge. For two months Pons and Fleischmann loaded the palladium with so much deuterium the electrode bulged, squeezing the deuterium nuclei closer and closer together.

FLEISCHMANN: The experiment is very simple, and under those circumstance we have found conditions under which fusion takes place and can be sustained indefinitely. We have run the experiment hundreds of hours...

GELLERMAN: The media was abuzz with stories about "hot energy from cold fusion." Congress and the president wanted answers. The Soviet Academy of Sciences even offered to set up a cold fusion research center. Soon researchers around the world were announcing they, too, were able to create cold fusion...but only once in a while. Sometimes the experiment worked, most of the time it didn't. It seemed cold fusion was a fickle phenomenon. Even Pons and Fleischmann could only get it to work one out of ten times.

GARWIN: The more you looked into their results the less there was, unfortunately.

GELLERMAN: Physicist Richard Garwin, IBM fellow emeritus at the Watson Research Center, was one of the first to investigate the cold fusion claims.

GARWIN: If one had that energy, that would be great. And I would be the first one to cheer. But why can those people not reproduce the energy that they get?

GELLERMAN: The ability to reproduce an experiment is the gold standard in science for verifying a discovery. But a large share of the blame why researchers weren't able to reproduce the results was Pons and Fleischmann's, and accounts for their second and third big mistakes.

The experiment they described as simple to do was anything but, and they had kept critical experimental procedures a secret.

Then there was the fourth and near fatal mistake. In hot fusion, like the sun, the reaction gives off byproducts: high energy neutrons, tritium, and helium. Pons and Fleischmann reported finding these reaction byproducts, but scientists skeptical of their claim said the levels were so low they were beyond belief.

The final blow came when Fleischmann made a sophomoric error. He miscounted the neutrons. One of the first to realize the mistake was Richard Garwin.

GARWIN: It turned out that Fleischmann and Pons didn't really understand anything about nuclear measurements, so all that was wrong. Anybody can make a mistake and Fleischmann made several.

GELLERMAN: The official burial came in mid-summer when a committee convened by the Department of Energy concluded there was no convincing evidence Pons and Fleischmann's experiment generated extra heat, or was a nuclear reaction, and the committee saw no reason to set up a special fund to investigate the claims.

Their reputations ruined, and their discovery disgraced, cold fusion became the third rail of science. Stanley Pons gave up his American citizenship and joined Martin Fleischmann in self-imposed exile in France.


GELLERMAN: But reports of the death of cold fusion were premature. The field was kept alive by a small community of researchers who meet every 18 months or so. Critics call them a cult, but these true believers are sustained by laboratory results they say prove cold fusion can produce unlimited, safe, non-polluting energy.

NAGEL: People come to me and say "But Dave, it sounds too good to be true." Well, yes, it is too good to be true, but that's what the promise is.

GELLERMAN: Dave is David Nagel. Now research professor at George Washington University, Nagel retired as a senior scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory. The U.S. Navy was one of a number of government departments that continued to investigate cold fusion even after it had been all but forgotten in the academic world.

NAGEL: Well, it is a legitimate scientific area. It's certainly not alchemy. And the answer to the question about energy production, is emphatically yes. There are over 3,000 papers in this field and hundreds of them have reported net energy gain, and there are a handful that will survive scrutiny by anyone in terms of everything you want in science.

GELLERMAN: Cold fusion advocates say more than 20 laboratories in seven countries have successfully replicated the original Pons and Fleischmann experiment.

ATTENDANT : We're standing now outside the door of the principle laboratory...

GELLERMAN: One of the first scientists to try to repeat the experiment was Dr. Michael McKubre.

ATTENDANT: You can enter and I'll show you what's inside.

He's director of Energy Research at SRI International in Menlo Park, California. On his first attempt it took McKubre a month just to get the reaction going.

McKUBRE: It was then another month before we had coaxed and tweaked and pushed this experiment to the point that it gave some glimmerings of excess heat. That experiment produced three episodes of excess heat in the two months of operation of that experiment.

GELLERMAN: But it was only after three or four years of doing cold fusion experiments that Michael McKubre says he was convinced the excess energy he was measuring in his experiments was real.

McKUBRE: The heat that we're measuring consistently since 1989 is at least ten times, in some cases a hundred times or a thousand times larger than the sum total of all chemical reactions that could take place inside the cells. So on that basis alone you have to say to yourself "this is probably nuclear" but you can't make a claim for a nuclear effect without having some products in hand. So we set out to look for products.

GELLERMAN: Finding the byproducts of fusion -- such as helium, neutrons and radiation -- has been the holy grail of cold fusion scientists. But researchers have had difficulty detecting them, their results inconsistent and the amounts still way too low, say critics, to be from a fusion reaction.

But Michael McKubre says he has proof-positive fusion is happening. He's detected helium in nearly the exact amount theory says should be there, and also tritium, a rare, radioactive form of hydrogen.

GARWIN: They've been very careful there, but there are mistakes.

GELLERMAN: In 1993, Richard Garwin inspected Michael McKubre's lab on behalf of the Department of Defense.

GARWIN: The data was not carefully preserved, things were not dated, there were only two positive runs as I recall, and one of them turned out to be a misconnection of the cell. Unless you can reproduce the results, you can't say you have them.

GELLERMAN: But now U.S. Navy scientists say they do have them. They claim to have verifiable, irrefutable proof cold fusion is real, despite critics who say it's simply impossible.

BOSS: We just keep plugging along. You've gotta have a thick skin to be in this field.

GELLERMAN: Dr. Pamela Boss works at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego. She and Dr. Stanislaw Szpak have produced some of the most definitive evidence of the cold fusion phenomenon. They fund the research mostly out of their own pocket and, even though he's retired, Dr. Szpak still comes in almost every day to conduct cold fusion experiments, perfecting a method that he says speeds up the reaction. Now, instead of waiting weeks for cold fusion to begin, it happens instantaneously.

SZPAK: Now we have 100 percent reproducible results. In other words, we always get to that last step. We are doing that within seconds. But there is one thing that we need to concentrate is what are the conditions that lead to the last step before the nuclear reaction?

GELLERMAN: Like Michael McKubre, Szpak and Boss have measured elevated levels of tritium and have focused on detecting the other radiation byproducts of fusion reactions, gamma and x-rays. Pamela Boss:

BOSS: We work with a lot of physicists here and they, of course, were very skeptical. So then, we borrowed equipment to do gamma ray measurements and x-ray measurement. And you could see they were tracking one another. When the gamma ray detector was going up, so was the x-ray detector. And I pointed this out to the physicist who was helping us and he was a little bit disturbed by that because he made sure that everything was on separate circuits, there was no cross talk.

GELLERMAN: But the most dramatic experimental evidence Boss and Szpak have that cold fusion is a nuclear reaction is a medieval alchemist's dream come true. But instead of turning lead into gold, they say they have images of minute nuclear explosions turning parts of their palladium electrodes into aluminum, magnesium and zinc.

SZPAK: We see appearance of elements which weren't there to start with. In other words, during the experiment itself these elements have been created. Now, by what mechanism, if you're asking me that question, I cannot answer because I simply don't know yet.

GELLERMAN: Well, what are the possibilities other then cold fusion?

SZPAK: Oh, no, no, no. It's a nuclear reaction at room temperature.

GELLERMAN: Szpak and Boss have published the results of their experiment in a prestigious, peer-reviewed physics journal. And Japanese scientists have reported similar findings. So, how might cold fusion work? Well, few researchers at U.S. universities are investigating the question because it's a career destroyer; those who study cold fusion do so at their own peril. One of the few who has from the very beginning is Peter Hagelstein of MIT.

HAGELSTEIN: This experiment implied the existence of some new physics. Hence, if there's going to be heat there are going to be neutrons; if there's no neutrons hence there's no heat, hence it's all wrong. It got very confused very quickly.

GELLERMAN: Today, because of his continued work on cold fusion, Peter Hagelstein lives a life of virtual academic exile at MIT. He lost funding for his lab and he never did make full professor.


Professor Peter Hagelstein of MIT draws a diagram illustrating cold fusion theory. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

GELLERMAN: Over the years, Associate Hagelstein has come up with 150 versions of a theory trying to explain how cold fusion could create a nuclear reaction at room temperature without high levels of fusion byproducts. Now, he thinks he has it. On a blackboard in an MIT classroom he slowly sketches what looks like a box spring.

HAGELSTEIN: People drew pictures something like this picture and looked to see where the deuterium was and they calculated how likely it is that one deuteron would talk to a neighboring deuteron.

GELLERMAN: As he maps out the molecular structure of palladium, Dr. Hagelstein seems to stare through the blackboard into space. It's as if he had entered the through-the-looking-glass sub-atomic world that is quantum mechanics. It's a different universe from the one you and I live in where, theoretically, it's possible to be in two places at the same time.

HAGELSTEIN: The corners fit in like so, and there's on that fit's in the middle here...

GELLERMAN: As Peter Hagelstein sees it, cold fusion is not just a colder version of plasma or hot fusion, but an entirely different phenomenon. His theory doesn't violate any of the fundamental laws of nature. But it does require a rethinking of modern physics.

HAGELSTEIN: So, we start out now with a picture of a communication between reactions at different sites, and this is not in the textbooks.

GELLERMAN: When you show this to your colleagues do they go, yeah, I got it, that's it.

HAGELSTEIN: No, generally they say "Hagelstein, you're as mad as a mad hatter" or something. But some are intrigued. But, at the moment, it remains a conjecture.

GELLERMAN: In 2004, 15 years after the Department of Energy first rejected claims of cold fusion, Drs. Hagelstein, David Nagel and Michael McKubre convinced the DOE to reconsider and review the latest laboratory evidence. An anonymous panel of 18 experts was convened. Half of the members concluded there was convincing evidence that excess heat was coming out of cold fusion experiments, and about six of the experts said the phenomenon might well be caused by a nuclear reaction.

Still, half the panel called the claims preposterous, the theories implausible and the phenomenon impossible, requiring multiple miracles to occur.

Over the years, the most outspoken critic of cold fusion has been Robert Park, author of the book "Voodoo Science." He calls cold fusion an illusion -- nothing more than wishful interpretation of data by researchers.

PARK: I've never seen anything quite like cold fusion. It's an interesting phenomenon. I don't know how to explain it either, but after this much time if they haven't come up with anything more convincing than that, if everybody is not bowled over by their experiment this time...I guess I'm still skeptical.

GELLERMAN: A healthy skepticism is at the heart of the scientific method, but it underscores the fact that while scientists try to impose objective procedures and processes in the way they conduct their experiments, science is fundamentally a human endeavor. That's why two skilled scientists can conduct the same experiment, look at the same things, and come to very different conclusions. Even something that's seemingly as simple as measuring whether there's excess heat coming out of a test tube.

History can offer solace, of sorts, for cold fusion advocates. In 1905, Albert Einstein came up with his revolutionary theory e=mc2, it laid the basis for nuclear energy. But it wasn't until 27 years later, in 1932, that scientists in the lab finally confirmed his theory. By that measure, cold fusion still has time before it's fully recognized, or finally rejected, by the ultimate arbiter in these matters: the scientific method.

[MUSIC: Autechre "Nine" from 'Amber' (Warp Records -- 1994)]

GELLERMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.



Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (cold fusion)

New Energy Times


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