Features, Future Please

Future, Please: Cold Fusion

October 18, 2013

time_coverLimitless, clean energy! Cold fusion is the perfect MacGuffin for any techno-thriller: the hero possess the key to a future of unlimited free energy, if only the establishment would listen or the oil tycoons would stop shooting at him. If he stays strong and keeps the dream alive, he could save the world.

It’s not nearly so entertaining when this scenario plays out in the real world. Reputations are ruined, pseudoscience perpetuated, and Rear Admiral Patrick Brady gets very, very annoyed.



As a fictional device, cold fusion was used to good effect in one of my favorite sick-day movies: The Saint (1997, starring Val Kilmer). Kilmer, through acrobatic escapades, disguise work, and winning the heart of a beautiful woman, possesses the key to a utopia of unlimited, clean energy. An evil Russian oil oligarch wants the secret for himself in order to control the heating oil market (he’s also bought all of the oil and stashed it under a pretty sweet mansion).

The-Saint-1997-movie-posterThe formula Kilmer steals is incomplete, naturally, so the oligarch doubles down by attempting to sell it to the Russian President. When word gets out that so much money was wasted on pseudoscience, the people will surely install Evil Oil Oligarch as their new President!

Naturally, it doesn’t work out that way. Beautiful scientist completes the formula, the cold fusion generator actually works, the good guys win. As a grace note, Kilmer steals the oligarch’s fortune and donates it to charitable causes.

In our world, cold fusion doesn’t work and evil oligarchs are wonderful people who would never make me disappear for speaking ill of them. To an international community of true believers, however, cold fusion is the best-kept secret in the scientific and engineering world.

The 1989 Cold Fusion Hysteria

The 1989 cold fusion hysteria began with Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, who collaborated on a series of experiments to fuse hydrogen (in deuterium) though electrolysis. By using a palladium electrode, they hypothesized that palladium would absorb sufficient hydrogen to trigger room temperature fusion reactions.

pons_and_fleischmannFor six years, between 1983 and 1989, the two funded their own research and experimentation. In some of their experiments – but not all, and not predictably – the two detected a 20 degree C jump in water temperature within the electrolysis apparatus, without an increase in input current. Cautiously excited that the heat was a result of energy given off by fusion, the two applied for Department of Energy funding to pursue more extensive experimentation and planned to publish their initial results in conjunction with other researchers in a related field.

Their host university, the University of Utah, pressured Fleischmann and Pons to publish early and independently, to better position themselves in later, lucrative patent applications. Their initial paper, while vague on their exact procedure and omitting details of their experimental apparatus (to protect their intellectual property), set off a global media firestorm.

At the time, the United States economy had only just recovered from the 1970s oil crisis. Interest in new, independent forms of energy was steadily increasing, as was public awareness of environmental issues. Within a month, the University of Utah was requesting – and seemed likely to receive – $25 million to fund further research, and Pons was scheduled to meet directly with President Bush a few weeks later.

pons and f 2Enough details of the experiment were present, however, for other engineers and scientists to replicate the experiment. That’s where the trouble started.

Not only was no one able to replicate the results reported by Pons and Fleischmann, a team from CalTech was able to precisely reproduce the experimental errors which lead to the reported temperature increases. Dr. Nathan Lewis, who lead the effort, also pointed out that the reported helium levels were entirely consistent with contamination of the cell from atmospheric helium – the exact error which derailed an earlier attempt at deuterium-palladium cold fusion in 1929.

After trying every possible variation of the Pons/Fleischmann experiments, not a single university or lab supported their results. The team compounded embarrassment by reacting with outright hostility, gradually alienating the greater scientific community. While the work continued for years, without results, the very idea of cold fusion was verboten in the majority of the scientific community.

Out in the Cold: The True Believers

The scientific and engineering establishment is almost entirely disinterested in cold fusion research – the last paper on the subject challenged on technical grounds was Fleischmann’s final paper, submitted to Physics Letters A in 1993. For the most part, contemporary cold fusion research is a white whale, pursued by true believers and independent amateurs.

Lack of peer review or skeptical engagement effectively doomed the cold fusion community to work in an echo chamber, where oscillation produced greater and more shrill endorsements of scientifically dubious experiments. Take, for example, this description of a purportedly self-sustaining cold fusion reaction (pdf)– a class of event referred to as ‘heat after death’ among believers:

“The cell went out of control. Mizuno cooled it over 10 days by placing it in a large bucket of water. During this period, more than 37 liters of water evaporated from the bucket, which means the cell produced more than 84 megajoules of energy during this period alone, and 114 megajoules during the entire experiment. The only active material in the cell was 100 grams of palladium. It produced 27 times more energy than an equivalent mass of the best chemical fuel, gasoline, can produce. I think the 36 liters of evaporated water constitute better scientific evidence than the most carefully calibrated high precision instrument could produce.” (emphasis mine)

This excerpt, taken from Jed Rothwell’s introduction to his own translation of Nuclear Transmutation: The Reality of Cold Fusion, by Dr. Tadahiko Mizuno, is a fair tonal example of the discourse I encountered in publications from today’s cold fusion community. (In fairness, Dr. Tadahiko Mizuno himself states that he never published a write-up of this event, as he lacked proper calorimetric readings to verify heat production. Whether or not he attempted to reproduce the event and gather such data is never mentioned; it would spoil the drama.) Skepticism and controlled experiment are viewed as arbitrary hurdles, imposed by the close-minded.

journal logoFor the most part, the community supplies its own peer review, supports its own publishing houses (the piece quoted above is published by Infinite Energy Press), and maintains a small number of publications dedicated to news, developments, and papers of interest to cold fusion researchers. Regular conferences are held to discuss possible theoretical models for “low energy nuclear reactions” – the preferred term – and discuss refinements in experimental design.

The first such conference occurred in 1990: the International Conference on Cold Fusion (ICCF). Many of the papers presented there are reproduced in the Journal of Condensed Matter Nuclear Science; volume ten contains six of the twenty-eight papers presented at ICCF 2011, if you’re looking for a starting point in the literature.

While I was reviewing the JCMNS for this article, I came across an interesting passage in the preface to volume nine. In it, the editor relates that he published two of the nine papers in that volume over the objections of the Journal’s own peer review referee. “It appeared to me,” the editor writes, in regard to the first paper, “that it would be nonetheless worthwhile to publish it as such and let other readers criticize the work, by sending comments that will be published in another volume of the journal.”

As for the second, the editor took the unusual step of electing to publish both the paper and the resulting argument between author and referee, for public edification. “This is not the usual way of publications in scientific journals,” he writes, “but it seemed to me that this exchange of points of view will enrich the debate among theoreticians.”

While not damning of the endeavor as a whole, it is rather atypical; peer review is what distinguishes scientific and engineering journals of record from mere niche interest magazines. Overturning a referee’s conclusions at the editor’s discretion undermines the quality control process, and the journal itself.

Cold Fusion, Please

Rejected by the majority of the scientific and engineering community, working without major funding sources or testable theoretical models, cold fusion researchers are unlikely to develop reproducible experimental results in the near term. The real pot of gold – a functional, reliable, power-generating device – is an even longer shot. Still, just as the 70s oil crisis set the stage for the first round of cold fusion hysteria, climate change and the increasingly clear costs of a fossil fuel-based civilization are encouraging a second wave of cautious attention to cold fusion research.

Reputable conferences are beginning to accept presenters from the cold fusion community in a limited way; not as an endorsement of the state of the research, but more to keep discussion public and channels open in case a genuine breakthrough occurs.

In 2007, the American Chemical Society invited cold fusion researchers to participate in their annual conference. According to the RCS, a small community presence at major conferences is typical, if peripheral; American Physical Society “groups together a number of cold fusion researchers every year”, but an officially recognized presence like 2007 ACS symposium was almost unprecedented.

Skepticism is still very much the state of play, however. Quoted in the same article, Frank Close (author and Emeritus Professor, University of Oxford) reported he saw nothing new from the cold fusion contingent at the 2007 ACS conference. “just the usual suspects, recycling”. He cautions that renewed discussion is no evidence of renewed progress.

Two years later, at another ACS conference, the state of play was entirely unchanged.

Perpetual_Motion_by_Norman_RockwellStill, with very real energy-related crises playing out on the world stage, government and academic research budgets are finding room for long shot investments in cold fusion research. A grant-funded program at the University of Missouri is attempting to replicate and refine the original, 1989 experiments, while the Italian government’s efforts have continued since shortly after the first wave of cold fusion hysteria. In the United States, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) researchers were involved in cold fusion research until November of 2012, when Rear Admiral Patrick Brady ordered SPAWAR researchers to halt all work in the field, return any unused funds, withdrawal outstanding funding proposals, and cease publication of any scientific papers on the subject.

That this was shortly after Andrea Rossi’s 2011 cold fusion hoax– in which SPAWAR researchers (allegedly) confirmed the functionality of the device and (allegedly!) purchased at least one unit – seems an unlikely coincidence.

Cautious levels of funding – and the research conference equivalent of a kid’s table – are typically justified in much the same way the state of New York advertised its lottery: “Hey, you never know.” It’s not entirely impossible that the next E-Cat machine will be the real thing, or that theoretical work will advance to the point of generating testable predictions. It’s not likely enough to strip resources away from proven sources of clean, fusion power – like the sun – but a lottery ticket can be an occasionally tempting investment.

Twenty-four years is a long time to go without reproducible results or testable theories, however. We may need to accept a future without magical clean energy, looking to other avenues for sustainable power and reduced carbon emissions.