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Dr. Bortrum

 

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01/04/2000

Cold Fusion...No Longer Hot

I''m writing this on January 1, 2000 and so far no evidence of any
Y2K problem. Even my 10-year old battery-powered Bulova
clock/calendar is showing 2000 and the proper calendar for
January. More harrowing than Y2K was the drive home from a
New Year''s Eve party in patchy fog and black ice. At the party,
Jane asked me my opinion of the future of battery-powered
electric vehicles. I expressed skepticism about the prospects for
any drastic improvement in batteries. Jane then wondered about
the possibility that cold fusion could be an alternate energy
source. This brought back memories of the days over ten years
ago, in 1989, when "cold fusion" was announced.

In the seemingly endless rehashing of the events and
accomplishments of the 20th century, cold fusion has not been
mentioned in any article or on any TV show I''ve seen. However,
the recent selections of two individuals for recognition
particularly pleased me. First, Brian Trumbore pointed out to me
that Sports Illustrated has come up with its list of the century''s
most significant singular athletic achievements. Its number one
choice was Roger Bannister''s breaking of the 4-minute mile in
1954. Hillary''s climb of Mt. Everest was also up there, but it was
the 6th place choice that really elated me. It was my childhood
baseball idol, Cincinnati Red''s pitcher Johnny Vander Meer. His
two no-hit games in a row has never been duplicated in the major
leagues. Time magazine recognized another individual for an
accomplishment just a tad more impressive. Anyone who follows
this column knows that Albert Einstein is my science idol and I
was delighted to see that Time designated him its person of the
century. One of Einstein''s remarks when turning down a political
career (he could have been president of Israel) was to the effect
that politics is fleeting but "an equation lasts forever". Even when
he didn''t believe certain conclusions drawn from his own theories,
such as the existence of black holes, his equations stood there for
others to interpret and expand upon.

Of course, the equation that changed the world forever simply
states that matter and energy are equivalent, i.e., the energy of a
body equals its mass times the velocity of light squared. This
equation was the precursor to the atomic bomb, the hydrogen
bomb, nuclear power stations and to the explanation of the source
of the sun''s energy production. For those who might not
appreciate the huge amount of energy involved, if you converted
the one and a half ounces of water in a shot glass to energy, you
would have about 40 billion trillion ergs of energy, assuming my
math is correct. Unless you''re a scientist, you''re probably thinking
that''s too big a number to comprehend and besides, what''s an erg?
Even being a scientist, ergs really don''t mean much to me either,
so let''s convert that number to watt-hours. It turns out to be
pretty close to a trillion Watt-hours. That''s still an awfully large
number but let''s relate it to your typical AA-size alkaline battery.
I''m positive you''ve purchased several of these batteries over the
past year. Well, the typical AA cell delivers energy of about 1-2
Watt-hours. So, our trillion Watt-hours is the energy equivalent
of between a half to one trillion AA cells.

If you''re still not comfortable with trillions, a trillion watt-hours is
only a billion kilowatt-hours. I would guess that a typical
suburban household uses about 2 to 5 kilowatt-hours a day to
keep the house lit and the TV and other appliances powered. I''m
wrong! In the interests of accuracy, I just looked up our own
household usage as billed by GPU, our electric utility, and was
shocked to find it''s typically more like 20 to 25 kilowatt-hours a
day! Taking 25 kilowatt-hours per home per day, our billion
kilowatt-hours would power about 40 million Bortrum homes for
a day or, alternatively, one million homes for 40 days! Confine all
that energy in a small volume and you''ve got one big bang!

Speaking of big bangs, you may know that at the start of the real
Big Bang there wasn''t any matter. It was all energy. Since
Einstein has told us that matter and energy are equivalent, am I
wrong to assume that it took that billion kilowatt-hours of energy
to create the hydrogen and oxygen to make our shot glass of
water? Since all our billions of galaxies, each with billions of
stars and zillions of tons of dark matter, evolved out of that Big
Bang energy, I join you in being completely overwhelmed by the
magnitude of energy involved.

But we don''t have to worry about such things in our everyday
life, except to reassure ourselves that our sun continues to employ
Einstein''s famous equation for the foreseeable future. At the
extremely high temperatures in the interior of the sun, the
hydrogen atoms, squeezed together by the immense gravitational
force, and fuse together to form helium, which weighs less than
the hydrogen that formed it. Einstein''s equation comes into play
and this difference in mass is responsible for the energy output of
the sun. This "fusion" energy takes the form of light, heat and
various energetic particles. Here on earth we see the light, feel
the heat and see evidence of the other particles in, for example,
their interactions with molecules in our upper atmosphere to give
the light shows of the aurora borealis.

For decades, the dream of harnessing this nuclear fusion has
spurred work slanted towards the attainment of extremely high
temperatures and confinement of hydrogen in a very small volume
to promote fusion. Here in New Jersey, the so-called Tokamak
machine in Princeton has come about as close to achieving this
goal as any of the efforts. Power outputs of more than 10 million
watts have been achieved, enough to power a few hundred
homes. However, there''s a catch. The power only lasts for about
a second! At this point, this "hot" fusion is so far from being
practical, either technologically or economically that some think
the work should be dropped.

It''s not surprising that the announcement of "cold fusion", which
involved a simple electrochemical cell stirred up a worldwide
reaction. I remember hearing about the announcement on the
radio that day in March of 1989. But I also remember the next
day. On that day, my former colleague, mentor and director at
Bell Labs, the late Carl Thurmond, called me from Albuquerque.
Carl had retired some years earlier and was quite upset. He told
me cold fusion was a fraud and that the inventors, Stanley Pons
and Martin Fleischmann, should be run out of town. I had great
respect for Carl, a very good chemist who, prior to Bell Labs, had
worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II.
At the time, I thought Thurmond was overly critical, especially
since I knew that Martin Fleischmann was a highly regarded
electrochemist. Indeed, he received one of The Electrochemical
Society''s most prestigious honors, the Olin Palladium Medal
Award in 1985. I had just completed four years as Secretary of
that society the year before Fleischmann''s award.

As reported by Pons and Fleischmann, the experiment consisted
of a very simple setup in which palladium electrodes were placed
in a vessel with an electrolyte based on "heavy" water, that is,
water in which the hydrogen isotope deuterium replaces normal
hydrogen. (Normal hydrogen consists of one electron and one
proton. Deuterium has one electron, a proton and a neutron.)
The palladium electrodes then were connected to a direct current
power source and a simple electrolysis was carried out. This is
something students do in high school chemistry with hydrogen
liberated at one electrode and oxygen at the other. Usually, they
collect some of the hydrogen in a test tube and light it to hear the
pop as it burns. At least they did it in the old days. It may not be
done today for fear of litigation? Actually, now that I think of it,
I never had chemistry in high school. It was a 12th grade subject
and, as mentioned before, I missed a 12th grade experience.

Back to Pons and Fleischmann, what they claimed was that there
were sporadic bursts of heat given off in their simple cells and
that the amount of heat was so great that it had to be nuclear
fusion. Specifically, they postulated that the deuterium atoms
were brought so close together in the palladium that they fused.
Virtually as soon as their work was announced, and especially as
the details of their experiments were revealed, there was a burst
of sharp criticism. A key criticism was that Pons and Fleischmann
did not provide credible evidence of the emission of energetic
nuclear particles or gamma rays that should accompany a fusion
reaction. What followed was a truly remarkable series of events
resembling re a soap opera, with its heroes and villains. Gary
Taubes, a noted science writer, has chronicled the story in a book
titled "Bad Science", which was of great interest to me since I
know many of the characters. If you browse the Internet, you can
still find many sites devoted to cold fusion, both pro and con.
There are even conferences devoted to cold fusion.

However, the bottom line is that, to my knowledge, no credible
evidence has been presented to support nuclear fusion as being
involved in electrochemical cells of the type described by Pons
and Fleischmann. In the opinion of some physics types, a very
good piece of evidence against cold fusion is that Pons and
Fleischmann are still alive! The argument here is that if fusion
was responsible for the heat generated in these cells, the numbers
of nuclear particles or gamma rays would have been so great that
they would have led to radiation effects in the body that would be
fatal. If so, Pons and Fleischmann should indeed be grateful that
their experiments did not produce fusion!

In the interest of fair disclosure, I should perhaps reveal a reason
for a personal bias. In May of 1989, less than two months after
the initial announcement, a special cold fusion session was held at
a meeting of The Electrochemical Society in Los Angeles. I have
never met either Pons or Fleischmann, but, the night before the
session, my wife and I and another couple had dinner in a
restaurant and, seated at the next table were a number of people,
including Pons and Fleischmann. We finished our dinner first,
ordered a cab and were waiting outside for it to arrive. As our
cab pulled up, Pons rudely disregarded our protests and usurped
our cab. I may have been somewhat less than objective thereafter
in my view of his work. The next evening''s session proved to be
one of the turning points as far as the scientific community''s
acceptance of cold fusion, the session ending with a withering
critique of the experiments that confirmed any of my own doubts
as to the reality of cold fusion.

As for my friend Carl''s call, I don''t believe the fraud aspect,
preferring to think that Pons and Fleischmann were genuine in
their belief they had cold fusion. However, as time went by, the
behavior of Pons in particular, as portrayed in "Bad Science",
certainly was peculiar insofar as his responses to the results of
experiments by others contradicting the cold fusion thesis. And
Jane, don''t hold your breath awaiting that car powered by cold
fusion.

Allen F. Bortrum




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-01/04/2000-      
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Dr. Bortrum

01/04/2000

Cold Fusion...No Longer Hot

I''m writing this on January 1, 2000 and so far no evidence of any
Y2K problem. Even my 10-year old battery-powered Bulova
clock/calendar is showing 2000 and the proper calendar for
January. More harrowing than Y2K was the drive home from a
New Year''s Eve party in patchy fog and black ice. At the party,
Jane asked me my opinion of the future of battery-powered
electric vehicles. I expressed skepticism about the prospects for
any drastic improvement in batteries. Jane then wondered about
the possibility that cold fusion could be an alternate energy
source. This brought back memories of the days over ten years
ago, in 1989, when "cold fusion" was announced.

In the seemingly endless rehashing of the events and
accomplishments of the 20th century, cold fusion has not been
mentioned in any article or on any TV show I''ve seen. However,
the recent selections of two individuals for recognition
particularly pleased me. First, Brian Trumbore pointed out to me
that Sports Illustrated has come up with its list of the century''s
most significant singular athletic achievements. Its number one
choice was Roger Bannister''s breaking of the 4-minute mile in
1954. Hillary''s climb of Mt. Everest was also up there, but it was
the 6th place choice that really elated me. It was my childhood
baseball idol, Cincinnati Red''s pitcher Johnny Vander Meer. His
two no-hit games in a row has never been duplicated in the major
leagues. Time magazine recognized another individual for an
accomplishment just a tad more impressive. Anyone who follows
this column knows that Albert Einstein is my science idol and I
was delighted to see that Time designated him its person of the
century. One of Einstein''s remarks when turning down a political
career (he could have been president of Israel) was to the effect
that politics is fleeting but "an equation lasts forever". Even when
he didn''t believe certain conclusions drawn from his own theories,
such as the existence of black holes, his equations stood there for
others to interpret and expand upon.

Of course, the equation that changed the world forever simply
states that matter and energy are equivalent, i.e., the energy of a
body equals its mass times the velocity of light squared. This
equation was the precursor to the atomic bomb, the hydrogen
bomb, nuclear power stations and to the explanation of the source
of the sun''s energy production. For those who might not
appreciate the huge amount of energy involved, if you converted
the one and a half ounces of water in a shot glass to energy, you
would have about 40 billion trillion ergs of energy, assuming my
math is correct. Unless you''re a scientist, you''re probably thinking
that''s too big a number to comprehend and besides, what''s an erg?
Even being a scientist, ergs really don''t mean much to me either,
so let''s convert that number to watt-hours. It turns out to be
pretty close to a trillion Watt-hours. That''s still an awfully large
number but let''s relate it to your typical AA-size alkaline battery.
I''m positive you''ve purchased several of these batteries over the
past year. Well, the typical AA cell delivers energy of about 1-2
Watt-hours. So, our trillion Watt-hours is the energy equivalent
of between a half to one trillion AA cells.

If you''re still not comfortable with trillions, a trillion watt-hours is
only a billion kilowatt-hours. I would guess that a typical
suburban household uses about 2 to 5 kilowatt-hours a day to
keep the house lit and the TV and other appliances powered. I''m
wrong! In the interests of accuracy, I just looked up our own
household usage as billed by GPU, our electric utility, and was
shocked to find it''s typically more like 20 to 25 kilowatt-hours a
day! Taking 25 kilowatt-hours per home per day, our billion
kilowatt-hours would power about 40 million Bortrum homes for
a day or, alternatively, one million homes for 40 days! Confine all
that energy in a small volume and you''ve got one big bang!

Speaking of big bangs, you may know that at the start of the real
Big Bang there wasn''t any matter. It was all energy. Since
Einstein has told us that matter and energy are equivalent, am I
wrong to assume that it took that billion kilowatt-hours of energy
to create the hydrogen and oxygen to make our shot glass of
water? Since all our billions of galaxies, each with billions of
stars and zillions of tons of dark matter, evolved out of that Big
Bang energy, I join you in being completely overwhelmed by the
magnitude of energy involved.

But we don''t have to worry about such things in our everyday
life, except to reassure ourselves that our sun continues to employ
Einstein''s famous equation for the foreseeable future. At the
extremely high temperatures in the interior of the sun, the
hydrogen atoms, squeezed together by the immense gravitational
force, and fuse together to form helium, which weighs less than
the hydrogen that formed it. Einstein''s equation comes into play
and this difference in mass is responsible for the energy output of
the sun. This "fusion" energy takes the form of light, heat and
various energetic particles. Here on earth we see the light, feel
the heat and see evidence of the other particles in, for example,
their interactions with molecules in our upper atmosphere to give
the light shows of the aurora borealis.

For decades, the dream of harnessing this nuclear fusion has
spurred work slanted towards the attainment of extremely high
temperatures and confinement of hydrogen in a very small volume
to promote fusion. Here in New Jersey, the so-called Tokamak
machine in Princeton has come about as close to achieving this
goal as any of the efforts. Power outputs of more than 10 million
watts have been achieved, enough to power a few hundred
homes. However, there''s a catch. The power only lasts for about
a second! At this point, this "hot" fusion is so far from being
practical, either technologically or economically that some think
the work should be dropped.

It''s not surprising that the announcement of "cold fusion", which
involved a simple electrochemical cell stirred up a worldwide
reaction. I remember hearing about the announcement on the
radio that day in March of 1989. But I also remember the next
day. On that day, my former colleague, mentor and director at
Bell Labs, the late Carl Thurmond, called me from Albuquerque.
Carl had retired some years earlier and was quite upset. He told
me cold fusion was a fraud and that the inventors, Stanley Pons
and Martin Fleischmann, should be run out of town. I had great
respect for Carl, a very good chemist who, prior to Bell Labs, had
worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II.
At the time, I thought Thurmond was overly critical, especially
since I knew that Martin Fleischmann was a highly regarded
electrochemist. Indeed, he received one of The Electrochemical
Society''s most prestigious honors, the Olin Palladium Medal
Award in 1985. I had just completed four years as Secretary of
that society the year before Fleischmann''s award.

As reported by Pons and Fleischmann, the experiment consisted
of a very simple setup in which palladium electrodes were placed
in a vessel with an electrolyte based on "heavy" water, that is,
water in which the hydrogen isotope deuterium replaces normal
hydrogen. (Normal hydrogen consists of one electron and one
proton. Deuterium has one electron, a proton and a neutron.)
The palladium electrodes then were connected to a direct current
power source and a simple electrolysis was carried out. This is
something students do in high school chemistry with hydrogen
liberated at one electrode and oxygen at the other. Usually, they
collect some of the hydrogen in a test tube and light it to hear the
pop as it burns. At least they did it in the old days. It may not be
done today for fear of litigation? Actually, now that I think of it,
I never had chemistry in high school. It was a 12th grade subject
and, as mentioned before, I missed a 12th grade experience.

Back to Pons and Fleischmann, what they claimed was that there
were sporadic bursts of heat given off in their simple cells and
that the amount of heat was so great that it had to be nuclear
fusion. Specifically, they postulated that the deuterium atoms
were brought so close together in the palladium that they fused.
Virtually as soon as their work was announced, and especially as
the details of their experiments were revealed, there was a burst
of sharp criticism. A key criticism was that Pons and Fleischmann
did not provide credible evidence of the emission of energetic
nuclear particles or gamma rays that should accompany a fusion
reaction. What followed was a truly remarkable series of events
resembling re a soap opera, with its heroes and villains. Gary
Taubes, a noted science writer, has chronicled the story in a book
titled "Bad Science", which was of great interest to me since I
know many of the characters. If you browse the Internet, you can
still find many sites devoted to cold fusion, both pro and con.
There are even conferences devoted to cold fusion.

However, the bottom line is that, to my knowledge, no credible
evidence has been presented to support nuclear fusion as being
involved in electrochemical cells of the type described by Pons
and Fleischmann. In the opinion of some physics types, a very
good piece of evidence against cold fusion is that Pons and
Fleischmann are still alive! The argument here is that if fusion
was responsible for the heat generated in these cells, the numbers
of nuclear particles or gamma rays would have been so great that
they would have led to radiation effects in the body that would be
fatal. If so, Pons and Fleischmann should indeed be grateful that
their experiments did not produce fusion!

In the interest of fair disclosure, I should perhaps reveal a reason
for a personal bias. In May of 1989, less than two months after
the initial announcement, a special cold fusion session was held at
a meeting of The Electrochemical Society in Los Angeles. I have
never met either Pons or Fleischmann, but, the night before the
session, my wife and I and another couple had dinner in a
restaurant and, seated at the next table were a number of people,
including Pons and Fleischmann. We finished our dinner first,
ordered a cab and were waiting outside for it to arrive. As our
cab pulled up, Pons rudely disregarded our protests and usurped
our cab. I may have been somewhat less than objective thereafter
in my view of his work. The next evening''s session proved to be
one of the turning points as far as the scientific community''s
acceptance of cold fusion, the session ending with a withering
critique of the experiments that confirmed any of my own doubts
as to the reality of cold fusion.

As for my friend Carl''s call, I don''t believe the fraud aspect,
preferring to think that Pons and Fleischmann were genuine in
their belief they had cold fusion. However, as time went by, the
behavior of Pons in particular, as portrayed in "Bad Science",
certainly was peculiar insofar as his responses to the results of
experiments by others contradicting the cold fusion thesis. And
Jane, don''t hold your breath awaiting that car powered by cold
fusion.

Allen F. Bortrum