Cold Fusion: Hoax, Dream… and the Future of Green Energy?

Cold fusion has fought an uphill battle since its first public debut in 1988. It has been ridiculed, “disproven,” and like many other fascinating ideas it has been badly portrayed by a sub-par Keanu Reeves movie (Chain Reaction). The public has been fed a continuous stream of articles, interviews, and exposés decrying cold fusion in the name of mainstream physics. But increasingly, governments and militaries around the world (including ours), academic institutions like MIT and Purdue, and companies like Mitsubishi, Shell, and Total have been supporting cold fusion research with millions of dollars in funding. This level of sustained interest and funding deserves a closer look than it gets.

At stake is the potential to generate nuclear reactions using just heavy water (deuterium instead of hydrogen) and metals like palladium, titanium, and nickel. If this could be done it could support a considerable source of clean energy that would not generate radioactive waste like today’s nuclear reactors.

Cold fusion research never really stopped—it just got re-named “low energy nuclear reaction” or LENR work. In the 25 years since the original experiments by University of Utah researchers Martin Fleischmann and B. Stanley Pons, the issue with cold fusion experiments has not necessarily been the lack of successful results—many generate the anomalous heat and nuclear reaction products that started all the excitement—but the inability of modern nuclear physics to explain the results of these table-top chemistry experiments. At this point the question is no longer whether or not something happens, but why does it happen. And with a constantly improving understanding of nuclear physics (think Higgs Boson) due to a growing number of expensive toys like particle colliders and neutrino detectors we are finally beginning to explain the results of cold fusion experiments.

To be honest, many of the physics explanations (and there are a growing number) sound like a sci-fi novel with things like dineutrons, deuteron fusion, Rydberg Clusters, and Bose-Einstein Condensates. Fortunately for the rest of us non-physicists, a cold fusion experiment itself (without explaining the results) is pretty straightforward. In general, you place a block of palladium, a rare metal used in cars’ catalytic converters, into heavy water, and run an electric current through it. The result if you do it correctly is usually Helium and excess heat—that is, more heat than is put into the system in the form of electricity. While many of the original problems with these experiments centered on repeatability, we have learned that variability in the purity, alloy type, and form of the palladium plays a significant role as well as the ratio of heavy water to palladium and the presence of certain other catalysts or impurities. These are variables that continue to be refined and standardized but are no different than the challenges we have already faced in commercializing semiconductors and superconductors.

One of the earliest researchers in the field of cold fusion is actually right here in Oregon at Portland State University. John Dash has been carrying out cold fusion research for almost 20 years and is counted among the leading researchers in the field for his contributions to the Trapped Neutron Catalyzed Fusion model of cold fusion. In 1989, after his department requested that he study it, Dash conducted a cold fusion experiment. To his surprise, he found positive results in his very first experiment, in less time than it took most researchers.

“I was surprised that you could see something visually in a short period of time, because what other people were saying was you had to wait a week before anything happens,” Dash said.

Dash, now 79, credits his positive results with using a very thin sheet of palladium rather than bulk palladium. The palladium foil was simply what Portland State had on hand.

“I was amazed because the originally flat electrode crumpled up,” he said. “I opted to find out what was going on. It’s been a 25-year ride now; it looks more and more promising.”

Along with excess heat, Dash has shown that transmutation has occurred in his lab—that is, one element, palladium, has changed into another, silver: a kind of modern-day alchemy that occurs from fission and fusion reactions and in particle colliders.

“We see excess heat, and along with that, evidence of transmutation,” Dash said. “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack; it’s hard to find. This is a revolutionary idea but more and more people are obtaining that result.”

Dash’s results aren’t always repeatable, but he calls his system better than what other scientists are using—and he plans to continue his work until funding runs out.

Others like Dash share the dream that cold fusion could one day lead to cleaner energy production. Defkalion Green, a company in Cyprus, is working to commercialize a cold fusion technology for home heating. Even NASA and MIT have gone public regarding their support for cold fusion research. Beginning in January of this year, an MIT professor, Peter Hagelstein, ran a device that generated excess heat for months—he even invited the public to come see it. MIT will be offering a class that discusses the physics and chemistry behind the reactions this spring.

It’s an interesting field of study that is gaining momentum despite its lack of explanation given our current understanding of nuclear physics—but hey that’s what science is all about (who thought smart phones would exist 10 years ago?).

There seems to be an overall consensus among cold fusion researchers that no single reaction is responsible for the excess heat. The reactions are hard to study because they occur in a solid, making it almost impossible for us to see anything as it’s occurring—all we see are the products and we get stuck trying to reverse-engineer what happened at an atomic level.

“Everybody has their pet theory,” said Dash, who’s confident that we’ll see widespread use of cold fusion in this century. “The bias against cold fusion is because it’s revolutionary. According to the physics bible, it can’t happen.”

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By Jen Matteis and Shawn Freitas