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DOE to Revisit Cold Fusion
By Charles Choi
United Press International

April 1, 2004

NEW YORK, April 1 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Energy is planning to give cold fusion a warmer reception after many years of skepticism and even ridicule as the agency pursues an official review of the controversial technology.

James Decker, deputy director of DOE's Office of Science, said the review actually began last fall when he met with scientists to discuss the state of cold fusion research.

"They told me about a lot of research on cold fusion that has been done since the last review that was conducted about 15 years ago," Decker told United Press International.

He described the physicists with whom he met as possessing "excellent credentials," including Peter Hagelstein of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, David Nagel of The George Washington University in Washington, and Michael McKubre of SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif., a non-profit research institute that contracts for the government, businesses and other non-profits.

Based on their data, he said, a new review into cold fusion is warranted.

"The Office of Science will pass along the material to reviewers with appropriate expertise," Decker said.

Where cold fusion researchers were long shunned for their investigations -- as were mainstream scientists who remained curious about the controversy -- now they are heralding the renewed interest in the mystery as potentially world-shaking.

"Finally, after years of actively stopping such research on the subject, a few brave souls in the organization are starting a process that should have been undertaken years ago," said Ed Storms, a retired radiochemist from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

"At the very least, a safe and inexpensive source of energy will be created that will change society in ways that are hard to imagine. At the very least, the damage caused by pollution and the brakes on development caused by a dwindling oil supply will be problems of the past," he told UPI.

Still, many scientists remain unconvinced that cold fusion's claims will bear out.

"I look over the stuff that has come out, and it looks like the same old thing," said physicist Bob Park of the University of Maryland at College Park. "Some people say they see extra energy, some say they don't. I'm not optimistic they're going to come up with more discoveries," he told UPI.

Fusion is the nuclear reaction that fuels the stars. When two atomic nuclei are fused, the result is a single, heavier nucleus. In the process, as described by Einstein's famous equation, E=mc2, part of the matter is transformed into a relatively huge amount of energy.

Atomic nuclei strongly repel each other. Conventional theory holds that nuclei can only be fused under extraordinarily high temperature and pressure. In the sun, hydrogen atoms, bound closely together by gravity, are scorched by multi-million-degree heat, forcing them to collide with enough energy to fuse and become helium atoms.

The course of fusion research parallels fission research -- but only to a certain point. Beginning in the 1930s, scientists attempted to provoke a chain reaction of heavy uranium and plutonium atoms into lighter elements in the quest to make a terrible weapon. When they succeeded, in 1945, the result was the first atomic bomb.

More than a decade later, science was able to tame fission to produce nuclear reactors to generate electricity and power naval ships and submarines.

Fusion research produced the first hydrogen super-bomb by the United States in 1952 and in 1953 by the Soviet Union. In the decades since, however, although nations and scientists have sought to harness nuclear fusion to generate power, after billions and billions of dollars for research, they still have not succeeded in generating more electricity from fusion than the energy required to begin the reaction.

One reason for the lack of progress involves the conditions required for initiating fusion -- incredible heat and pressure, requiring massive containment vessels and enormous amounts of electricity to power the compression phase of the reaction.

For example, one facility, called the National Ignition Source, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, focuses 192 high-energy lasers simultaneously on a target the size of a BB pellet. When the lasers fire, in bursts lasting only billionths of a second, they require about 1,000 times more power than the whole U.S. generating capacity.

So when, in 1989, electrochemists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City announced they had generated nuclear fusion reactions at only room temperatures on a tabletop, they were greeted with more than a little skepticism.

The so-called cold fusion experiment immersed electrodes of the metal palladium in heavy water, a molecule containing deuterium atoms instead of conventional hydrogen. Deuterium is a hydrogen isotope bearing an extra neutron.

When Pons and Fleischmann ran an electric current through the electrodes, they said the setup generated far more heat than could be explained through chemical reactions -- but none of the lethal radiation normally expected from fusion.

Later, the scientists had trouble reproducing their claim on demand, and others who attempted the experiment reported unpredictable results.

These inconsistencies, coupled with the fact that current theories have no explanation for nuclear fusion at such relatively low temperatures and without dangerous radiation, led many scientists to dismiss cold fusion as pseudo-science.

"I was working at Los Alamos National Laboratory when Pons and Fleischmann made their announcement," Storms recalled. "The laboratory took an enthusiastic interest in the claims and many efforts were undertaken to replicate. Only three were successful, one of these being my effort. Actually seeing the effect is a powerful reason to believe it is real and caused me to continue my research after I retired."

Within a year after the initial announcement, a Department of Energy review decided cold fusion did not bear special federal funding.

"The Department of Energy has been the single most important impediment in the development of the cold fusion phenomenon," Storms said.

McKubre, director of SRI's Energy Research Center, told UPI he felt the original Department of Energy review was "premature and hasty, but it couldn't have been avoided. And it really was not that damning if interpreted rationally. The original panelists said they didn't see any evidence to merit special treatment. That was interpreted as a condemnation, which meant no money was made available."

In the past 15 years, researchers in universities, government, military and private labs in at least 13 countries have pursued cold fusion, according to New Energy Times. McKubre noted cold fusion results are now more reproducible.

Now, a number of prominent international researchers treat cold fusion seriously, including physics Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia, McKubre said, adding the U.S. government has provided funding for cold fusion research, albeit through military agencies, such as the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, and the Naval Research Laboratory -- not DOE.

McKubre said the new review has a target date of January 2005 for reporting its findings, although he said "it seems to be acted on in the Department of Energy at lightning speed. My guess is it could be done by the end of the academic summer."

Park had no objections to the review.

"The way the system is supposed to work is that everybody is supposed to make their point, that science is not closed," he said.

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Charles Choi covers research for UPI Science News. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

 

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