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'Cold Fusion' Still Generates Some Heat
By Jerry E. Bishop
The Wall Street Journal

September 8, 1989

"Cold fusion" isn't hot news these days, but it isn't yet on ice.

Amid widespread skepticism, several laboratories continue to report inexplicable amounts of power from electrolysis devices consisting of palladium rods inserted in jars of heavy water. Even some scientists who doubt these claims of excess energy concede that they're mystified by reports of sudden and unpredictable surges of power from some cold fusion devices.

"There are three or four things we still don't understand," says one member of a federal panel that earlier this summer expressed strong doubts that a new source of energy had been found.

The burden of proof rests heavily on the scientists claiming positive results from the electrolytic cells. Other major laboratories, such as the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories, so far have been unable to confirm that the electrolytic cells produce either excess heat or radiation that would hint at fusion reactions. Researchers at several laboratories, such as those at California Institute of Technology and the big British atomic energy laboratory at Harwell, England, have abandoned efforts to duplicate the cold-fusion experiments, convinced that there's nothing to them.

Except for British chemist Martin Fleischmann and his University of Utah colleague, B. Stanley Pons, none of the experimenters reporting excess energy output claim to be observing the fusion of hydrogen atomic nuclei at room temperatures, the so-called cold fusion phenomenon. They simply can't explain what's causing the results they are seeing.

"I don't feel there is any more doubt that this is a real phenomenon," says chemist John Bockris at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. But he adds, "I wouldn't say that the principal point {of contention} -- the nature of the energy source and whether it's fusion -- has been resolved." Prof. Bockris's experiments have been especially mystifying -- and controversial -- because he claims his electrolytic cells are producing excess amounts of tritium, a triply heavy form of hydrogen whose appearance implies some kind of nuclear reaction.

A University of Minnesota scientist, meanwhile, says that pending publication of his results by a scientific journal, he won't comment on reports that he's beginning to get inexplicable bursts of energy from a cold fusion type of experiment.

But a University of Utah metallurgist confirms that he and colleagues, working independently of Messrs. Pons and Fleischmann, are seeing the heat output from their electrolytic cells suddenly surge eightfold or more for several hours before cooling. Messrs. Pons and Fleischmann also have reported such unpredictable bursts of energy from their experiments, in addition to a steady output of heat several times higher, they say, than can be explained by known chemical reactions.

The "cold fusion" controversy dropped out of the headlines in mid-July when a special panel of science advisers to the U.S. Department of Energy said in a preliminary report that "the evidence for the discovery of a new nuclear process termed cold fusion isn't persuasive." The panel said it could find "no convincing evidence" that useful amounts of energy could be had from whatever was occurring in the electrolytic cells.

The cells consist of thin palladium rods, encircled by platinum (or in some cases nickel) wires, inserted into bottles of heavy water rich in the doubly heavy hydrogen atom called deuterium. When an electric current is applied to the apparatus, it begins to decompose the heavy water into oxygen and deuterium atoms, just as a high school electrolysis experiment decomposes ordinary water.

The energy required to decompose water is known and should equal the energy poured into the cell as electric current minus some small amounts to account for electrical resistance. Messrs. Pons and Fleischmann claim that the total energy coming from their electrolytic cells exceeds the electrical input. They argue that this "excess" energy, in the form of heat, must come from some unknown nuclear process involving fusion of deuterium atoms inside the palladium rods.

Robert A. Huggins, a materials scientist at Stanford University, says he also is measuring excess heat production from similar electrolytic cells, but he doesn't speculate on the source of the heat.

The special Energy Department panel found such claims unconvincing because the amount of "excess" heat measured was small enough to be within the range of errors inherent in the measuring instruments used. "However," the panel added, "there are reports of sporadic temperature 'excursions' or 'bursts' that apparently represent power outputs significantly larger than the input power. These events cannot be attributed to problems with accuracy or calibration alone and are presently not understood."

These energy bursts, first reported by Messrs. Pons and Fleischmann from their experiments in the University of Utah chemistry department, are now being seen in five of the nine electrolytic cells at the university's College of Mines. A cell might be putting out a steady nine watts of power, then suddenly surge to 70 watts, says metallurgist Milton Wadsworth. These bursts last anywhere from a few minutes to 30 hours. "We don't know what suddenly turns them on," Mr. Wadsworth adds.

At Texas A&M, Mr. Bockris says the dozen cells operating in his laboratory are similarly erratic in their production of tritium. A cell appears to be dead, then suddenly starts churning out tritium for as long as four days before stopping again, he says. The Texas A&M researchers say they have ruled out contamination of the heavy water with tritium and all other extraneous sources of the element.

Mr. Bockris says he has detected weak neutron radiation from two of the dozen cells, but only for a couple of hours. Physicists say the failure of the electrolytic cells to produce large numbers of neutrons is the strongest evidence that fusion isn't taking place. Mr. Bockris says he now suspects that the output of tritium is unconnected to the weak neutron production.

Mr. Fleischmann says "it's too early" to know whether it will ever be possible to predict or foster the bursts of energy so they could be used. As for charges that the measurements of excess heat might be due to measurement errors, he notes that such errors would work both ways, yet no one has reported a heat deficit, only a heat excess.

"We are absolutely sure of our results," adds Mr. Pons, who says he and Mr. Fleischmann are now writing a "seminal paper" that will "further substantiate" their initial claims.

The Energy Department's review panel, which gave its interim report in late July, is supposed to deliver its final conclusions on cold fusion in November.

 

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