Cold fusion: The ghost of free energy

Published on GroundReport, 23 Mar 2009

Two decades ago a pair of eminent chemists claimed to find the secret of almost limitless energy, only to have their results dismissed several weeks later. Today many scientists think there was truth in the claims but, as Jon Cartwright discovers, few are still listening

The late writer Arthur C Clarke had a knack for anticipating great developments in science. In the mid 1940s, more than a decade before the formation of NASA, he said that man would walk on the moon before the century was up. Around the same time he wrote a paper in which he suggested that satellites in special geostationary orbits would be ideal for worldwide radio communications, an idea that was realized some 25 years later. And in 1993, he wrote a letter to the new vice-president of the US, Al Gore, with another of his nagging hunches. “Dear Mr. Gore,” it read. “I am happy to learn that you are being briefed on the above — perhaps misnamed — subject, as it is impossible to imagine anything of greater potential importance from both the economic and geopolitical points of view.” The subject reference at the top of the letter was “cold fusion”.

Clarke’s support for cold fusion never waned up to his death last year, though for most people the term would seem more at home in one of his science fiction novels than in serious research literature. Forgotten are the grand promises of limitless energy; today it is as often a metaphor for something unobtainable as it is a byword for bad science. It conjures images of solitary cranks perched in the attic amid various bubbling chemistry sets and masses of spaghetti-like cables. In fact if you search on YouTube you can even witness some of those solitary cranks filming themselves and their homemade apparatus for real. “We can see the illumination…and we’re getting cold fusion!” exults someone going by the username Jersilb who is fiddling with a glowing jam jar in his garage. According to the title of one of the bestselling polemics on the topic, cold fusion was the scientific fiasco of last century — yet, it could also be the most misunderstood.

The fiasco began, 20 years ago to this day, at a press conference at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. At the front of a room packed with journalists sat Martin Fleischmann, a retired chemist and a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and Stanley Pons, the head of chemistry at Utah. Brief introductions over, Pons stood up to the microphone and spoke the line that, unbeknown to him, sealed the end of their careers: “We have established a sustained nuclear fusion reaction by means which are considerably simpler than conventional techniques.” Then he presented a glass cell, or what looked like a large modified test tube, in which the wonder reaction was supposed to take place.

The world has never seen such a flurry of scientific activity as in the days after 23 March 1989. Just the following day, the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled tens of millions of gallons of crude oil over pristine Alaskan coastline. Many people were becoming increasingly aware of the dangers and the depletion of fossil fuels, not to mention the reality of climate change. Lured by the prospect of a “clean, virtually inexhaustible source of energy,” thousands of scientists across the globe became overnight experts in electrochemistry — the practice of running electric currents through liquids — in an attempt to get in on the science.

But it was not to be. Although positive results drifted in from some labs, major facilities, including the California Institute of Technology (better known as Caltech) and Harwell in the UK, failed to reproduce the phenomenon. On 1 May at a meeting in Baltimore hosted by the American Physical Society (APS), one of the Caltech scientists, Nathan Lewis, claimed that the Utah chemists’ results were simply down to schoolboy error: all one had to do was stir the cells and, apparently, the characteristic fusion signals disappeared. Lewis’s colleague Steve Koonin summed up to the audience: “We are suffering from the incompetence and perhaps delusions of doctors Pons and Fleischmann.” If that were not enough, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that the chemists’ data for emitted gamma rays — an important sign of a nuclear reaction — looked suspiciously as though they had been distorted. Rumours of fraud began to circulate. As one prominent academic wrote, five weeks after the Utah press conference “cold fusion was dead in the eyes of respectable science.”

If cold fusion really did die in 1989, it still haunts those who dealt the final blows. Ask a mainstream nuclear physicist his general thoughts on cold fusion and reactions tend to betray a repressed trauma. “Twenty years is a long time,” says Frank Close, a physicist at the University of Oxford and author of the 1991 book Too Hot to Handle: The Race For Cold Fusion. “For the first ten I followed the thing very closely, then I just got gradually more and more disenchanted — not with the lack of evidence, but the idiotic extremes that some people seem to be going to in order to try to excuse why they were not able to see what they were claiming to see.”

Indeed most mainstream scientists perceive cold fusion today as nothing but the vestiges of a defeated uprising, a cultish band of researchers who have an unyielding belief in their work. The ex-editor of the interdisciplinary journal Nature, John Maddox, has dismissed those in the field as converted “followers” who “have seen the true light.” A few years ago the editor of Scientific American, John Rennie, wrote to a librarian saying he puts requests for cold fusion articles on the same pile as those for creationism, global warming denial and crypto-archaeology. But those in the field say it contains hundreds of researchers, many of whom have established reputations in other areas and have published thousands of papers. How is it that a field with such seemingly solid credentials is still branded as pseudoscience?

Since the 1930s physicists have looked to nuclear reactions for making energy. It was during the Manhattan Project that they honed the technique of splitting atoms in a chain reaction, a process called fission. Let the chain reaction run loose for city-flattening explosions, or hold it on a leash for generating sustained power. But even in power plants fission is messy: it produces radioactive waste that can stay dangerously active for thousands of years, and if something goes wrong — say, a meltdown à la Chernobyl — you could be left with lost lives and hundreds of square kilometres of uninhabitable land. A much cleaner and safer nuclear reaction is fusion, in which you collide light atoms to make heavier ones. But this reaction has proved far trickier, mostly because atoms naturally repel one another.

With commercial plants decades away at best, fusion remains the dream for energy generation. It is the same reaction that keeps the Sun alight, and so to force it to occur on Earth conventional thinking has it that you need temperatures that are Sun-like or, preferably, hotter. Yet in 1989 Fleischmann and Pons effectively said you need no such thing. All you require is a glass cell filled with “heavy” water, a type of water in which the molecules contain deuterium, a heavy form of hydrogen. If you run a strong electric current through the heavy water from one electrode to another, deuterium atoms will enter the latter electrode and squeeze together so much that they fuse. And this will happen not at millions of degrees, but at room temperature.

The principal evidence for their claim was heat. Using a technique called calorimetry, Fleischmann and Pons compared the electrical energy they put into their cells with the heat energy given off. They found a positive amount of “excess” heat, and way too much to have been produced by a mundane chemical reaction. But this on its own was not enough; if fusion was taking place the reaction must also generate some nuclear by-products. The two chemists had sketchy evidence for the element tritium, which can be produced when two deuterium atoms fuse, and a trickle of particles called neutrons, which are emitted in fusion but which theory suggests should be far more prolific. Some other labs did claim to find such by-products, but their data tended to be inconsistent with accepted nuclear theory. This damper, combined with a spate of sloppy experiments, led many to think the field was a waste of time. The doors of communication closed. Scepticism set in.

* * *

Ed Storms is a chemist who was working at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico at the time of the Utah announcement. The US Department of Energy initially encouraged his research into cold fusion but withdrew funding after a year even though he had begun to register positive results. Now retired, he funds his work on cold fusion himself. “There are two types of scepticism that exist in this world,” he says. “There are the sceptics who I would really call pathological, who are incapable of changing their mind no matter what you tell them. But most of the sceptics are that way because of ignorance. The scientific journals have not permitted the information to be widely distributed, so most scientists still have the idea they had back in 1991” — when Close’s book was published — “that this is shown to be nonsense and just went away.”

In 1993, Storms compiled a review of cold fusion and found evidence in the form of excess heat had been published by 21 different research groups, of whom at least 12 had had their work subjected to the crucial vetting process known as peer review. Around this time, those who had persevered with the research were also beginning to find why some people had found signals of the phenomenon while others had not. To stand a chance of getting excess heat, it seemed, you had to pack a cell’s electrode with as much as 90% deuterium. Caltech, the lab that claimed to debunk Fleischmann and Pons’s results at the 1989 Baltimore meeting, had logged a maximum of just 80%. According to later reports, the early attempts in cold fusion were something like making bread without a recipe: by chance a few had managed to get the dough to rise, while others were unaware you needed to add yeast.

Few mainstream scientists appear to be aware of such developments in cold fusion, though they may have a valid excuse. When Storms tried to submit a review of cold fusion to the leading APS journal Reviews of Modern Physics, he says he received a hand-written note from the editor saying he “would never publish anything on this discredited field.” And Storms is not the only one who has trouble publishing in the top journals, which scientists consult to keep updated on topics outside their specialty. The field is littered with accounts of work being rejected without it ever being given for peer review. Perhaps most famous is the case of the late Nobel laureate Julian Schwinger, who had the door shut on his theoretical attempts to explain the observations. “I anticipated [the APS journal] Physical Review Letters would have some difficulty with what had become a very controversial subject,” he wrote shortly before his death in 1994. “What I had not expected — as I wrote in my subsequent letter of resignation from the APS — was contempt.”

This year Richard Oriani, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, tried and failed to have research published in APS’s Physical Review C, one of the most respected journals for discoveries in nuclear physics. For the last few years he and other researchers have been experimenting with a transparent plastic known as CR-39, which can record the passage of charged particles as tiny pits in its surface. High-energy charged particles are strong evidence of a nuclear reaction. Oriani finds when he places CR-39 inside active cells it records a stippled pattern of pits, whereas in control cells it records next to nothing. He knows that the pits cannot come from any radioactive contamination because the undersides are pitted too, which means the particles must have been of particularly high energy. He knows that they cannot come from so-called cosmic rays because those tend to produce tracks in the shape of rosettes. Indeed, Oriani has tried everything to explain away his results but can only conclude that the particles originate from some kind of nuclear reaction within the cells.

Even hardened cold fusion sceptics admit that the recent CR-39 results are intriguing. Still, Oriani’s work was rejected before peer review, he says, because it only develops a technique and does not show understanding. “Now the second portion is correct,” he explains. “I religiously avoided that because any attempt to explain the phenomenon would be so outlandish that it would never get past the reviewers. So I preferred to remain completely experimental. It was wrong the first count because it shows a reproducible generation of nuclear particles.”

Benjamin Gibson, the editor of Physical Review C, says that APS journal editors do not comment on rejected manuscripts. Yet although it is accepted that journals sometimes return papers on any topic without peer review, cold fusion researchers protest that decisions regarding their work are biased by ill-informed scepticism and a lasting bitterness from the disputes of 1989. They say it is a Catch-22 situation whereby the tide of scepticism deters journals from publishing, which in turn prevents scepticism from ever receding.

The protests extend to obtaining intellectual property. A forwarded response from the UK patent office explains there are no special policies for assessing applications related to cold fusion, but notes that cold fusion experiments “have been impossible to replicate, despite considerable sums of money being spent in the attempt.” Seemingly to evidence the quality of science in the field, the response refers to an article in the Daily Mail about a retired lab technician who is “on the verge of cracking the secret of nuclear fusion” in his spare bedroom.

The US patent office is more precise: “No special category…Applications drawn to cold fusion are usually rejected based on the lack of credible utility and lack of enablement with respect to there not being a credible utility.” In plain terms, this means the US patent office tends not to believe applications on cold fusion will be usable and therefore that no-one will be able to use them.

“My rejoinder to them would be, you consider a lot of things that don’t have credible utility,” says David Nagel, a physicist based in Washington DC. Nagel spent a large portion of his career as superintendent at the US Naval Research Laboratory for a 150-man division specializing in solid-state and nuclear physics. He is now considered one of the leading scientists in cold fusion research. “Fundamentally the patent office depends upon the scientific community in that they are not an authority in these fields; they have a job to do. So as long as this field is anathema to the scientific community then it’s going to be a problem.”

* * *

Much of the acrimony surrounding cold fusion still owes itself to contentious decisions made during 1989. At the time of the Utah announcement Fleischmann and Pons had not published anything on their work, which is by no means unheard of but which for the magnitude of claim left other scientists feeling short-changed. When a paper was published almost three weeks later it contained little useful information and was riddled with errors, including the embarrassing omission of the name of a graduate student who had helped in the research. The two chemists themselves were sketchy with details, possibly because they were trapped in the clutches of patent applications. Most damning of all, however, was their slapdash attempt to measure gamma rays as extra evidence of a nuclear reaction. By the time nuclear physicists spotted the flaws in these measurements Fleischmann and Pons had already begun petitioning US Congress for special funding, a move that led some to suspect the pair of falsifying data in order to boost the University of Utah’s research budget.

But these somewhat political issues only serve to cloud over the central scientific problem: reproducibility. In science it is pretty much a given that if you claim a discovery in the lab, you need to be able to explain what you have done in sufficient detail for a similarly skilled person to copy it. If no-one else can copy it, then it’s not a discovery. Doug Morrison, a physicist at the European lab CERN, showed in a 1992 lecture that the number of experiments finding nothing was initially far greater than the number finding evidence of cold fusion. (Though, as many would later point out, science is not a popularity contest.) Even now that researchers think they know of several more ingredients in the ideal cold fusion recipe — including, for example, maintaining the electric current above a certain level for a certain time — they still regularly find that whole batches of experiments will fail.

Many think the key lies in the quality of the electrode, which is typically made of an expensive metal called palladium. Rather like the computer chip industry, which only kicked off after the development of ultra-pure silicon, cold fusion might require metallurgists to manufacture palladium that is consistently free of impurities.

In 2006 a group led by Stainslaw Szpak of the US Naval Control, Command and Ocean Surveillance Center in San Diego helped sideline this issue by pioneering a technique that creates electrodes on the spot. They deposit palladium and deuterium simultaneously on a wire and find that the resultant cauliflower-looking mass is able to generate excess heat and pits on CR-39 detectors again and again, on demand. After reportedly having their work rejected by three journals without peer review, it was finally peer reviewed and accepted for publication in the German journal Naturwissenschaften. Since then the results have been corroborated at several labs including the University of California at Berkeley.

All this raises the question of whether cold fusion has a future in energy generation, or whether time will expose it to be a fruitless oddity. The power outputs of present experiments tend to be several tens of Watts at best, which would only suit applications like small heaters. Scientists say it should be possible to scale-up power output, but the research does not come cheap: at nigh-on $200 per troy ounce — more than a fifth the price of gold — palladium on its own is a costly outgoing. Many of those in the field are self-funded.

Nevertheless, one person whose work is considered to have shown potential is Yoshiaki Arata, a distinguished physicist at Osaka University who also happened to be a chief instigator of Japan’s hot fusion programme. Arata has always found that his best results come with palladium that is finely powdered and sealed inside a casing. In 1996 he performed an experiment using just three grammes of powdered palladium and obtained an average of seven Watts of excess heat for more than six months. US scientist Talbott Chubb hypothetically scales up this result in the e-book Cold Fusion: Clean Energy for the Future and finds that, for three kilos of the metal and a cubic foot of compressed deuterium gas, the same principle could be employed as a seven kilowatt household heater that runs for 139 years non-stop. “People will buy their heaters with a lifetime’s supply of fuel,” he concludes.

* * *

What must be most striking about cold fusion is that some of the field’s past critics can, if prompted, attest that it does contain competent scientists. Robert Park, a physicist at the University of Maryland, spent years lampooning the field in the “What’s New” section of his website and continued to lampoon it in his 2000 book Voodoo Science. But in a bizarre cross-border relationship, Park has long been friends with Scott Chubb, nephew of Talbot Chubb and editor of the partisan cold fusion magazine Infinite Energy. Chubb calls their friendship an “interesting dynamic”, though notes that Park has not studied developments in cold fusion closely. “[Bob] is a great writer. He is very perceptive about the flow of money and the corruption of ideas. And that’s basically where he is. He’s not into the specifics of things…He wants to stop crackpots. He wants to stop chaos. But I don’t think that he will come out and outwardly endorse cold fusion. He’s moved on, so to speak.”

Chubb believes paid university academics have been wary of pursuing studies in cold fusion for fear it will embarrass their departments and endanger their job prospects. He cites the case of Melvin Miles, a researcher at the US Naval Air Warfare Center who in 1991 was one of the first to find good evidence for a fusion product — helium — generated in amounts roughly proportional to the excess heat. When funding dried up at the Naval centre, Miles, apparently stigmatized by association with cold fusion, was relegated to a position as a stockroom clerk. “People have been very bothered by their careers with this stuff,” says Chubb. “It’s like a third rail.”

Park is kind enough to admit that his friend Chubb is “not crazy”, and agrees that academics would have issues getting work on cold fusion respected. When asked about the significance of the recent experiments with CR-39 detectors, he replies that they are the “most interesting” ones he has seen. “I don’t know what’s producing [the pits] and it would be worth following up,” he says. “But there are a lot of more worthwhile things to look into.” Some researchers have noticed that Park’s What’s New attacks on cold fusion have let up in recent years, and reckon that his continued exposure to the research through Chubb must have made him more sympathetic to the field. Park denies this, although he did help organize a special session for cold fusion at a large meeting of the APS in 2007.

David Goodstein is another physicist whose friendship circle breaches the field. As vice-provost of Caltech at the time of the Utah announcement, he was — and still is — a colleague of one of cold fusion’s early adversaries, Nathan Lewis. But Goodstein is also friends with Francesco Scaramuzzi, a nuclear physicist who switched to cold fusion research at the outset in 1989. “Scaramuzzi believes in it, and I believe in him,” says Goodstein. “So I have a counterweight.” Goodstein speaks guardedly about his own opinions on cold fusion, but admits that all scientific arguments levelled at it have been rebutted (see “Killers” list below). He does not know of anyone whose opinion has changed. “That’s one thing that is characteristic of this field,” he adds. “Everybody’s first opinion is his last opinion. Yes, people should be more aware of it so they can make more accurate judgements. But they’re not.”

Goodstein was the one who wrote that cold fusion was “dead” five weeks after the Utah announcement. But the truth is that cold fusion was never dead; after a near-fatal blow in 1989 it staggered forth and now lives a deprived existence on the edges of mainstream science. No-one knows for certain whether it can ever live up to its original promises of saving the world, but unless the spirit of communication so central to the ethos of science is restored it seems likely no-one will ever find out.

There are some hints that the field is gaining acceptance. In 2004, half of a panel of scientists hired by the US Department of Energy to review cold fusion agreed that evidence for excess heat was “compelling”. Today, hundreds of scientists will return to Salk Lake City for a symposium of the American Chemical Society in honour of the 20th anniversary of Fleischmann and Pons’s announcement.

Twenty years from now, will we all be heating our homes with cold fusion heaters or powering appliances with cold fusion generators? In 2000, Arthur C Clarke, confined to a wheelchair from post-polio syndrome at his home in Sri Lanka, sent his verdict by video to a science festival in the UK: “Although there are lots of crooks, cranks and cowboys in this field, I believe there is now enough published evidence to prove that something strange is going on.”


Killers: Four arguments that nearly ended cold fusion

“It’s fraud”
In late April 1989 Ronald Parker (right), a physicist from MIT, told the Boston Herald that Fleischmann and Pons were guilty of “misrepresentation and maybe fraud.” He was referring to a spectrum of gamma rays that seemed to have moved from a meaningless position to one that was indicative of neutrons, which are often created in fusion. Fleischmann later said the discrepancy arose because he and Pons changed their instrument.

“Where are the products?”
When two atoms fuse they make, among other things, a bigger atom. In 1989 many claimed to find such by-products, but results were either inconsistent or assumed to be due to contamination. Since then a few research groups who are experienced in detecting nuclear substances have found some good evidence for helium and tritium, and some patchy evidence for neutrons — all of which are possible by-products of fusion. Recently, plastic “CR-39” detectors have shown strong signs of high-energy atomic nuclei (right) produced in cold fusion cells.

“They couldn’t see anything”

In 1989, big labs like Caltech in the US spent millions of dollars investigating cold fusion but found nothing. Since then, however, researchers say they have found certain things the labs did wrong, like not squeezing enough deuterium into the electrodes. Some experienced cold fusion researchers now say they find positive signals almost all the time, although they need their electrode material — palladium (right) — to be very high quality.

“It’s impossible”
Even with a Sun’s worth of deuterium at room temperature, accepted nuclear theory suggests reactions would be so rare you could only expect two atoms to fuse per year. Then again, after Pierre Curie (right) discovered in 1903 that the element radium heated itself it took at least three decades for theorists explain it as a new nuclear phenomenon: radioactivity. Might cold fusion require a few tweaks to nuclear theory?

The original publication of this article is available here.