This is a follow-up story to an in-depth article, Extraordinary Evidence, by Steven Krivit and Bennett Daviss, published in New Energy Times in November 2006.
Related New Energy Times stories:
Report on the 2006 Naval Science and Technology Partnership Conference (Sept. 10, 2006)
Extraordinary Courage: Report on Some LENR Presentations at the 2007 American Physical Society Meeting (March 16, 2007)
Charged Particles for Dummies: A Conversation With Lawrence P.G. Forsley (May 10, 2007)
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Cold Fusion Rides Again
By Bennett Daviss
Saturday, May 5, 2007
Physicists scoff, but enthusiasts say they now have hard evidence that
proves room temperature fusion is real. Bennett Daviss takes a closer look.
From a distance, the plastic wafer Frank Gordon is proudly displaying looks
like an ordinary microscope slide. Yet to Gordon it is hugely more
significant than that. If he is to be believed, the pattern of pits
embedded in this unassuming sliver of polymer provides confirmation for the
idea that nuclear fusion reactions can be made to happen at room
temperature, using simple lab equipment. It's a dramatic claim, because
nuclear fusion promises virtually limitless energy.
Gordon's plastic wafer is the product of the latest in a long line of "cold
fusion" experiments conducted at the US navy's Space and Naval Warfare
Systems Center in San Diego, California. What makes this one stand out is
that it has been published in the respected peer-reviewed journal
Naturwissenschaften, which counts Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg and
Konrad Lorenz among its eminent past authors (DOI:
10.1007/s00114-007-0221-7). Could it really be true that nuclear fusion can
be coaxed into action at room temperature, using only simple lab equipment?
Most nuclear physicists don't think so, and dismiss Gordon's pitted piece
of plastic as nothing more than the result of a badly conceived experiment.
So who is right?
The notion that cold fusion might be possible burst onto the scene in March
1989. That's when chemists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, working at
the University of Utah, announced that they had run a table-top
electrolysis experiment in which a fusion reaction took place, producing
more energy than it consumed. A world of endless, virtually free fuel
seemed to be in the offing - but not for long. Fleischmann and Pons's
results quickly proved elusive in other research labs. The hapless pair
were laughed out of mainstream science, and most nuclear physicists since
have refused to give the slightest credence to the idea.
Not everyone gave up on cold fusion, however. Electrochemists Pamela
Mosier-Boss and Stanislaw Szpak at the San Diego centre's navigation and
applied sciences department were intrigued. Fortunately, so was Gordon,
their boss, who provided limited funding for experiments. Mosier-Boss and
Szpak have now run hundreds of tests at weekends and during their spare
moments, and have published more than a dozen papers in various
peer-reviewed journals (New Scientist , 29 March 2003, p 36).
Typically, these table-top experiments have involved lowering an electrode
made of the precious metal palladium into a solution of an inert salt
dissolved in "heavy water" - in which a large proportion of the hydrogen
atoms are of the element's heavy isotope deuterium. In deuterium, the
atomic nucleus contains a neutron in addition to the usual single proton.
When an electric current is passed through the solution, deuterium atoms
start to pack into spaces in the palladium's lattice-like atomic framework.
Eventually, after a period of days or weeks, there is approximately one
deuterium atom for each palladium atom, at which point things start to happen.
Quite what happens or why isn't clear. Whatever it is appears to release
more energy, as heat, than the experiment consumes. Proponents of cold
fusion claim that the excess energy comes from a nuclear fusion reaction
involving the deuterium nuclei.
To get a fusion reaction going normally requires temperatures of millions
of degrees, to give the nuclei enough energy to overcome the repulsion
between the positive charges of their protons. The result is that two
deuterium nuclei combine to produce either tritium - an even heavier
hydrogen isotope - plus a free proton, or an atom of helium-3 and a free
neutron. Either way the reaction also liberates a large amount of energy.
There is, however, no consensus for how cold fusion might work, and with
research groups struggling to reproduce each other's results, most
physicists dismiss the few watts of extra energy that emerge from
experiments like Mosier-Boss and Szpak's as some kind of aberration. So
rather than just looking for extra energy, the pair have deployed a
detector long used by nuclear scientists, in an attempt to come up with
convincing evidence that nuclear events are taking place.
That's where Gordon's sliver of polymer comes in. It is made of CR-39, a
clear polycarbonate plastic that is commonly used to make spectacle lenses
and shatter-proof windows - and which can also record the passage of
subatomic particles. The neutrons, protons and alpha particles that spew
from genuine nuclear reactions shatter the bonds within the polymer's
molecules to leave distinctive patterns of pits and tracks that can be seen
under a microscope.
The use of CR-39 as a detector goes back decades. In the cash-strapped
Soviet Union, most physicists were unable to afford state-of-the-art
nuclear instruments. Instead, they became expert at "reading" CR-39
detectors, identifying particles from the shape and depth of the tracks
they left behind.
Cold-fusion researchers at the University of Illinois and the University of
Minnesota have used CR-39 since the 1990s, laying the foundation for
Mosier-Boss and Szpak's latest experiment. "You don't need complicated
instrumentation," Gordon says. "It's an easy detection tool."
Spzak has also developed a technique called co-deposition that speeds up
the process of packing deuterium atoms into a palladium lattice. Instead of
using palladium for the negative electrode in his electrolysis experiment,
he uses nickel or gold wire which is bathed in a solution of palladium
chloride and lithium chloride dissolved in heavy water. When a current
passes through the solution, equal amounts of deuterium and palladium are
deposited onto the wire. Within seconds, the palladium is packed with
deuterium atoms and the reaction - whatever it is - begins.
Mosier-Boss and Szpak say their cells show telltale signs of nuclear
reactions, including anomalous amounts of tritium and low-intensity X-rays,
just minutes after co-deposition starts. They say the electrode can
sometimes become a few degrees warmer than the surrounding solution.
In their latest experiment, Mosier-Boss and Spzak placed wafers of CR-39
against the electrode. When they examined them after running the
experiment, they discovered that regions nearest the electrode were
speckled with microscopic pits, while those further away were not. A
control experiment without any palladium chloride in the solution produced
only a few randomly scattered tracks that could be accounted for by
background radiation. The researchers have also deliberately inflicted
chemical damage on the CR-39: it "looks like fluffy, popcorn-shaped
eruptions" on the plastic, Mosier-Boss says, not pits or holes. They are
trying to identify which particles might have left the tracks.
Nuclear scientists associated with the project who are well versed in
reading CR-39 detectors say the results appear convincing. The pits
"exactly mimic typical nuclear tracks in their depth, size, distribution,
shape and contrast", says Lawrence Forsley, a physicist who has worked in
fusion research for 16 years and is president of JWK Technologies in
Annandale, Virginia, one of the San Diego centre's research partners.
Gary Phillips, a nuclear physicist who has used CR-39 detectors for 20
years to capture nuclear signatures and also works for JMK Technologies, is
no less enthusiastic. "I've never seen such a high density of tracks
before," he says. "It would have to be from a very intense source - a
nuclear source. You cannot get this from any kind of chemical reaction."
Many outsiders are less impressed. Some physicists who have seen the
initial results of the CR-39 experiments say Mosier-Boss and Szpak must
have set up their equipment incompetently, read their data incorrectly, or
somehow allowed radioactive detritus to contaminate their cells. Others
suggest that anomalous background radiation from an unknown source or even
showers of cosmic rays are responsible.
Forsley insists that those objections don't hold water. If there was enough
background radiation in the San Diego lab to pock CR-39 wafers with so many
pits in such a short time, Mosier-Boss and Szpak "would be cooked", he
says. He also points out that any contamination of the experiment or
external sources of radiation ought to scatter tracks randomly across the
detectors, not concentrate them near the cells' electrodes as their
Objectors also point to the difficulty of reproducing these results. While
Mosier-Boss and Szpak claim they can produce the reaction at will, other
labs have struggled to reproduce consistent, if any, results using
co-deposition. One researcher who has had some success is Winthrop Williams
at the University of California, Berkeley, who has replicated the navy's
experiment with CR-39. At a meeting of the American Physical Society in
March he reported similar numbers of pits around the negative electrode.
"It is encouraging," says Williams. "I have more work ahead of me to
precisely understand and interpret what I am observing."
The lack of a consistent theory to explain how the claimed fusion reaction
might occur is another stumbling block. The science writer and debunker
Shawn Carlson, who in the past has done research in nuclear physics,
listened to Gordon and Mosier-Boss make their case at the National Defense
Industrial Association conference in Washington DC last year. He was not
convinced. "A collection of disjoint anomalies is more consistent with bad
experimental technique than a great discovery," he says. "It would take
independent verification from a number of labs to swing the tide in favour
of cold fusion."
The sceptics are not having it all their own way, though. Several respected
scientists at universities in the US, Europe and Asia are attempting to
replicate the US navy's lab experiments. David Nagel, a physicist and
research professor at George Washington University in Washington DC who has
followed the cold fusion saga since its inception, reports a growing
willingness by the US Department of Energy to consider funding experiments
to follow up these tantalising hints.
Nagel also detects a more receptive climate at US military research outfits
like DARPA and the Office of Naval Research, where he served as
administrator and still has close ties. It's not just global warming or the
end of oil that's opening people's minds, he says. "It's the weight of the
evidence," with new results encouraging physicists to reconsider the case
that was so swiftly and firmly closed 18 years ago. "This could be the year
when things change for cold fusion," he says. Then he pauses. "Or maybe
Bennett Daviss is a science writer in New Hampshire
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