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Fusion's Ups & Downs
By Alan Boyle
MSNBC's Cosmic Log

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

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This week, scientists gathered at the American Chemical Society's spring meeting in San Francisco to turn the spotlight on a highly unorthodox path: the effect known as cold fusion.

Back in 1989, cold fusion was heralded as a simple, inexpensive way to get a power-generating fusion reaction on a desktop. But when the experimental results couldn't be reproduced, the researchers were driven into obscurity.

For many physicists, the term "cold fusion" became synonymous with quackery. Chemists, however, have kept up their interest in the effect. This isn't the first time the ACS has hosted a symposium on cold fusion. But the subject's popularity seems to be rising: This year's session featured nearly 50 presentations - including reports on batteries and bacteria that appear to exhibit the cold-fusion effect.

"There's still some resistance to this field," symposium organizer Jan Marwan, of Berlin-based Marwan Chemie, said in a news release. "But we just have to keep on as we have done so far, exploring cold fusion step by step, and that will make it a successful alternative energy source."

Nature's Katharine Sanderson paid a visit to the ACS's cold-fusion news conference - and came away saying she was "still not convinced" that the effect could truly be termed fusion. For that reason, some in the field now prefer the term "low-energy nuclear reactions." New Energy Times' Steven Krivit, who co-wrote a book titled "The Rebirth of Cold Fusion" in 2004, thinks the effect has something to do with weak nuclear interactions but now says "it's not fusion."

Whatever it is, scientists will eventually have to show conclusively that the effect produces more energy than it consumes in order for the wider world to take it seriously as a power source. Come to think of it, that requirement applies to all the paths to fusion ... conventional as well as unconventional.

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