Had it worked, cold fusion could have been the magic bullet mankind’s been looking for to solve our energy and environmental crisis.
By: Ringo Bones
Generating energy via nuclear fusion is a piece of cake-provided you can build a reactor that can generate temperatures hotter than the sun’s interior without destroying itself in the process. If somehow you could do fusion at room temperature, you could say hello to unlimited clean energy and goodbye to greenhouse gasses and radioactive wastes for good.
1989 was a very exciting year for those of us who grew up under the shadow of the “Cold War.” Détente was declared between the United States and the then Soviet Union, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and had it been true, the discovery of cold fusion.
Back then, B. Stanley Pons, professor of chemistry at the University of Utah, and his colleague, Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton in England, were credited for supposedly discovering cold fusion. They touched off a furor by announcing with great fanfare that in March of 1989 in Salt Lake City that they had achieved nuclear fusion-a process that would have required multimillion degree temperatures-in a set up consisting of a jar of water at room temperature. As they claimed, this so called cold fusion manifested itself when an electric current was passed through a palladium electrode immersed in “heavy water” i.e. water whose hydrogen atoms are made up of deuterium, a heavier isotope of hydrogen that’s commonly found on water. The Utah team of scientists noted that the palladium absorbs deuterium atoms, which at an atomic level are forced to fuse together, producing heat and neutrons. The hope for an unlimited source of cheap and clean energy was at stake, but there was one big conundrum.
One of the precepts that the “scientific method” prides itself in is that experimental procedures can be duplicated by evaluating scientists and the resulting data is reproducible i.e. the data obtained should be the same and should deviate only within a prescribed limit. But Pons and Fleischmann were vague about how their “cold fusion reactor” worked. And when other scientists tried to duplicate the pair’s results, all they got was mostly cold water for their troubles. As a result profound skepticism among physicists was growing. As time went on, there was an intensive cold fusion research effort involving more than a thousand scientists and an estimated daily expenditure of US$1million.
The patent holder of the cold fusion process, the University of Utah, allowed it to lapse as cold fusion fell from view. Until this day B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann still continues their work on cold fusion albeit separately and quietly.
Last time cold fusion got major media exposure in the 20th Century was on the movie “The Saint.” Even in the new millenium, news coverage suddenly emerges from time to time that most people now has formulated a stereotype on someone will likely discover cold fusion; Usually a young disadvantaged scientist in bad need of legitimacy and political support. Who is under-30 with a lab set up in a barn somewhere in the “grain belt” of the United States. We live in hope that the next time we hear about “cold fusion” on the news, it will be the real thing.