Mar 24 2009

Cold Fusion After 20 Years

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This week the American Chemical Society’s national meeting will include presentations on low energy nuclear reactions (LENR). That is the new name for what is known in popular culture as cold fusion – the production of energy from nuclear fusion as room temperature or other low temperatures.

Cold fusion made its first big splash 20 years ago this week when Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons held a press conference in which they claimed that they had created energy from cold fusion in their lab. Their announcement was met with both excitement and skepticism. The skepticism, it turns out, was justified as in the years following no one has been able to replicate the alleged cold fusion of Pons and Fleischmann, including them. They spent years in a French lab trying to replication their effects and failed.

The excitement is easy to understand, as is a resurgence of interest. Energy is the primary limiting factor of civilization and quality of life – energy use tracks very closely with material quality of life. The expense of energy is part of the expense of almost all goods and services. And right now we are facing concerns over the environmental impact of our energy infrastructure. A source of abundant, cheap, clean, renewable energy would solve a great many problems and be a boon to human civilization.

Fusion

Fusion occurs when like-charged atomic particles – like protons, or atoms of protons and neutrons, are forced together under great temperature and pressure so that they fuse together to make a larger atom. The electromagnetic repulsion of the like charges has to be overcome and the particles brought close enough together so that the nuclear forces will take over and fuse them together. For elements lighter than iron fusion results in an excess of energy, and for elements heavier than iron energy has to be put into the system for fusion to occur.

Nuclear fusion is what powers the sun – right now mostly hydrogen being fused into helium. Fusion bombs work by using a fission bomb to force a pellet of nuclear material together with sufficient force to cause fusion.

The basic concept is that some form of confinement is needed to force the protons together. Stars use gravitational confinement – their immense gravity pushes the hydrogen together until it fuses, and hold it together despite the outward explose force of the energy created by fusion. Fusion bombs use inertial confinement created by the fission explosion. But there can also be magnetic confinement where strong magnetic fields force the charged particles together.

The limiting factor in all of these scenarios is that extreme force must be used to force fusion to happen. This is great for creating a bomb, but nof for a sustained controllable reaction where the energy can be harnessed. Engineers are working on creating hot-fusion for energy, but the engineering challenges are extreme and we cannot even predict at this point when such technology will be feasible.

Cold Fusion

Thus the allure of cold fusion. If we could somehow cajole hydrogen atoms, or some other light element, to fuse together without the extreme activation energy needed for known methods of confinement, we could theoretically have a low energy nuclear reaction – LENR or cold fusion. This would be easier to control and harness. Nuclear reactions results in vast amounts of relesed energy, so such a source could be abundant. The process would not generate any greenhouse gases or radioactive waste. Hydrogen as a fuel source could be harvested from water.

The only problem is that so far there is no evidence that anyone has been able to do it. There have been many claims, even beyond Pons and Fleischmann, but they all suffer from the same problem – lack of reproducibility.

Problems

Cold fusion claims tend to take the form of Pons and Fleischmann’s claim – a laboratory setup that seems to produce a bit of excess energy, often in the form of heat. The claim for nuclear fusion is mainly based upon an argument from ignorance – there is a bit of unexplained energy in the experiment, therefore that energy is coming from nuclear fusion. This is the same logic used to argue that an unidentified light in the sky is a flying saucer, or an unexplained blob of light on a photo is a ghost.

There are two problems with this line of evidence. The first is that it is easy to miss a subtle source of energy. Basing a claim on the inability to explain a tiny bit of energy is inherently weak – evern the tiniest error or oversight could explain the results, and tiny errors and oversights are common. Only through rigorous replication designed to eliminate as much as possible any such errors or oversights would a cold fusion claim be compelling, and so far no such claims have survived attempts at replication.

The second problem is the absence of positive evidence for fusion specifically as the source of the unexplained energy. If hydrogen is being fused into helium, then helium should be detected. This process also produces neutrons, tritium, and gamma rays. So far no experiment claiming excess heat from cold fusion has been able to document the simultaneous presence of helium, neutrons, tritium and gamma rays in sufficient quantities to what is predicted should occur if fusion is the cause of the excess heat. Some researchers have claimed finding these things in excess of background levels, but just barely, and still orders of magnitude less than predicted. So again, slight experimental error is a better explanation.

Conspiracy Theories

Of course any controversy such as this, especially with high stakes and government involvement, will attract the conspiracy theorists like a tub of rocky road at fat camp. “Big Oil” needs to protect their profits from the prospect of cheap abundant energy, therefore they and their government stooges are suppressing real evidence for cold fusion. This is the typical argument from final consequences logical fallacy of many conspiracy theorists – someone has a motivation to commit such a conspiracy, therefore they are.

Anyone who disagrees with the claims of cold fusion, regardless of the logical and scientific nature of their objections, is part of the conspiracy or a hopeless dupe. Only the “army of light” can see the conspiracy for what it is.

Conclusion

As far as I can tell, we are no where near achieving cold fusion, which may not even be possible. Justifications for cold fusion at present are purely speculative. I have no problem with companies or individuals dedicating their time and resources to researching cold fusion. I think it is prudent to invest a small amount in research into unlikely claims that are at least possible and would have a huge payoff.

However, large scale government investment does not seem warranted by current evidence and theory. This also brings up the relationship between basic scientific research and translational research. The purpose of the latter is to take basic research and find specific applications in the real world. I am all for fairly open-ended basic research. Let scientists pursue the questions that interest them. That is likely to produce the most bang for our research buck.

A problem arises, however, if translational research is embarked upon prematurely – translational research that is not justified by the basic science.  Translational research usually is framed as addressing a specific problem – curing a disease, or finding an alternate energy source. Justification for such research is often made according to need – this is a bad disease, or we really need clean energy. This is legitimate, but insufficient. Such research needs to also be based upon solid basic science.

If the basic science does not point the way to a plausible solution, then diverting funds from basic science to translational problem-solving research is likely to be counterproductive. It will not solve the problem and will slow the basic research that might eventually illuminate a possible solution.

With regard to cold fusion, it seems to me (as an outside lurker and not a nuclear physicist) that the basic science is not here, and no one knows if it ever will be. We are better off continuing basic science research to uncover and explore possible new physical processes that might be exploited in the future.

But again, hedging our bets with a small amount of cold fusion research is fine.

It is also true that sometime application research comes before basic science research – in that someone discovers an effect which cannot be explained, and this spawns basic science research to explain it. Therefore, if someone could demonstrate cold fusion then basic science researchers would have a new avenue of research to explore. However, in such cases it is necessary to document to a very high degree of scientific confidence that the new and unexplained phenomenon actually exists. So far this has not been done for cold fusion.

Nor has it been done for anomalous cognition or ESP, ghosts, alien spacecraft, spontaneous human combustion, or the typical long list of dubious claims skeptics often confront. This puts cold fusion squarely in the “alternative science” camp. Serious researchers claim that Pons and Fleischmann have “ghettoized” their field of research with their premature claims. This may be true – but the lack of replicable evidence has kept it there.

The answer is simple – show us the cold fusion.

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