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Cold Fusion 20 Years Later
With all the anniversaries that we’ve been celebrating, such as the 400th anniverary of Galileo pointing his telescope skyward and the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, there’s one anniversary that slipped by, not even occurring to me to note, much less celebrate. In fact, when the April 19 edition of "60 Minutes" ran the segment on cold fusion, I was horrified. Then I received an email from my good friend Fred in Texas. Fred pointed out an article on the EDN Web site commenting on the 60 Minutes program and Fred suggested it as a topic for a column. Well, I try to please my readers, especially good friends; so, let’s talk cold fusion. If you click on my column of January 4, 2000 in the archives, you’ll find that I am not a fan of cold fusion, so what follows shows that I try to keep an open mind.
Last month marked the 20th anniversary of the announcement in March, 1989 by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann that they had achieved fusion of deuterium, a heavy form of hydrogen, in a simple electrochemical cell. If true, this meant that their "cold fusion" had the potential to harness the source of power in our Sun and the hydrogen bomb in a simple desktop cell. Labs all over the world tried to reproduce the experiments and Pons and Fleischmann ended up being totally discredited in the eyes of virtually the entire scientific community. Cold fusion even became the subject of a book titled "Bad Science" by Gary Taubes.
In their original experiments, Pons and Fleischmann passed current through cells containing palladium electrodes immersed in heavy water, that is, water in which normal hydrogen is replaced by deuterium. They claimed that more energy was released, in the form of heat, than they put into the cells. They further claimed that the amounts of this excess heat were so large that the source of the heat could not be of a chemical nature but had to be from a nuclear reaction, namely fusion of deuterium atoms to form helium. Nuclear fusion, however, normally gives rise to various particles and/or radiation that were not detected when careful work was done by various researchers knowledgeable in the field of nuclear physics. I attended meetings at the time where withering critiques of Pons and Fleishmann’s work were delivered. It appeared that these two respected electrochemists were in over their heads when it came to nuclear matters.
Over the years, there remained a stalwart few researchers who continued to work on cold fusion experiments in efforts to either prove that there was fusion or to determine the source of any excess heat, even if not fusion. One of the annoying features of such experiments has been the lack of reproducibility of the heat production. The 60 Minutes segment focused on the work of a group in Israel, Energetics Technologies, which claims much more reproducibility and still maintains that deuterium is indeed fusing to form helium, with only heat as the other product of the nuclear reaction.
60 Minutes engaged Rob Duncan, vice chancellor of research at the University of Missouri and described as an expert in the measurement of energy, to accompany the 60 Minutes crew with Scott Pelley to Israel to evaluate Energetics’ claims. On the program, Duncan, who said he was a skeptic of cold fusion, found himself in the surprising position of tending to believe the Energetics’ claims. He concluded that the energy measurements were valid.
On the other hand, Richard Garwin, a well-known nuclear physicist who had been on the team that developed the hydrogen bomb, expressed quite the opposite view on 60 Minutes. He took the position that, until the cold fusion proponents could boil him water for a cup of tea, then reproducibly boil water again for another cup, he would remain unconvinced that the work was of any consequence.
I decided to revisit cold fusion and went online to find the Energetics Web site, SuperWaveFusion.com. Just the name of the site tells you that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill cold fusion effort. The "Chief Visionary Officer and Co-Founder" of the company is Irving Dardik, MD, the inventor of the "wave-waving-within-waves" proprietary SuperWave electrical signal that they deliver to the electrochemical cell. As best I can tell, the SuperWave is a current delivered with a wavelike form on top of which is imposed another wavelike pattern resembling spikes in some instances. Their cell contains a palladium electrode and a platinum electrode and the cell is contained in a vessel acting as a calorimeter to measure any heat generated.
In addition, an ultrasound apparatus supplies ultrasound to the cell for the purpose of cleaning up the surface of the palladium and facilitating the entry of deuterium into the palladium. A neat motion picture piece on the site details in cartoon fashion the assumed splitting up of the heavy water and the entry of deuterium into the palladium crystal structure, where the claimed fusion to form helium and excess heat occurs.
An MD, Dardik, dabbling in cold fusion seems a bit weird but the credentials of the Chief Scientist and also Co-Founder Herman Branover are seemingly more suited to such research. However, Dardik does have papers dealing with heart waves and I was surprised one of the references was to a paper with co-authors from our nearby New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. Branover has a PhD from the Moscow Aviation Institute and a DSc from Leningrad Polytechnic Institute and has been or is a professor of mechanical engineering and of magnetohydrodynamics at institutions such as New York University and Ben-Gurion University in Israel. The CEO and another Co-Founder is Alison Godfrey, who has experience in marketing and business development at Medtronic and Johnson and Johnson and has been involved in various startup companies.
The site also contains references to Energetics publications on their work. I looked at one recent 2008 paper which was quite detailed and had ten authors, including Dardik and Branover. Obviously, a fair number of people are willing to stick their necks out and be associated with a field that most scientists tend to scoff at. My own impression of what I read on the site and in recent papers is that the Energetics group, as well as Michael McKubre of SRI International, who appeared on 60 Minutes, and his colleagues at SRI are making progress in reproducing the excess heat effect. The Energetics group claims around 70 to 80 percent success in reproducing the effect.
But is the effect really due to nuclear fusion? If they are truly dealing with fusion of deuterium to form helium, obviously one way to support that claim would be to find and measure an increase in helium as the experiment proceeds. Energetics says that they are now engaged in trying to detect the claimed helium. However, it seems to me that even if helium is produced it may prove very difficult to find it.
I base this on some calculations I made using their data in their 2008 paper. Taking the results of their best experiment insofar as the amount of excess heat reported, if my math is correct (not at all a certainty!) I conclude they would have to detect helium in quantities of millionths of a gram or less. They would also have to be able to show that the helium was not just helium normally present in the environment. According to one of my handbooks, helium is present at one part in 200,000 in the atmosphere. If they actually do find helium being formed above the background level, I will be truly impressed.
Meanwhile, I will choose to settle in Garwin’s camp, in my case waiting for Energetics to brew me a second cup of coffee, perhaps laced with a bit of helium from their cold fusion. While sitting there, I will look forward to another attempt at hot fusion at the recently completed National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The Department of Energy announced last month the completion of NIF, site of the world’s largest laser. Sometime next year, they plan to blast a small pellet of material containing some sort of hydrogen fuel with a humongous pulse of laser energy by focusing some 192 laser beams on the pellet. The effect is expected to approximate conditions in the interior of a star and, hopefully, hydrogen fusion will be achieved with an output of energy higher than that in the laser pulse.
Although still a skeptic about cold fusion, I would be delighted if proved wrong and both the hot and cold fusion experiments are successful. Will 2010 be a banner year for fusion? Let’s hope so.
Next column on May 14.
Allen F. Bortrum