U.S. Will Give Cold Fusion Second Look, After 15 Years
March 25, 2004
By KENNETH CHANG
Cold fusion, briefly hailed as the silver-bullet solution
to the world's energy problems and since discarded to the
same bin of quackery as paranormal phenomena and perpetual
motion machines, will soon get a new hearing from
Despite being pushed to the fringes of physics, cold fusion
has continued to be worked on by a small group of
scientists, and they say their figures unambiguously verify
the original report, that energy can be generated simply by
running an electrical current through a jar of water.
Last fall, cold fusion scientists asked the Energy
Department to take a second look at the process, and last
week, the department agreed.
No public announcement was made. A British magazine, New
Scientist, first reported the news this week, and Dr. James
F. Decker, deputy director of the science office in the
Energy Department, confirmed it in an e-mail interview.
"It was my personal judgment that their request for a
review was reasonable," Dr. Decker said.
For advocates of cold fusion, the new review brings them to
the cusp of vindication after years of dismissive ridicule.
"I am absolutely delighted that the D.O.E. is finally going
to do the right thing," Dr. Eugene F. Mallove, editor of
Infinite Energy magazine, said. "There can be no other
conclusion than a major new window has opened on physics."
The research is too preliminary to determine whether cold
fusion, even if real, will live up to its initial billing
as a cheap, bountiful source of energy, said Dr. Peter
Hagelstein, a professor of electrical engineering and
computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology who has been working on a theory to explain how
the process works. Experiments have generated small amounts
of energy, from a fraction of a watt to a few watts.
Still, Dr. Hagelstein added, "I definitely think it has
potential for commercial energy production."
Dr. Decker said the scientists, not yet chosen, would
probably spend a few days listening to presentations and
then offer their thoughts individually. The review panel
will not conduct experiments, he said.
"What's on the table is a fairly straightforward question,
is there science here or not?" Dr. Hagelstein said. "Most
fundamental to this is to get the taint associated with the
field hopefully removed."
Fusion, the process that powers the Sun, combines hydrogen
atoms, releasing energy as a byproduct. In March 1989, Drs.
B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, two chemists at the
University of Utah, said they had generated fusion in a
tabletop experiment using a jar of heavy water, where the
water molecules contain a heavier version of hydrogen,
deuterium, and two palladium electrodes. A current running
through the electrodes pulled deuterium atoms into the
electrodes, which somehow generated heat, the scientists
said. Dr. Fleischmann speculated that the heat was coming
from fusion of the deuterium atoms.
Other scientists trying to reproduce the seemingly simple
experiment found the effects fickle and inconsistent.
Because cold fusion, if real, cannot be explained by
current theories, the inconsistent results convinced most
scientists that it had not occurred. The signs of extra
heat, critics said, were experimental mistakes or generated
by the current or, perhaps, chemical reactions in the
water, but not fusion.
Critics also pointed out that to produce the amount of heat
reported, conventional fusion reactions would throw out
lethal amounts of radiation, and they argued that the
continued health of Drs. Pons and Fleischmann, as well as
other experimenters, was proof that no fusion occurred.
Some cold fusion scientists now say they can produce as
much as two to three times more energy than in the electric
current. The results are also more reproducible, they say.
They add that they have definitely seen fusion byproducts,
particularly helium in quantities proportional to the heat
After a conference in August, Dr. Hagelstein wrote to
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, asking for a meeting. Dr.
Hagelstein; Dr. Michael McKubre of SRI International in
Menlo Park, Calif.; and Dr. David J. Nagel of George
Washington University met Dr. Decker on Nov. 6.
"They presented some data and asked for a review of the
scientific research that has been conducted," Dr. Decker
said. "The scientists who came to see me are from excellent
scientific institutions and have excellent credentials."
Scientists working on conventional fusion said cold fusion
research had fallen off their radar screens.
"I'm surprised," Dr. Stewart C. Prager, a professor of
physics at the University of Wisconsin, said. "I thought
most of the cold fusion effort had phased out. I'm just not
aware of any physics results that motivated this."