Issues and Events

DOE Warms to Cold Fusion

Whether outraged or supportive about DOE's planned reevaluation of cold fusion, most scientists remain deeply skeptical that it's real.

Hot air?
The cold fusion claims made in 1989 by B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann didn't hold up. But they did spawn a small and devoted coterie of researchers who continue to investigate the alleged effect. Cold fusion die-hards say their data from the intervening 15 years merit a reevaluation-- and a place at the table with mainstream science. Now they have the ear of the US Department of Energy.

"I have committed to doing a review" of cold fusion, says James Decker, deputy director of DOE's Office of Science. Late last year, he says, "some scientists came and talked to me and asked if we would do some kind of review on the research that has been done" since DOE's energy research advisory board (ERAB) looked at cold fusion nearly 15 years ago. "There may be some interesting science here," Decker says. "Whether or not it has applications to the energy business is clearly unknown at this point, but you need to sort out the science before you think about applications."

DOE is still working out the details, Decker says, but a review of cold fusion will begin in the next month or so and "won't take a long time--it's a matter of weeks or months."

Turning up the heat

Last summer, after the 10th International Conference on Cold Fusion in Cambridge, Massachusetts, participants came away energized, says the conference's organizer, MIT theorist Peter Hagelstein. About 150 people attended the conference; the number of people working on cold fusion or, as some of them prefer to call it, low- energy nuclear reactions, is perhaps several hundred worldwide, most of them outside the US. Says Hagelstein, "Everyone was convinced things would start changing. The question on the table is, Can we establish to the satisfaction of the scientific community that there is science here?"

"The field has made a huge amount of progress," Hagelstein says. "In 1989, it was not clear if there was an excess heat effect or not. Over the years, it's become clear there is one. It wasn't clear if there was a low-level emission of nuclear products. Over the years it's become clear that, yes, there is. In addition, other new effects have surfaced."

"It's either my good luck or my bad luck, but I discovered there was something worthy of pursuit," says Michael McKubre, an electrochemist at SRI International, a nonprofit research institute in Menlo Park, California. McKubre's experiments are along the lines of Pons and Fleischmann's. A typical setup consists of a palladium cathode at the center of a helical platinum anode in a solution of heavy water with lithium salt. An applied current dissociates the deuterium, and deuterons load into the palladium. Experiments take a couple of weeks and "leaving them to sit is where most of the tricks are," says McKubre. Among the tricks, he says, are loading the palladium with sufficient concentrations of deuterons and increasing the signal-to-noise ratio in heat and helium measurements. "The numbers are what you expect for two deuterons fusing to produce helium-4, with about 24 MeV per helium nucleus. There is a nuclear effect that produces useful levels of heat. I know it's true."

"With knowledge comes responsibility," continues McKubre. "We know that this has economic implications and, potentially, security implications. The main application that cold fusion enthusiasts foresee following from their work is a clean source of energy; transmutation of nuclear waste and tritium production to augment weapons are also on their list. But, says McKubre, to solve "the various problems in scaling up the effect to make it more easily studied and potentially useful, we have to involve the scientific community."

As it is, the scientific community generally shuns cold fusion. "There is pretty much no possibility for funding in the area at this time, and no possibility of getting published," says Hagelstein. "Because the area is tainted, colleagues don't want to be seen talking about it." Adds Randall Hekman, a former judge and founder of Hekman Industries, an energy exploration company in Grand Rapids, Michigan, "There seems to be a scientific McCarthyism that puts a chilling effect on anyone who gets into this field. I feel for the scientists who do this work and who are being ostracized. That's got to change."

Change is exactly what cold fusion researchers hope will follow from the DOE review: They want vindication, funding, and, with those, better chances of developing applications of cold fusion. Says Hagelstein, "If the review is done properly, it should come back with a thumbs up."

A long shot

Among scientists, skepticism about the credibility and reproducibility of cold fusion remains widespread. "Nobody is smart enough to say it is absolutely impossible, but extraordinary claims demand a very high standard of proof," says Steven Koonin, who recently took a leave from Caltech to become chief scientist at the London-based energy company BP and who served on the original ERAB panel. The best route to respectability, he says, would be for cold fusion researchers to publish in respected refereed journals. "I think a review is a waste of time," says Princeton University physicist Will Happer, another member of the earlier ERAB panel and former head of DOE's Office of Energy Research (now the Office of Science). "But if you put together a credible committee, you can try to put the issue to bed for some time. It will come back. The believers never stop believing."

And the skeptics are raising their eyebrows at DOE because of the appearance of political favors in setting up the meeting between Decker and cold fusion researchers. According to Hekman, "I am from Michigan. [Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham] is from Michigan. I know him. That opened the door." But, he adds, "we had to jump through hoops. We had to make a prima facie case first before any meeting would be set." Another Michigan connection is representative Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), a physicist by training, who says that he is "personally very skeptical" about cold fusion, but "it's likely time for a new review because there is enough work going on and some of the scientists in the arena are from respected institutions." Ehlers says that although he made an inquiry to DOE about a cold fusion review, "there was no political pressure."

Some scientists, too, are sympathetic to the cold fusion cause. "There are quite a few people who are putting their time into this. They are working under conditions that are bad for their careers. They think they are doing something that may result in some important new finding," says MIT's Mildred Dresselhaus, an ERAB panel veteran and former head of DOE's Office of Science. "I think scientists should be open minded. Historically, many things get overturned with time." Noting that DOE's science budget has not increased in years, she adds, "When you feel poor, you don't invest in long shots. This is kind of a long shot."

"The critical question is, How good and different are [the cold fusion researchers'] new results?" says Allen Bard, a chemist at the University of Texas at Austin. "If they are saying, 'We are now able to reproduce our results,' that's not good enough. But if they are saying, 'We are getting 10 times as much heat out now, and we understand things,' that would be interesting. I don't see anything wrong with giving these people a new hearing." In ERAB's cold fusion review in 1989, he adds, "there were phenomena described to us where you could not offer alternative, more reasonable explanations. You could not explain it away like UFOs."

Toni Feder

© 2004 American Institute of Physics