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.
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
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
A long shot
Among scientists, skepticism about the credibility and
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
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
"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."
© 2004 American
Institute of Physics