Sunbeams From Cucumbers
by Richard Milton

He had been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers.
Jonathan Swift,

Gulliver's Travels

No other scientific endeavor has consumed so much talent, so much cash and so many years of sustained effort as the race to harness the power that makes the sun shine.

 

Billions of pounds (and dollars, rubles and yen), more than four decades of research and the careers of thousands of physicists have been expended on the search for a nuclear reactor that will generate limitless power from the fusion of hydrogen atoms.

 

There are gray-haired professors with lined faces still poring intently over the equations they first looked at eagerly with bright young eyes in the 1940s and 1950s. They will go into retirement with their dreams of cheap, safe power from fusion still years in the future, for the obstacles in their paths are as formidable now as ever.

Fusion is the process taking place in the sun's core where, at temperatures of millions of degrees, hydrogen atoms are compressed together by elemental forces to form helium and a massive outpouring of energy in the thermonuclear reaction of the hydrogen bomb.

It is not difficult, then, to imagine how people who have invested their talent and their lives in the quest to tame such forces are likely to react when told that fusion is possible at room temperature, and in a jam jar.

Hydrogen atoms repel each other strongly - so strongly that no known chemical reaction can persuade them to fuse. There are, though, heavier isotopes* of hydrogen, such as deuterium, which together with oxygen makes heavy water and which under the right circumstances can be made to fuse in nuclear reactions. When they do so, they release energy.

* Atoms that have the same number of protons -atomic number -but different mass numbers.

However, the only circumstances so far under which hydrogen atoms have been persuaded to fuse have nothing in common with the measured calm of the laboratory bench but are more like a scene from Dante's Inferno. In the center of the sun and other stars, the atoms are squeezed by cataclysmic gravitational forces to form a plasma of the nuclei of hydrogen atoms at a temperature of millions of degrees. These high temperatures kindle a self-sustaining reaction in which hydrogen is "burnt" as the fuel.

The scientific world was thus astonished when, in March 1989, Professor Martin Fleischmann of Southampton University and his former student, Professor Stanley Pons of the University of Utah, held a press conference at which they jointly announced the discovery of "cold fusion" -  the production of usable amounts of energy by what seemed to be a nuclear process occurring in a jar of water at room temperature.

Fleischmann and Pons told an incredulous press conference that they had passed an electric current through a pair of electrodes made of precious metals - one platinum, the other palladium - immersed in a glass jar of heavy water in which was dissolved some lithium salts.

 

This very simple set-up (the Daily Telegraph later estimated its cost as around 90 [$144 U.S. currency]) was claimed to produce heat energy between four and ten times greater than the electrical energy they were putting in. No purely chemical reaction could produce a result of such magnitude so, said the scientists, it must be nuclear fusion. Further details would be revealed soon in a scientific paper.

Both scientists are distinguished in their field, that of electrochemistry. But in making their press announcement they were breaking with the usual tradition of announcing major scientific discoveries of this sort. The usual process is one of submitting an article to Nature magazine which in turn would submit it to qualified referees. If the two chemists' scientific peers found the paper acceptable, Nature would publish it, they would be recognized as having priority in the discovery and - all being well -  research cash would be forthcoming both to replicate their results and conduct further research.

But the two scientists perceived some difficulties. First, their paper would not be scrutinized by their exact peers because the discovery was unknown territory to electrochemists and indeed everyone else. It would probably be examined mainly by nuclear physicists - the men and women who had grown gray in the service of "hot" fusion. This would be like asking Swift's "Big Endians" to comment objectively on the work of "little Endians."

 

It is not that "hot" fusion physicists could not be trusted to be impartial, or were incapable of accepting experimental facts, but rather that they would be coming from a research background that would naturally give them a quite different perspective.

 

Fusion Hot and Cold

From The Coming Energy Revolution

by Jeane Manning

(Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publishing Group, 1996).

Fusion is the opposite of fission, although both processes start with atoms. Atoms are the tiny building blocks that make up all matter. An atom consists of a nucleus, which is made up of pro-tons and neutrons, and electrons, which form a cloud around the nucleus. Different atoms contain different amounts of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and form different types of matter.

Fission is the splitting of an atom's nucleus, such as by bombarding it with neutrons. This releases a great amount of energy. An atomic bomb and a nuclear power plant both use fission.

Fusion is the joining together of atomic nuclei. Hot fusion, which is said by some scientists to be what energizes our sun, uses a form of the lightest element, hydrogen.

Textbooks teach that temperatures reaching millions of degrees Fahrenheit are needed before the positively charged hydrogen nuclei can overcome their natural repulsion toward each other, since like charges repel - think of what happens if you attempt to bring the north poles of two magnets together. If the hydrogen nuclei do come close enough together, they form something different - helium nuclei. In the process, tremendous amounts of energy are released.

Instead of using super-heated gas, cold fusion seems to be based on the reaction of a metal such as palladium, which has large spaces between its nuclei, and a liquid form of hydrogen called deuterium. The deuterium seems to move into the spaces within the palladium in the same way that water moves into the open, absorbent surface of a towel. While no one disputes the fact that the metal absorbs the deuterium, cold-fusion proponents cannot prove that the reaction which follows the absorption is a nuclear reaction.

Cold fusion is not without problems. For example, one of the byproducts of cold fusion is the radioactive gas tritium, a rare form of hydrogen. As one new-energy organization has noted, cold fusion introduces concerns about radioactivity, and even a low level of radiation can eventually lead to environmental and health problems.

There was also the problem of money.

 

Whoever develops a working fusion reactor - hot or cold - will be providing the source of energy that mankind needs for the foreseeable future: perhaps for hundreds of years. The patents involved in the technology, and the head start the patent owners will have in setting up a new power industry, will be worth many billions of pounds in revenue. It is potentially the most lucrative invention ever made. With such big sums at stake, the scientists' university wanted no future ambiguity about who was claiming priority, and hence encouraged them to mount a very public announcement.

In the end, the two scientists agreed to a press conference that would stake Utah University's claim to priority in any future patent applications, followed by publication of a joint paper in their own professional journal, The Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry.

There followed a brief honeymoon of a week or two, during which newspaper libraries received more requests from the newsroom for cut-tings on fusion than in the previous twenty years, and optimistic pieces about cheap energy from sea-water (where deuterium is common) were penned to keep features editors happy. All over the world, laboratories raced to confirm the existence of cold fusion, although many scientists were unhappy at the lack of scientific detail and at having to learn about such an important event from television news and the popular press.

 

What these researchers were looking for, with their 90-worth of precious metals stuck in test tubes, were one or more of the key tell-tale signs that would confirm cold fusion. When two deuterium nuclei fuse they produce either helium and a neutron particle or tritium. So, if fusion really is taking place, it should be possible to find neutrons being emitted, or helium being formed or tritium being formed. It should also be possible to detect energy being released, probably as heat, that is greatly in excess of any electrical energy being put in. (Of course, if the cell does not do this it is of no use as a power source.)

Despite the experimental difficulties it was not long before confirmations were reported. First were Texas A & M University, who reported excess energy, and Brigham Young University who found both excess heat and measurable neutron flow. Professor Steve Jones of BYU said his team had actually been producing similar results since 1985, but that the power outputs obtained had been microscopically small, too small in fact to be useful as a power source.

One month after the announcement the first support from a major research institute came when professor Robert Huggins of California's Stanford University said that he had duplicated the Fleischmann-Pons cell against a control cell containing ordinary water, and had obtained 50 per-cent more energy as heat from the fusion cell than was put in as electricity.

 

Huggins gained extra column-inches because he had placed his two reaction vessels in a red plastic picnic cool-box to keep their temperature constant. This kitchen-table flavor to the experiment added even further to the growing discomfort of hot fusion experts, with their billion-dollar research machines.

By the time the American Chemical Association held its annual meeting in Dallas in April 1989, Pons was able to present considerable detail of the experiment to his fellow chemists. The power output from the cell was more than 60 watts per cubic centimeter in the palladium. This is approaching the sort of power output of the fuel rods in a conventional nuclear fission reactor. After the cell had operated from batteries for ten hours producing several watts of power, Pons detected gamma rays with the sort of energy one would expect from gamma radiation produced by fusion. When he turned off the power, the gamma rays stopped too. Pons also told delegates that he had found tritium in the cell, another important sign of fusion taking place.

Pons estimated that the cell gave off 10,000 neutrons per second. This is many times greater than the rate of background level of natural radioactivity, but is still millions or billions of times less than the rate of neutron emission that one would expect from a fusion reaction - a puzzle which Fleischmann and Pons acknowledge as a stumbling block to acceptance of their phenomenon as fusion by any conventional process.

However, despite the reservations, the assembled chemists were ecstatic that two of their number had apparently scooped their traditional rivals from the world of physics, and had, in the words of the American Chemical Society's president, "come to the rescue of fusion physicists."

This was perhaps the high-water mark of cold fusion. Scores of organizations over the world were actively working to replicate cold fusion in their laboratories, and although many reported difficulties a decent number reported success. And by the end of April, Fleishmann and Pons were standing before the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology commit-tee asking for a cool $25 million to fund a centre for cold fusion research at Utah University.

Then things began to go wrong. First, some of the researchers who early on announced confirmation of cold fusion now recanted, citing faulty equipment or measurements.

 

Next, an unnamed spokesman for the Harwell research laboratory - the home of institutional nuclear research in Britain - spoke to the Daily Telegraph saying that:

... we have not yet had the slightest repetition of the results claimed by professors Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons. Of the other laboratories around the world who have tried to replicate the Pons-Fleischmann result, all but one have recanted, admitting that either their equipment or their measurements were faulty.

We believe our experiments are much more careful than those con-ducted by others. Perhaps for that reason we have been unable to observe any more energy coming out of the experiment than was put in.

And by the time the American Physical Society had its annual meeting in Baltimore in May, the opponents of cold fusion were gathering strength. Steven Koonin, a theoretical physicist from the University of California at Santa Barbara, received rapturous applause from the physicists when he declared,

"We are suffering from the incompetence and per-haps delusion of doctors Pons and Fleischmann."

It was, however, a chemist, Dr. Nathan Lewis of the California Institute of Technology, who got the loudest applause. Lewis told the delegates that after exhaustive attempts to duplicate cold fusion, they had found no signs of unusually high heat. Nor did they detect neutrons, tritium, gamma rays or helium.

By late May, the headlines in both the popular press and the scientific press were beginning to carry words like "flawed idea" when the biggest blow of all hit supporters of cold fusion. Dr. Richard Petrasso of the Plasma Fusion Center of the ultra-prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology presented the results of a series of intensive investigations into the Fleischmann-Pons experiment. The fundamental data put forward by the two men, said Petrasso, was probably a "glitch." The entire gamma ray signal in the Fleischmann-Pons experiment, he said, might not have occurred at all.

"We can offer no plausible explanation for the feature other than it is possibly an instrumental artifact with no relation to gamma ray interaction," he told the same reporters who had clustered around Fleischmann and Pons only two months earlier.

Dr. Ronald Parker, director of MIT's Plasma Fusion Center, said:

"We're asserting that their neutron emission was below what they thought it was, including the possibility that it could have been none at all."

Thus within two months of its original announcement, cold fusion had been dealt a fatal blow by two of the world's most prestigious nuclear research centers, each receiving millions of pounds a year to fund atomic research.

 

The measure of MIT's success in killing off cold fusion is that still today, the U.S. Department of Energy refuses to fund any research into it while the U.S. Patent Office relies on the MIT report to refuse any patents based on or relating to cold fusion processes even though hundreds have been submitted.



If Dr. Parker had left his statement there, it is likely that the world would never have heard of cold fusion again - or not until a new generation of scientists came along. But having been so successful at discrediting MIT's embryonic rival, he decided to go even further and openly accuse Fleischmann and Pons of possible scientific fraud.

According to Dr. Eugene Mallove, who worked as chief science writer in MIT's press office, Parker arranged to plant a story with the Boston Herald attacking Pons and Fleischmann. The story contained accusations of possible fraud and "scientific schlock" and caused a considerable fuss in the usually sedate east-coast city.

 

When Parker saw his accusations in cold print and the stir they had caused he backtracked and instructed MIT's press office to issue a press release accusing the journalist who wrote the story, Nick Tate, of misreporting him and denying that he had ever suggested fraud. Unfortunately for Parker, Tate was able to produce his transcripts of the interview which showed that Parker had used the word "fraud" on a number of occasions.

It then began to become apparent to those inside MIT that the research report that Parker and Petrasso had disclosed to the press in such detail was not quite what it seemed; that some of those in charge at MIT's Plasma Fusion Center had embarked on a deliberate policy of ridiculing cold fusion and that they had - almost incredibly - fudged the results of their own research.

The MIT study announced by Parker and Petrasso contained two sets of graphs. The first showed the result of a duplicate of the Fleischmann-Pons cell and did, indeed, show inexplicable amounts of heat greater than the electrical energy input. The second set were of a control experiment that used exactly the same type of electrodes, but placed in ordinary "light" water - essentially no different from tap water.

 

The result, for the control cell should have been zero - if cold fusion is possible at all, it is conceivable in a jar full of deuterium, but not in a jar of tap water. Any activity here, according to current theory, would simply indicate some kind of chemical, not nuclear, process.

But the MIT results for the control showed exactly the same curve as that of the fusion cell. It was the identical nature of the two sets of results that depicted so graphically to the press and scientific community the baseless nature of the Fleischmann-Pons claim and that justified MIT's statement that it had "failed to reproduce" those claims. It was these figures that were subsequently used by the Department of Energy to refuse funding for cold fusion and by the U.S. Patent Office to refuse patent applications. And it is these figures that are used around the world to silence supporters of cold fusion.

But MIT insiders, such as Dr. Eugene Mallove, were deeply suspicious of the published results. It is usual for experimental data to be manipulated, usually by computer, to compensate for known factors.

No one would have been surprised to learn that MIT had carried out legitimate "data reduction." But what they had done was selectively to shift the data obtained from the control experiment, the tap water cell, so that it appeared to be identical to the output from the fusion cell.

When this fudging of the figures became public, MIT came under fire from many directions, including members of its own staff. Eugene Mallove announced his resignation at a public meeting and submitted a letter to MIT accusing them of publishing fudged experimental findings simply to condemn cold fusion. A number of critical papers were published in scientific journals culminating in the paper published by Fusion Facts in August 1997 by Dr. Mitchell Swartz in which he concluded,

What constitutes "data reduction" is sometimes but not always open to scientific debate. The application of a low pass filter to an electrical signal or the cutting in half of a hologram properly constitute "data reduction" but the asymmetric shifting of one curve of a paired set is probably not. The removal of the entire steady state signal is also not classical "data reduction."

In the restrained and diplomatic language of scientific publications this is as close as anyone ever gets to accusing a colleague of outright fiddling of the figures to make them prove the desired conclusion.

Beleaguered and under fire from every quarter (except the other big hot fusion laboratories who simply became invisible and inaudible) MIT backed down. It added a carefully worded technical appendix to the original study discussing the finer points of error analysis in calorimetry.* It also amended its earlier finding of "unable to reproduce Fleischmann-Pons" to "too insensitive to confirm" - a rather different kettle of fish.

 

* Measurement of the amount of heat absorbed or released in a chemical reaction.

Although MIT changed its story, it was its original conclusion that stuck, both in the public memory and as far as public policy was concerned. The coup de grace was delivered to cold fusion when the U.S. House committee formed to examine the claims for cold fusion came down on the side of the skeptics. "Evidence for the discovery of a new nuclear process termed cold fusion is not persuasive," said its report. "No special programs to establish cold fusion research centers or to support new efforts to find cold fusion are justified."

Just where does cold fusion stand four years after the original announcement?

 

The position today is that cold fusion has been experimentally reproduced and measured by ninety-two groups in ten countries around the world. Dr. Michael McKubre and his team at Stanford Research Institute say they have confirmed Fleishmann-Pons and indeed say they can now produce excess heat experimentally at will. Many other major universities and commercial organizations have also confirmed the reality of cold fusion.

 

U.S. laboratories reporting positive results include the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (these were the two U.S. research establishments most closely involved in developing the atomic bomb), Naval Research Laboratory, Naval Weapons Center at China Lake, Naval Ocean Systems Center and Texas A & M University. Dr. Robert Bush and his colleagues at California Polytechnic Institute have recorded the highest levels of power density for cold fusion, with almost three kilowatts per cubic centimeter.

 

This is thirty times greater than the power density of fuel rods in a typical nuclear fission reactor. Overseas organizations include Japan's Hokkaido National University, Osaka National University, the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and Nippon Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, which has announced that its three-year research program has "undoubtedly" produced direct evidence of cold fusion. Fleishmann and Pons are working for the Japanese-backed Technova Corporation, a commercial cold fusion company based in France. Eugene Mallove left MIT to become editor of Cold Fusion magazine.

The Japanese government, through the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) has announced a five-year plan to invest $25 million in cold fusion research. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in California has spent some $6 million on cold fusion already and budget-ed $12 million for 1992. In addition, a consortium of five major US utility companies have committed some $25 million for EPRI research.

Some of these research funds are being spent not only on developing a large-scale reactor vessel for use in public utilities but also, because of the inherent simplicity and relative safety of cold fusion, the development of a cheap miniature version for use in the office and even in the home. Even as Harwell and MIT proclaim their impossibility, prototype ten kilowatt cold fusion heating devices are already under test and are likely to find their way to market in the near future.

It is not only the organizations with a vested interest that come out badly from the story of cold fusion. The press, especially the scientific press, has acquitted itself poorly. Nature magazine showed how reactionary it can be with coverage that ranged from knee-jerk hostile to near hysterical. Its most intemperate piece was an editorial column in March 1990 headlined "Farewell (not fond) to Cold Fusion," which described cold fusion as "dis-creditable to the scientific community," "a shabby example for the young," and "a serious perversion of the process of science."

Some sections of the national press were also quick to ridicule Fleischmann and Pons and wrote pieces that have now come back to haunt their consciences.

 

Steve Connor, writing in the Daily Telegraph, said that,

"the now notorious breakthrough in 'cold fusion' only two months ago astonished scientists worldwide, promising a source of limitless energy from a simple reaction in a test tube. Mounting evidence suggests the whole notion is a damp squib."

Connor went on to ask "how two respected chemists could apparently make such a blunder?" He provides an answer with the suggestion that Fleischmann and Pons were the victims of "pathological science" - cases where otherwise honest scientists fool themselves with false results.

It is, of course, always fun to read about a good scandal, especially when the detractors who are so free with scorn get their come-uppance so poetically. But the aspect of the cold fusion affair that interests me most is why - exactly why - some scientists felt an overwhelming need to sup-press it, even to the extent of behaving in an unscientific way and fudging their results.

 

Money is the most obvious answer, but somehow unsatisfying; they may well have wanted the big research funds to continue to roll in year after year, but that cannot be the whole story. By enthusiastically embracing this possible new field, any of the world's fusion research organizations could have increased their research funds, rather than lost anything.

Injured pride is also plausible - men and women are often driven to extremes of behavior by such feelings, even including murder and suicide. But it is hard to see exactly how and why the feelings of hot fusionists should be so hurt by a simple scientific discovery.

Some interesting clues to this extraordinary behavior come from examining the reasons that several of the institutions themselves gave publicly for wanting to suppress such research during the development of the affair.

The first sounds perhaps the most reasonable. John Maple, a spokes-man for the Joint European Torus project at Culham, Oxfordshire, the world's biggest fusion research centre, told the Daily Telegraph that a discredited cold fusion might produce a backlash that would damage the funding prospects of hot fusion.

People in the street often don't know the difference. They confuse cold fusion, which we think will never produce any useful energy, with the experimental work we are doing at Culham, involving temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees, which is making spectacular progress.

These sound [like] very understandable fears, but look a little closer at the logic underlying them. The people in the street (that's you and me) "can't tell the difference." The difference between what? The difference between hot fusion (which is real) and cold fusion (which John Maple and his colleagues say is not real).

 

Cold Fusion

Investigations Continue Despite Ridicule From Skeptics

Cold fusion work continues. Technology Forecasts & Technology Surveys reports that, in spite of allegations that there is nothing to the observations, a number of labs continue to be intrigued by the unexplained parts of the phenomenon. They report that 50 U.S. labs and 100 labs in other countries are running tests, 60 groups in ten countries have reported results, some of the groups have claimed observation of more than one of the three generally accepted requirements for nuclear fusion, and some tests have produced as much as 600 times more heat than would be accounted for by the input of electrical power.

 - Technology Forecasts & Technological Surveys

Vol. 22, No. 9, page 11

But surely, the issue is not whether we, the public, can tell the difference between a nuclear process that is real and one that is not, but whether we, the public, should be asked to entrust mil-lions of pounds of research funds to people who appear resistant to accepting the reality of a process such as cold fusion, for which there is substantial evidence and which may in the long term produce energy far more cheaply than the hot fusion process.

At quite an early stage in the affair, Harwell nuclear research laboratory began to worry about fusion becoming the province of every man.

 

Members of the public were apparently telephoning Harwell and asking for advice on how to perform cold fusion experiments.

"I have had many odd calls from people," a spokesman told the Daily Telegraph in April, "saying they are going to set it up at home to make it work. One house-wife claimed that she already had supplies of heavy water and was asking me for details of how to set up the experiment. I had to tell her it would be extremely unwise."

The paper then costed the experiment at 28 [$44.80] for some platinum, 31 [$49.60] for the palladium, 6 [$9.60] for some lithium chloride and 18 [$28.80] for the heavy water. With a few pounds for batteries, test-tubes and the like, the total could come to as little as 90, leading the paper to suggest that concern was mounting for the "retired professors, cranks and housewives" who they thought might be joining the race to produce fusion on their kitchen tables.

It is, of course, touching for Harwell to be so concerned about the safety of the man and woman in the street, but I see another worrying part of the explanation in this amusing reaction. Anyone who interests them-selves in cold fusion is immediately labeled as belonging to a group that has either lost its marbles or never had any in the first place - "retired professors, cranks and housewives."

 

Since we, the people in the street, pay many millions each year to fund Harwell, it seems not unreasonable that members of the public should be able to telephone to enquire on scientific matters without being ridiculed, patronized or told, in effect, to mind their own business.

It was not long before Europe's most senior fusion scientist, Dr. Paul Henri Rebut, director of the JET laboratory at Culham (cost, 76 million [$121 million] a year) was offering a word of advice to the man and woman in the street while also, curiously, disclaiming any supernatural powers.

"I am not God, and I don't claim to know everything in the universe. But one thing I am absolutely certain of is that you cannot get a fusion reaction from the methods described by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons."

Dr. Rebut clinched his argument with a single decisive stroke. "To accept their claims one would have to unlearn all the physics we have learnt in the last century." Well, we certainly wouldn't want one to have to do that, would we?

Equally illuminating were the remarks of Professor John Huizenga, who was co-chairman of the US Department of Energy's panel on cold fusion and who came down against the reality of the process. In a recent book on the subject, Professor Huizenga observed that,

"the world's scientific institutions have probably now squandered between $50 and $100 million on an idea that was absurd to begin with."

The question is, what were his principal reasons for rejecting cold fusion? Professor Huizenga tells us:

"It is seldom, if ever, true that it is advantageous in science to move into a new discipline without a thorough foundation in the basics of that field."

When you consider that his committee's sole function was to advise whether or not research funds should be spent to investigate an entirely new area of physics/electrochemistry, and that this statement is one of his principal reasons for deciding not to invest such research funds, his re-marks take on an almost Kafkaesque quality.

 

It is unwise to invest research funds in any new area,

  • Unless we already have a thorough foundation in the basics of that new area?

  • How could anyone ever get any money for research out of Professor Huizenga's committee?

  • By proving that they already know everything there is to know?

Cold fusion is the perfect exemplar of the taboo reaction in science.

  • it runs entirely counter to intuitive expectation produced by the received wisdom of physics

  • it is a discovery by "outsiders" with no experience or credentials in fusion research

  • its very existence is vehemently denied, even though Fleischmann and Pons have demonstrated a jar of water at boiling point to the world's press and television

  • it is inexplicable by present theory: it means tearing up part of the road-map of science and starting again - "unlearning the physics we have learnt."

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