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Cold Fusion: Pro-fusion, and Con-fusion

by John G. Cramer

Alternate View Column AV-36
Keywords: cold fusion, deuterium, electrolysis, heavy water, Pons and Fleischmann
Published in the December-1989 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact Magazine;
This column was written and submitted 5/5/89 and is copyrighted © 1989, John G. Cramer. All rights reserved.
No part may be reproduced in any form without the explicit permission of the author.

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As I write this column in early May, the cold fusion "discovery" of Prof. G. Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and Prof. Martin Fleischmann of Great Britain's Southhampton University had just been featured on the covers of both Time and Newsweek. Pons and Fleischmann (P&F) claimed in a March 23 press conferences and in papers submitted to Nature and to the Journal of Electrochemistry, that by electrolyzing heavy water using a 4 millimeter diameter rod of palladium, a noble metal that readily absorbs large quantities of hydrogen, they have achieved nuclear fusion at room temperature. Soon after the announcement, the price of palladium on the commodities market soared from about $120 per try ounce to about $180. The announcement also produced a veritable scientific gold-rush, with scientists at laboratories around the world (including my own) scrambling to obtain palladium and heavy water to test this amazing effect.

That happened almost six weeks ago, but an unresolved question remains: is P&F cold fusion a real effect, an out-of-the-blue solution to the world's pressing need for energy, or is it perhaps another demonstration of humanity's boundless capacity for self delusion, particularly when the prospect of limitless free energy is involved? Perhaps you, reading this column several months from now will know the answer. I do not. At my laboratory at the University of Washington we are still carefully monitoring a cell that is electrolyzing heavy water, searching for some indication of excess heat, neutrons, gamma rays, or tritium. After several weeks of this, we have seen no hint of the P&F effect. But we will continue for weeks or months more, until the issue is resolved.

What might be called the "P&F Credibility Coefficient" has gone through wild swings recently. In the past week it (and the stock market) moved in the downward direction. It reached soaring heights of enthusiasm when European laboratories (Hungary, Moscow, Frascati) reported confirmations and other U.S. laboratories (Brigham Young, Brookhaven, Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, and Stanford) made announcements including some staged press conference spectaculars to announce preliminary evidence in support of the effect. There have been plummets into the depths of depression as some of these confirming results were discretely retracted (by Brookhaven, Georgia Tech, and Texas A&M) and as a growing number of other laboratories revealed their inability to confirm the Utah results.

Two graduate students in condensed-matter physics from my department at the University of Washington contributed to these P&F mood swings. At a university-sponsored and nationally televised press conference last month they announced the observation of a "mass 5 fusion signature" from heavy water electrolysis which they felt might be deuterium-tritium molecular ions from fusion-produced tritium. Several weeks later after further testing they submitted a paper (no press conference) reporting evidence that their "signature" was more likely to be a triple deuterium-deuterium-hydrogen molecular ion unrelated to cold fusion. This week at the American Physical Society Meeting in Baltimore, the P&F Credibility Index sank to a new low because of the absence of any confirming experiments reported at the meeting and the detailed dissection of the flaws in the P&F experiment by Prof. Lewis, a physical chemist from Caltech.

Because of these ongoing controversies and uncertainties and because of the delay between writing and the publication of this column, I can't give a timely discussion of the recent results cold fusion, so I am stuck with writing about history. I'll start with the physics of cold fusion, then look at past "discoveries" in fusion and other areas, and finally consider the sociology of science as revealed by the present controversy.

Nuclear fusion is the primary energy source of the sun, where high temperatures and pressures drive the fusion of hydrogen into helium. Here on earth we would like to make fusion a primary energy source as well, but, with the exception of thermonuclear explosions, we have yet to master the trick. What we would like is to bring two deuterium nuclei (1 proton + 1 neutron each) close enough together so that they would fuse, forming a single helium nucleus (2 protons + 2 neutrons) accompanied by the release of about five million times more energy than could be obtained from any chemical reaction.

There are several problems with achieving this. First, both deuterons are electrically charged, so there is a large electrical force pushing them apart. A way must be found to overcome this force and bring the deuterons close enough to fuse. The second problem is that a fusion process must simultaneously obey the laws of conservation of energy and conservation of momentum. Because of this dual requirement, d + d fusion reactions that make helium-3 + neutron or hydrogen-3 + proton should be far more probable than helium-4 + gamma ray. Normal d + d fusion should therefore be a prodigious source of fast neutrons and the secondary gamma rays from energetic protons. On other words, fusion should make lots of radiation.

In the P&F experiment, the energy released would require a speedup of the d + d fusion rate by a factor of about a trillion (the ratio of one dollar to the US National Debt). At the same time, their fusion process would have to make at least a billion times fewer neutrons and gamma rays than would be expected from a normal fusion reaction.

Therefore, to explain the P&F effect we would need the help of the Tooth Fairy (or her equivalent) at least twice. She would have to wave her wand once to make the fusion happen at all, and she must wave it again to make the radiation go away. Some theoretical physicists have explored possible non-Tooth-Fairy mechanisms for doing this. All the proposals seem unlikely. The least unlikely suggests that the palladium crystal lattice is somehow bringing the deuterons close enough to fuse and is also absorbing the recoil momentum from the reaction, allowing the produced helium-4 nucleus to receive the full fusion energy. Even this explanation is not consistent with observations, however, because the 24 MeV helium nuclei thereby created should make gamma rays that are not observed.

Controlled nuclear fusion has had a checkered history that does nothing to give one confidence in the validity of the present claims. In 1923 two German chemists, Fritz Paneth and Kurt Peters, revealed that they had achieved fusion using a method very similar to P&F, the electrolysis of heavy water using a palladium electrode. Within a year they published a retraction. In 1951 Argentine President Juan Peron revealed to the world that his protegé, physicist Ronald Richter, had produced "controlled liberation of atomic energy" through a new fusion process. Within a year Richter was imprisoned for having deceived his benefactor. In 1956 Luis Alvarez, who later won the Nobel Prize for his work in particle physics, reported achieving low temperature fusion, but he later reported that the reaction rate had been seriously overestimated and was not useful for energy production. In 1958 the British Nobel Laureate Sir John Cockcroft announced "he was 90% certain" that controlled fusion had been produced using his ZETA machine. Later he announced that he had been mistaken and that only a very small amount of energy had been produced.

In the history of physics these are only a few of the succession of scientific "discoveries" that proved incorrect. In recent times the announcements of the "discoveries" of superheavy elements, tachyons, "anomalons", magnetic monopoles (twice), and free quarks (twice) have all proved incorrect. These wrong results often involved effects that were barely within the realm of measurability, and many of them required special materials or the use of highly specialized apparatus and techniques that could not be readily duplicated.

The F&P experiment, while seemingly simple and straightforward, has some of these characteristics. Pons revealed about a week ago that one must use palladium rods that are cast rather than extruded or forged, and that even among the cast rods tested, only a fraction show excess heat. He also asserted that the electrolysis must be continued for several months before any release of excess heat can be expected. These requirement makes it very difficult to compare the negative results at other laboratories with the Utah results. Any experiments initiated after the P&F announcement can have been in operation for only a few weeks and many of these have used forged rather than cast rods.

There are other details of the F&P experiment that are controversial:

These controversial aspects of their procedures, together with the unusual way in which their results were publicized and their reluctance to allow other scientists to view or test their apparatus have made it very difficult to take their results at face value. At the APS Meeting it was stated that scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, after extensive discussions with Pons, are skeptical of his methods of estimating energy. Work at Harwell Laboratory in Great Britain, where Fleischmann is a consultant, have thus far failed to confirm the Utah results. Time will tell, but the world is impatient of a believable confirmation of the effect.

Many SF stories often involve the discovery of some revolutionary new physical effect, and SF authors must describe the impact of the discovery on the scientific community, the government, and the public. Whether the F&P effect is true or false, it represents an interesting testing ground for assessing such reactions. In my novel Twistor, I described a revolutionary scientific breakthrough that, near the climax of the book, is very rapidly revealed to the scientific community through the use of computer networks. This is a relatively new aspect of scientific communication. After the initial F&P announcement, preprints of scientific papers from Utah, Brigham Young, and other institutions spread like wildfire through the scientific community by means of the internet computer network and fax machines. Those with network access had new ideas and new results within minutes after they were put on the net.

Curiously, the F&P controversy has also revealed some fundamental differences in attitude between the community of chemists and of physicists. Physicists, finding the production of fusion energy without radiation too hard to swallow, demanded more information and tended to blame the excess energy on bad measurements and chemical effects (like catalysis of evolved deuterium). Chemists, perhaps placing more trust in the reputations of F&P, tended to scold the physicists for not taking chemical results seriously and revelled in the vision of a tabletop experiment done in a dishpan by two obscure electrochemists that achieved what billions of dollars and decades of research by an army of physicists working on magnetic confinement fusion and plasma physics had not.

Certain university administrators seemed more interested in securing patent rights, holding press conferences, and lobbying Congress for special grants than in supplying information or facilitating scientific inquiry. Pons and Fleischmann testified before the House Science, Space and Technology committee and requested $25 million to pursue their research, The press, in its characteristic fashion, lavished page space and air time on those with claims of confirmations and new effects while nearly ignoring those who expressed skepticism or caution in accepting unconfirmed results and untested speculations. The Department of Energy, the funding agency for magnetic fusion research, ordered its National Laboratories to set up cold fusion research task-forces. Industrial firms were, at last report, negotiating with University of Utah officials for inside information on cold fusion.

It all seems very much ... like a science fiction novel.


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