Thursday, February 9, 2012

No warmth for cold fusion

I was thinking about cold fusion today.

Seriously, I don't know where this shit comes from.  Don't you just love my mind?

I think the thoughts of cold fusion are due perhaps to the time of year.  Back in 1989 at around this point on the calendar, I was in my physics class in senior year of high school.  I have just horribly dated myself with that statement of disclosure but I shall press forward.  During that time, two scientists announced wide to the world that they had enacted cold fusion in a laboratory.

Fusion, for the uninitiated, is the process of two or more atomic nuclei merging to form a heavier nucleus, such as deuterium and tritium fusing to form helium.  When this happens, an enormous amount of energy is released.  Nuclear fusion is the process by which the stars burn.  By contrast, when you hear about a nuclear reactor, the process involved is fission and yields a significantly smaller amount of energy.  One frustrating hurdle that prevents man-made fusion on a large scale is the enormous temperatures necessary to bring it about.  Think "core of a sun."  Then in 1989, two men named Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann proclaimed that they had created fusion at room temperature.

Their experimental apparatus produced, they claimed, excessive heat anomalies as well as the presence of neutrons and heavy water.  This would be indicative of a low-level nuclear reaction.  Hopes soared.  It seemed as if we might be on the cusp of finding a vast source of clean and cheap energy.  Pons and Fleischmann published their screed on the topic and other scientists attempted to replicate what the duo had done.  And that's when the trouble began.

Other researchers had extreme difficulty in achieving the same results.  Even with the direct help of Pons and Fleischmann, the results kept coming back as negative.  Hopes fell.  There were discoveries of flaws and experimental errors in the original process and many in the scientific community withdrew any interest or support in the matter of cold fusion.  In fact, I can remember the phrase itself being used synonymously at the time for something that was either poorly thought out or just pure hokum.  While sitting in that aforementioned physics class, we would watch a satellite TV program on physics that was of an almost cable access quality.   The physicist host of the program held up a newspaper article claiming the Pons-Fleischmann experiment to be complete shit (well, not in so many words but you get the picture) and urging the budding scientists out there...which I turned out not to not "rush into theories half-baked."  Those words are exact as I remember them for whatever reason...even though most everyone seemed to forget about cold fusion after that brief moment in time.

It's still a controversial topic today.  There are those that argue that cold fusion is possible.  There are even those who are asserting that it has already been carried out and the information is being suppressed by the academic intelligentsia or by forces more greedy and nefarious.  Just check this article from Forbes magazine, detailing NASA announcements that seriously downplay hopes for cold fusion, or Low-Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) as they are now called...perhaps in an attempt to shed the cold fusion stigma of 1989.  It's not going away.  In fact, columnist Forbes Mark Gibbs says of the buzz around a video recently released by NASA:

"Amongst the many staunch LENR boosters and the redoubtable believers in Andrea Rossi’s E-Cat device (which this blog covered last week and in several previous postings), this video has been hailed as somehow irrefutable proof that NASA, as a whole, is admitting to the existence of LENR as a practical technology for energy generation while others see this as a breaching of the misinformation and suppression campaign conducted by Big Physics (specifically the hot plasma researchers) and Big Energy (the oil, natural gas, a nuclear industries)."

That's right.  It's conspiracy time again, folks.  Just reading the comments to the article will give you a sense of the combative attitudes on the topic.

One point I will concede is that I can see how Pons and Fleischmann might have met initial resistance in the form of academic snobbery.  Nuclear science is thought to be the domain of physicists.  Pons and Fleischmann are chemists.  There tends to be an undercurrent in the scientific community that chemists should stick to inventing new forms of hair gel and laundry detergent and leave "higher science" to the physicists.  It's a disgusting attitude but it's present in the academy and not just in the fields of science.  Would this sense of pride go so far as to stifle a discovery as momentous as cold fusion?  I doubt it, but I wouldn't be surprised if the two men in question encountered it.

So the consensus is...the jury's still out.  If cold fusion, LENR, or whatever you want to call it is going to make any headway in the world, someone's going to have to come up with irrefutable evidence.  Don't get me wrong, I hope someone does.  The sooner we have clean, cheap energy for the world the better.

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