Since cold fusion's troubled birth, it has been relegated to the fringes of science and the stuff of fiction. But this week, several chemists present evidence that cold fusion may be about to come online.
Cold fusion entered the public spotlight in 1989 with a scandal. Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons claimed they'd produced a nuclear reaction using a device that produced large amounts of heat using heavy water and palladium electrodes. Unfortunately, the results proved unrepeatable. The two were blacklisted, and the burgeoning study of cold fusion was written off as a pipe dream.
Many researchers called cold fusion a fantasy, but a small group of academics and scientists kept working on the technology. Now known as low energy nuclear reaction (LENR), it's returned to the limelight, but this time as a potential success story.
This week, a series of lectures on cold fusion will be held at the 239th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). The results presented at the meeting offer hope that those first experiments weren't as farfetched as we once believed.
One of the major theoretical hurdles to recreating the Fleischmann and Pons experiments with cold fusion is the fundamental question of where the heat came from. According to the now-disgraced researchers, a significant amount of heat was output by the heavy water — more than can be accounted for by existing chemical or nuclear models. Prof. Peter Hagelstein of MIT, who is presenting his work at ACS, has been working for many years on figuring out a model that will account for the great amounts of energy produced. He explained:
So in the [original] experiments, a huge amount of energy is seen, so much energy that it could not conceivably be of chemical origin. Plus, there's no chemistry that's observed going on in the experiments that has anything remotely to do with the observations of the power and total energy production. The second piece of it is that basically no energetic particles are observed commensurate with the energy. So there are no significant amount of neutrons, there's no fast electrons, there's no gamma rays. There's nothing you might expect if it were a more normal nuclear reaction process.
Hagelstein believes quantum physics might be the answer, and has suggested that field's "Spin-Boson Model" could explain how huge amounts of energy could be released in the absence of these energetic particles.
Other researchers speaking at the ACS meeting are working on a more practical take on the technology, actually figuring out how the Fleischmann-Pons reaction might have occurred, and if it can be replicated. Dr. George Miley of the University of Illinois, for example, is working on an LENR fuel cell, where the palladium electrodes intentionally have minute flaws in them, which cause the deuterium atoms to pile up in the imperfections, effectively reaching the density required for a nuclear reaction.
One of the many issues of working in a field associated with a topic as controversial as cold fusion is the lack of funding associated with it. Lab equipment ain't cheap, after all. Dr. Melvin Miles has been working to take at least some of the trouble out of that, by creating a temperature measuring device that's crucial for researching LENR — a calorimeter — for a fraction of a price of commercially available unites. Backed by an anonymous donor, Miles devised a stable and accurate calorimeter using everyday items. He said:
It's made out of things you can just go to the hardware store and buy...it's made out of copper tubing you can buy at a hardware store...copper end caps, there's a smaller inner copper tube, a larger outer copper tube, and between the two there's…foam insulation you put around pipes. It makes it very easy to construct.
With some straightforward technical knowledge the device can be constructed for around $400 — and in the spirit of open source development, Miles will be releasing the plans for free. He added, "They're inexpensive, they're very stable, they're better than anything I've built previously."
Why is it important that this lab equipment can be made for pennies? The funding situation is truly dire for this research, even though it's a potentially world-altering. The fact remains that the early disgrace of research has tainted it for 20+ years. It's to the point where we hear almost nothing about cold fusion which isn't bunk or fiction, even though it could potentially create power without pollution. Hagelstein is worried about the future:
If things keep going on the way they're going to day, the answer is it's never going to happen...If tomorrow somebody decided that it was a rational thing for govt support to go into this area at a substantial level because it was a national priority…then I actually think that you could have the very first technology beginning to be applicable or available somewhere in 3-5 years.
Hagelstein suggests that cold fusion would give us cars with a built in fusion motor that would be filled up once when constructed. One fueling would last for the rest of the car's life because the energy density is millions of times greater than chemical fuel. Hegelstein is primarily self-funded on this type of research, and he payed all his own fees for the ACS conference.
Basically we're growing older, we're not going to live forever. Unless something changes, there's a very good chance we're not going to finish our work before there's none of us left to do anything...if a young person thinks of joining the field, he or she does it at peril of having a career ruined by association with being in the field. At the moment, one thought is that the best that we could be doing right now is to document the fruits of our labor, such that sometime in the future...maybe we can hand of our work to another generation, maybe 50 years from now.
Unfortunately, he doesn't see it getting better soon. According to Hagelstein, there's also significant resistance to LETR in the higher echelons of funding sources. Many of the people who made their name debunking Fleischmann and Pons are now in substantial positions of power, and they're unlikely to look favorably on research that invalidates what made them famous.
Given the immense possibilities associated with cold fusion, and the very real chance that it may exist, why aren't we doing more to fund this research? Whether or not you accept climate change as real, a power source that would provide mammoth amounts of energy without pollution must be at least worth serious investigation. Respected academics and professionals have continued to research it. What would it take for enough funding to be thrown at this, to know once and for all if its possible? Because the potential benefits of the science seem worth almost any amount.
You can read our full interview with Hagelstein here.
Read more about ACM's cold fusion track at their annual conference here.