Cold Fusion Turns 20
March 23, 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the public announcement of cold fusion, now often called LENR (for Low Energy Nuclear Reactions) or CANR (for Chemically Assisted Nuclear Reactions). Personally, I think a better term is CMF, for Condensed Matter Fusion, or perhaps CMNR for Condensed Matter Nuclear Reactions.
It's always hard for me to write about cold fusion; it brings back too many bad memories of how poorly "my guys," the physicists, conducted themselves. If the Oxygen and History channels ever get together to produce a TV show called "Scientists Behaving Badly," the first episode should deal with how physicists, fusion physicists in particular, acted in the weeks and months following the cold fusion announcement. To be honestly skeptical was to be expected. Given the unexpected nature of the discovery, even shock and a knee-jerk refusal to believe are not surprising. But to resort to scurrilous invective and character assassination against their scientific peers Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann (as well as others) in an effort to squelch the discovery of cold fusion is the behavior of riff-raff, Ivory Tower riff-raff though they may have been.
However, in the intervening twenty years, the reality of the "cold fusion effect" has been established beyond a doubt to all except those who refuse to look at the evidence, or who would not believe it regardless of evidence. Hence, there seems little point in recounting once again the sad early history of CF, a tale which is on its way to becoming a footnote, and a footnote destined to be dropped in later editions at that. Rather, it is time to accept the reality of cold fusion, to educate the lay public about it, and to decide just what it is we're going to do about it, in terms of Ph.D. projects, future government spending, and its potential for meeting our energy needs. (Yes, I realize that many of my readers will take offense at the preceding statement. So be it. I no longer feel I am going out on a limb by saying that cold fusion is real. I think we've reached a point where the deniers are now going out on a limb.)
To this end, I wish to introduce you to a recent book about cold fusion: The Rebirth of Cold Fusion: Real Science, Real Hope, Real Energy, by Steven B. Krivit and Nadine Winocur, Psy.D. (ISBN: 0-9760545-8-2) Krivit also runs the website www.newenergytimes.com, which is well worth your time to visit and bookmark. The foreword to the book is by the late and dearly missed Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke had long been a believer in CF, right from the beginning, and had the courage from the get-go not to back down in the face of the blistering derision of the discovery by the hot fusion community. He even went so far as to put his money where his mouth was-Infinite Energy Magazine benefited from his charity, for instance.
Clarke says something in the foreword that merits repeating here (since if you won't listen to me, perhaps you'll listen to him). Note this well, since it has bearing both on CF and on future controversies (which are inevitable and likely coming soon). Clarke says:
"The neglect of cold fusion is one of the biggest scandals in the history of science. As I wrote in Profiles of the Future (1962), 'With monotonous regularity, apparently competent men have laid down the law about what is technically possible or impossible-and have been proved utterly wrong, sometimes while the ink was scarcely dry from their pens. On careful analysis, it appears that these debacles fall into two classes, which I will call Failures of Nerve and Failures of Imagination.'
"Today, the cold fusion controversy falls into the first category, Failures of Nerve; many vital facts have been discovered, yet sceptics lack the courage to acknowledge them or their immense implications." (p. xvi)
Clarke had the special wisdom acquired from living through some of the most technologically explosive times this planet has ever seen to put the CF situation into proper perspective. The controversy is one of those unfortunate things that happen "with monotonous regularity" when an unforeseen discovery with great potential appears on the scene.
The book is divided into four parts. Part one deals with "Global Energy, Global Concerns" and covers the (simplest) basics of cold fusion, and the hope and skepticism that greeted the discovery. Also covered in layman's terms are climate change, fuel scarcity (current headline stuff), nuclear fission, hot fusion, hydrogen technology, and assorted exotic forms of future energy.
Part two is called "A Historical Perspective" and covers the largely sad story of cold fusion and details what happened and to a large extent, why it happened, again in terms a non-scientist can appreciate. This is perhaps the most valuable thing the book adds to the canon of cold fusion literature. If there is one thing that has become clear in the twenty years since the advent of CF, it is that presenting the straight scientific facts in straight prose and to a significant level of detail doesn't sway set-in-concrete, or even set-in-Jell-O, opinions one damn bit. There is no hope in convincing scientists who were on the scene in 1989 of the truth that was evident even then, if they haven't yet come around on their own. However, the weight of lay public opinion can make for profound policy changes, so the authors do a great service in making the history and potential promise of CF easy to understand.
Part three is called "Discoveries and Mysteries." It is a coherent recitation of the objections raised against the possibility of cold fusion, and how experimental work during the decades since the announcement has answered these objections and confirmed beyond a doubt that nuclear processes are really happening in condensed matter. Indeed, the proof in the form of fusion byproducts is what the fusion physicists demanded way back in the beginning.
Finally, part four is a short section called "Reflection and Anticipation," and provides some cogent comments on what lessons we learned from the story of CF, as well as some cautions concerning what CF brings to the questions of academic freedom and national security.
I must admit that some sections and comments in part one I simply don't agree with or see in a different light than the authors. For one thing, I am an advocate of conventional nuclear power, and they are not, reciting some of the usual arguments concerning supposed dangers and hazards. However, the authors are canny enough to treat nuclear power as at least a mixed blessing, and accept that the world is likely to go in the nuclear direction in the future. But they hold out cold fusion as perhaps the better, and long sought for, alternative.
Part two is the most difficult for me to read without resurrecting the anger I've felt over the years at the way otherwise decent physicists and decent men or women resorted to juvenile derision and brainless hypocrisy in their attacks on cold fusion. One example is the way that perfectly good scientists, even those with long and distinguished careers, were treated, and still are treated, as mere kooks.
The following is a quote from page 145, which says exactly what the intelligent layman can understand even if the scoffing scientists cannot:
"Many critics contend that, in order to achieve credibility, cold fusion must be verified by people whom they consider to be reputable, mainstream scientists. This is, in fact, an inane and biased position, because many cold fusion scientists have been involved with conventional science and even, in some cases, hot fusion research for two or three decades! The caliber of these researchers is what one would expect from any mainstream, reputable scientist. Most proceeded quite cautiously before identifying themselves with cold fusion. Michael McKubre of SRI International, for example, reports that only after a full year's research did he become convinced that the field of cold fusion contained a legitimate scientific endeavor." (Emphasis mine.)
Part three covers in comfortable detail some of the results later CF researchers (the mainstream, reputable ones) have verified since the initial discovery. In the earliest days, the detractors had pointed out that CF couldn't possibly be real, because to produce the amount of energy that Pons and Fleischmann had said they measured via fusion, there would have been such intense neutron radiation that it would have fried them. That the two electrochemists were alive to make their claim was immediate evidence that they were wrong.
However, as it turns out, cold fusion is largely aneutronic. In fact, as Nobel Laureate Julian Schwinger said in the beginning, the counter argument to the dead electrochemist charge is this: "The circumstances of cold fusion are not those of hot fusion." (p. 203) In the past I've been hesitant to say that cold fusion actually is fusion, but now I'm comfortable with the claim since fusion byproducts have been found. As Michael McKubre (who has done more careful, diligent CF work than almost anyone else) has said: "It turns out that the nuclear products are helium-4, helium-3, and tritium, which are the products of fusion. I use the phrase 'cold fusion' now. I didn't use it two or three years ago because I wasn't certain what the effect was. I thought it was unreasonable to assert a mechanism when you had no proof of that mechanism. Now, we have adequate proof that the mechanism is a fusion reaction. I know with certainty that we have a nuclear effect that produces heat and fusion products. We're entitled to use the phrase 'cold fusion.'" (pp. 175-176)
When it comes right down to it, the primary signature of cold fusion is simply the generation of heat energy in the cell. The heat is produced in quantities far in excess of what could be accounted for by anything other than a nuclear reaction (unless there are other factors at work that require entirely new physics). Regardless of the exact details of what goes on inside the cold fusion cell, if it produces heat in sufficient quantities, it can be used as an energy source, just like oil, gas, or uranium.
My favorite section of part four begins on page 259 and consists of long quotes from scientists and others that were in the thick of the cold fusion furor. These statements from men like John Bockris, Sir Arthur C. Clark (again), George Miley, Edmund Storms, and Martin Fleischmann are well worth taking to heart.
If I had a hundred dollars to divide up in a nuclear energy research budget, I'd give $75 to hot fusion via the means described by Tom Ligon in the January/February 2008 Analog article, "The World's Simplest Fusion Reactor Revisited." I'd give $20 to cold fusion research-I'm not convinced that it will ever serve for large-scale energy production, but it might. And even if it doesn't, it might make a dandy nuclear battery! I'd hand out the remaining $5 to the hot fusion community, just to preserve their expertise in plasma physics. They've had billions of dollars and around fifty years to produce a hot fusion power plant via their ideas of how it should be done. They've failed.
That's the real truth that hot fusion folks don't want to face.