March 23, 2007
On March 23, 1989, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann introduced a new field of science. It didn't belong to physics; it didn't belong to chemistry. As we now know, it lies somewhere in between.
Cold fusion, as it was unfortunately called, appeared to contradict prevailing nuclear fusion theory. Nuclear reactions at room temperature were generally unheard of before Fleischmann and Pons, though they are not unheard of today; crystal-piezo and acoustic inertial confinement fusion are well-known.
Pons and Fleischmann's claims were viewed as inconceivable, impossible. The two chemists were regarded as making reckless, unsupported, unscientific claims, and they were shamed for discussing their claim in a press conference in advance of their paper's publication.
The appearance of such cavalier behavior won them no respect from the community of nuclear physicists who had been struggling to make practical thermonuclear fusion energy for the prior 38, now 56, years.
New phenomena are rarely understood well at their onset, and "cold fusion" was no exception. Only now, after 18 years, has the field passed through its troublesome adolescent period and developed maturity in both experimental and theoretical developments.
Although Pons and Fleischmann were the first to introduce the subject of low energy nuclear reactions to the world, they were not the first to perform related research. Fritz Paneth and Kurt Peters performed related work in 1926, though they retracted their claims after bearing the brunt of the displeasure of the likes of Sir Ernest Rutherford. Fleischmann also credits the "cold explosions" work of Nobel Prize winner in physics Percy Bridgman in 1929, as well as physicist Alfred Coehn in 1947, for a significant basis for his inspiration.
Pons and Fleischmann used methodologies appropriate for their expertise: electrochemistry and calorimetry. Their experimental results, however, brought them into forbidden territory: nuclear physics. This set the stage for a showdown between them and the world's physicists. The primary measurement tool used by Pons and Fleischmann - calorimetry, the science of measuring heat - was and is unfamiliar to and untrusted by nuclear researchers and is considered inadequate by most nuclear physicists to justify the claim of a nuclear reaction.
Making matters worse for Pons and Fleischmann were numerous problems with the way they and the University of Utah administrators publicly introduced the discovery. Scientists are expected to be cautious and conservative, particularly when public trust is an issue. When Pons stated at the March 23, 1989, press conference "We’ve established a sustained nuclear fusion reaction," he and Fleischmann couldn't have looked more ridiculous and suspect in the eyes of many of the world's nuclear physicists.
Their failure to sufficiently inform and share information with their peers, even at the University of Utah, earned them no good will. They also extrapolated their observations, and this resulted in an exaggeration of their claims. What got them into really hot water, though, was that Pons and Fleischmann made it sound like cold fusion was an easy experiment; this couldn't have been further from the truth. Thousands of scientists around the world hurried off to try to make Utah fusion, and when they failed, their anger fueled the already burning hostility; Pons and Fleischmann went running for cover.
Last, Pons and Fleischmann did make a significant error in their neutron measurements, which they admitted within days, but not before a few incautious skeptics jumped the gun and went to the media alleging that the two had committed the sin of science fraud.
Pons and Fleischmann could not have picked a worse time to claim that they had trumped the hot fusion researchers with a much simpler and less-expensive alternative. The U.S. hot fusion research program at the time had been losing congressional confidence yearly and was on a steep decline in its funding, halfway down from the once billion-dollar-a-year budget.
After the cold fusion press announcement, after the media frenzy, and after the Department of Energy decided in 1989 not to fund "cold fusion" research, the subject dropped off the radar screen. Surprisingly, a stubborn group of 200 researchers from a dozen nations persevered, and through a few saved nickels and dimes, managed to keep the research alive.
Reports of excess heat continue to be made at science conferences such as the American Physical Society and the American Chemical society as well as by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Reports of nuclear transmutations - replications even - have been made at the yearly International Conference on Condensed Matter Nuclear Science, the title chosen for this new field by its researchers.
A major turning point occurred in 2004 when the U.S. Department of Energy took a second look at LENR. Although the official government response was lukewarm, the attention sparked new interest in the subject worldwide.