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Where’s My Mr. Fusion?

We recently received the following email:
“I just stumbled upon an article online that seems to riddicule the idea of cold fusion as supposedly described in this article, along with the likes of perpetual motion machines. I understand why a perpetual motion machine can’t theoretically be possible could you please explain if cold fussion is as unlikely to be possible”.

Thanks for the question Sam

The article referenced above is about an emeritus physics professor, Yoshiaki Arata at Osaka University who is claiming that a recent public experiment he performed produced excess thermal energy that could only be caused by cold fusion.

For those that are unsure, fusion is the power source of the sun and the stars. Right now, the sun is fusing together 600 million tons of hydrogen every second into 596 million tons of helium. Those 4 million tons that are left-over becomes energy that’s radiated away, propping up the sun and providing the earth with the energy to hold entropy temporarily at bay.

This type of energy production is so efficient it’s been compared to a car traveling 7,000 mile on one gallon of gas. Another comparison I came across claims that one cubic kilometer of ocean contains the energy equivalent of all the known oil reserves of the earth.

No wonder we’ve spent billions of dollars and probably millions of man hours trying to recreate on earth the pressures and temperatures required for hydrogen to fuse into helium and release energy. Unfortunately, this hot fusion is a fiendishly complicated problem and for the past 40 or so years has always seemed just a few decades away.

Enter cold fusion which, by contrast, purports to produce the abundant clean energy of hot fusion at room temperature obviating the need for the hellish environment of a star.

That huge radioactive elephant in the room is of course one of the most infamous experiments ever conducted. I’m referring to the 1989 experiment by Pons and Fleischmann when they announced to the world at a press conference that they had produced nuclear fusion in a glass jar at room temperature.

I remember those days. For a little while I was so excited about a Mr. Fusion in the back my car. Then those nasty skeptics started mouthing off talking about things like lack of reproducibility, theoretical feasibility blah blah blah. Nature magazine ran an editorial claiming that cold fusion was unfounded. Then the US Department of Energy issued a report claiming that the experiments did “not provide convincing evidence that useful sources of energy will result from cold fusion.”

The DOE did another study a few years ago and essentially came to the same conclusion.

Claims of cold fusion were described in that report as intriguing, but not convincing. That was the conclusion of an 18-member scientific panel tasked with reviewing research in the area.

The other side of that coin though is how the discovery itself was handled by Pons and Fleischmann. Scientists claimed that the experiment was poorly documented. Pons and Fleischmann defended themselves saying they couldn’t document all the details because the University of Utah’s patent had not been approved yet. They admitted that the press conference was premature but they were urged by the University to do it because another physicist, Steve Jones, was working on similar research (I bet he was damn glad Pons and Fleischmann beat him to the punch).

Scientists weren’t buying any of this though. Cold Fusion scientist and retired Los Alamos chemist Edmund Storms said the following regarding this:

“Conventional science requires you to play by certain rules, First, thou shalt not announce thy results via a press conference. Second, thou shalt not exaggerate the results. Third, thou shalt tell other scientists precisely what thou did. They broke all of those rules.”

Cold fusion’s biggest problems as I see them are the following:

1) The lack of consistent and reproducible results.
We hear a lot about some experiments that seem to support cold fusion but the bottom line is that consistently reproducible results has been one of the major problems with this field going back even to Pons and Fleischmann and it still exists today. Even labs that produce one apparently compelling experiment have trouble duplicating it.

2) The absence or insufficient quantities of nuclear by-products that should exist given the level of excess heat experienced.
The different types of fusion like D+D (Deuterium+Deuterium), P+P(Proton+Proton) etc all produce various telltale byproducts like tritium, neutrons, gamma rays, helium, or neutrinos. In all cases that I’ve come cross, either these do not exist or they exist in quantities orders of magnitude lower than what should be given the heat produced. How do even these small quantities arise? Some like helium are in the atmosphere in minute quantities (5parts per million). This can contaminate an experiment and should be controlled for. Neutrons caused by cosmic rays can also have the same effect.

3) No theoretical support
Since positive nuclei must overcome electrical repulsion (the coulomb barrier) in order to fuse, great temperatures and pressures are required. Another way this could happen is by the magic of quantum tunneling. This process allows particles to move through barriers in the quantum realm sorta-kinda like a person moving through a wall. This would allow say a proton to circumvent the coulomb barrier and get close enough to another proton to start the fusion process. Unfortunately, if you had a solar mass of deuterium say, where atomic distances are smaller than they’d be in metal, there would be one quantum tunneling fusion event per year. Somehow this process would have to be enhanced by 40 or 50 orders of magnitude for cold fusion to work in the way it’s been described.

Some experimenters claim that the cold fusion is somehow bypassing most of the normal fusion byproducts and causing primarily just the heating that’s been observed. Well, fine…but if that’s true then it would require a completely new and unknown nuclear process to account for it.

Back to your question Sam.

Perpetual motion blatantly disregards the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics. That’s a big no no for such a well established theory.

Cold fusion has quite a stink about it and there are many problems with it but I wouldn’t put it at the level of Perpetual motion. It is unlikely but conceivable that a new nuclear process might be uncovered one day that would allow for cold fusion. Don’t count on it though

I still want my Mr. Fusion.

5 comments to Where’s My Mr. Fusion?

  • DLC

    Fusion has long been held out as the “energy panacea”, yet it has more been the holy grail of nuclear physics. Something to be searched for, but not found. Certainly not in a chemical laboratory.
    The last time I checked (around 2002) the energy required to contain a nuclear fusion reaction was still slightly more than that generated by the fusion reaction itself. There was some hope that superconductors might change this, but I haven’t yet seen any progress in this area.

  • petrucio

    “Unfortunately, this hot fusion is a fiendishly complicated problem and for the past 40 or so years has always seemed just a few decades away.”

    Hot fusion is already available technology – H-Bomb.

    Cold is the one that has always seemed just a few decades away.

    Not sure that’s what you meant, but it doesn’t read right.

  • Jon Blumenfeld


    I think the key word in the sentence should have been “controlled”, because uncontrolled h-bombs don’t really do much for our energy needs.

  • Absolutely correct Jon, sorry for the confusion.

  • “Controlled” is actually a misleading word to use here. Fission reactions are self-sustaining chain-reactions and, thus, need to be controlled, lest they run through all of their fuel in a matter of moments. Most reactors have months if not years worth of fuel in the vessel, so an uncontrolled reaction can easily find enough energy to blow the entire plant apart (see Chernobyl). Fusion, on the other hand, is extremely testy (charge dictates that nuclei like to split, not fuse). The massive amounts of energy used to “control” fusion are really to keep the super-heated plasma from colliding with the walls of the vessel. This causes almost no damage to the vessel as the plasma is at extremely low density, but cools the plasma, precluding a reaction. Most importantly, magnetic-containment fusion reactors in no-way resemble H-bombs, which initiate fusion with a fission implosion. In my admittedly under-informed opinion, fusion would be practical within a more reasonable period of time if there were more directed effort at synthesizing the gargantuan amounts of proof-of-principle research already done.

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