The Discredited Dream of Cold Fusion

Most view alchemy as a proto-science and precursor to modern chemistry. Alchemists established a practical set of rules for carrying out reliable experimentation and documenting result. They accurately described the properties of many elements and a great many chemical compounds. But alchemists had no knowledge of quantum physics, or any kind of physics for that matter. They knew nothing about force or mechanics. It would have been beyond them to describe the chemical behavior of materials with any degree of veracity. This has been the traditional view of western science toward its quaint, backward ancestor. Be that as it may, there are fields of contemporary science in which alchemy is still practiced, it’s just that it isn’t called that. High velocity particle colliders, for example, force atoms or parts of atoms to coalesce under intense pressure, thus resulting in a new material. For a while during the 20th century, materials engineers experimented with converting platinum to gold, and to some extent succeeded. At a fundamental level, the exploration of nuclear fusion is an alchemical enterprise wherein the isotope of one element—typically hydrogen—is combined with another to create a new substance—helium.

The history of nuclear fusion is no less mysterious and beguiling than medieval alchemy. Scientists have long been able to trigger atomic fusion with tremendous amounts of energy, usually caused by a nuclear chain reaction initiated by splitting an atom. In 1989, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann reported that they had managed to effect a fusion event in low energy conditions, a process termed cold fusion. In a modest tabletop experiment, which the two electrochemists built and paid for themselves, they energized a pool of heavy water on the surface of a palladium electrode. They claimed a reaction occurred which produced a small but significant amount of excess heat that lasted for several days after the initial reaction. Pons and Fleishmann had essentially created energy from almost nothing. The commercial implications were staggering. Announcement of their result ignited a frenzy of interest both in the scientific community and in popular media. Laboratories around the world scrambled to reproduce the experiment. The first groups to report back validated the results and confirmed that they too were able to produce excess heat and neutron production. In April of 1989 it appeared that all of human life was about to change. Energy would be free and easy to produce. The most basic and inexorable stricture placed on our common existence was about to be lifted. The potential was boundless. But after these first positive corroborations from Texas A&M and Georgia Institute of Technology, there followed an avalanche of European labs that failed to reproduce Pons and Fleischmann’s results. Georgia Tech retracted their findings just a week after publishing. By the end of the year, dozens of labs had performed the Pons-Fleishmann experiment and not one was able to produce excess heat. The experiment was deemed invalid by the scientific establishment and most scientists lost interest. However, for commercial and governmental entities cold fusion was too tantalizing to abandon. Toyota hired Pons and Fleishmann to lead their IMRA lab and continue their investigations into cold fusion. The state of Utah invested $4.5 million to create the National Cold Fusion Institute. Within a couple of years both initiatives were discontinued without having produced any tangible results.

In the 20 years since Pons and Fleishmann’s paper, governments and institutions have continued investing modest sums into cold fusion research. Japan and India have opened and closed and opened again several laboratories devoted to atomic fusion. Film producer Sidney Kimmel recently donated $5.5 million to the University of Missouri for the establishment of the Sidney Kimmel Institute for Nuclear Renaissance to support continued experimentation based on Pons and Fleishmann’s methods. Now and then, amateur scientists avow that they have successfully produced a cold fusion event and struggle to get their work published in peer-reviewed journals. In 2011 an Italian inventor named Andrea Rossi invented a machine which he claims produces heat with cold fusion. Rossi calls his machine the Energy Catalyzer, or E-Cat for short. The Italian government issued him a patent for the device on April 6 of 2011. The scientific community has been encouraging of Rossi’s innovation, but scientists who have seen the specification that Rossi has provided say that the reactions the device causes are not physically possible. The United States Patent Office receives patent requests routinely for cold fusion machines. As a policy they reject these requests on the grounds that they do not work.

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