Cold Fusion

Cold Fusion Is Back!


Power To The People - The Return of Cold Fusion
by Hal Plotkin
Special to SF Gate

March 15, 1999 archive/1999/03/15/coldfusion.dtl

On Friday, March 26, 1999, the director of Menlo Park-based SRI International's Energy Research Center, Dr. Michael McKubre, will present the results of SRI's 10-year, $6 million-dollar effort to replicate the cold-fusion experiments of chemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann.

McKubre's startling conclusion: Pons and Fleischmann were on to something.

It might not be nuclear fusion, McKubre says. But a new, clean source of power may, in fact, be on the horizon. The SRI findings will be delivered at the centennial meeting of the American Physical Society in Atlanta.

In an interview last week, McKubre said he is absolutely convinced excess heat is being produced in the SRI version of the Pons-Fleischmann cold-fusion cells. "Somewhere between 5% to 30%," he says. What's more, McKubre says he and other researchers working on cold fusion now have a better understanding of why different cold-fusion experiments yielded different results.

McKubre is careful not to claim, for certain, that nuclear fusion is occurring. "All we can say for sure," he says, "is that we are getting out more energy than we put in." McKubre is working with theorists at MIT to fashion an understanding of exactly what is going on at the atomic level.

In 1989, you might recall, Pons and Fleischmann, professors of chemistry at the University of Utah and the University of Southampton, respectively, shocked the world with the claim they had created nuclear fusion in a beaker at room temperature.

Pons and Fleischmann said they generated unaccounted-for bursts of energy after submerging an electrode made of platinum wire, and another made of palladium, into a beaker containing an inexpensive solution of deuterium oxide, commonly known as heavy water.

A reaction took place within the palladium rod after they passed a charge between the two electrodes. Pons and Fleischmann claimed a previously unknown form of nuclear fusion was the best explanation for why the beaker started to glow, eventually throwing off more energy than it had consumed.

The consequences of this discovery for society, if proven, are enormous. If it's real, cold fusion could change everything. Goodbye, fossil fuels. Instead, humanity would get a clean new source of unlimited energy with no greenhouse gases. At least in theory, we could all own our own little cold-fusion power plants one day. Energy production would be decentralized. No more PG&E substations. No more gas stations. No more utility bills.

At the time Pons and Fleischmann made their announcement, the practitioners of more mainstream hot nuclear-fusion science laughed off their modest little $100,000 experiment. After spending billions of dollars trying to create controlled nuclear fusion at extremely high temperatures, the hot-fusion crowd scoffed at the idea they'd been going about it all wrong.

There is a lot at stake in this debate. A decade ago, the federal government was spending upward of half a billion dollars a year on hot fusion research, an annual investment that has since dwindled to a still-considerable $225 million a year. Hot-fusion experiments are costly and cumbersome, many consuming enough energy to run several small cities. To date, none of them have had much success.

Nonetheless, then -- as now -- almost everyone working in fusion research gets paid to explore one part or another of the dominant theory about how fusion works; which is that nuclear fusion is possible only at very high temperatures. Funding work on this one theory, and this one theory alone, is a classic recipe for the creation of scientific group-think. When everyone "knows" the world is flat, no one risks sailing toward the horizon.

The conventional theorists say that since they think that what Pons and Fleischmann claimed happened is physically impossible, it simply could not have happened. Pons and Fleischmann were chemists, after all. What could they possibly know about physics? Forget about the fact, of course, that even the most omniscient physicists among us don't understand many of the most basic facts about how our universe works.

The attacks on Pons and Fleischmann were incredibly vicious, perhaps because they were seen as heretics operating outside their field of expertise. I remember, for example, covering one scientific gathering in Los Angeles as an editor for the public radio program, "Marketplace." It was shortly after Pons and Fleischmann had made their initial announcement.

At the meeting, Pons and Fleischmann were vilified. They were lambasted, for example, for not revealing key details about their experiment. The beleaguered scientists responded, a bit lamely, by contending they were vague on some points only because Pons' employer, the University of Utah, had applied for a patent that they had to protect.

It was a plausible, although unsettling, explanation. Certainly not the first time academic patent considerations obstructed scientific progress. But it left a bad taste in the mouths of many. In addition, some claimed Pons and Fleischmann made errors in their measurements of the energy that went into and came out of their cold-fusion cells.

One prominent physicist at Cal Tech derided Pons and Fleischmann with invectives I had never before witnessed at a scientific gathering. I later likened it, in my nationally broadcast report, to the kind of trash talk one hears in the build up to a heavyweight title fight.

But there were other voices. There was, for example, the soft-spoken John Bockris. At the time, Bockris was a distinguished professor of physical chemistry at Texas A&M University, and a cofounder of the International Society for Electrochemistry. His name was revered in the field.

By late 1989, Bockris had replicated the Pons-Fleischmann cold-fusion work. So had another scientist I spoke with, professor Bob Huggins, at Stanford University. "The reaction is real," Huggins told me at the time. "It won't go away."

I filed three, maybe four, cold-fusion stories. Then the counter-avalanche began. In a report in "Science" magazine in June 1990, writer Gary Taubes cast doubt on the accuracy of experiments done in Bockris' lab and raised questions about the honesty of one of Bockris' key associates. Others stepped forward to debunk the work being done at Stanford and elsewhere. Taubes later wrote a book, "Bad Science, The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion."

One by one, influential scientists, most of them physicists on the federal dole, denounced cold fusion as being either scientific idiocy or outright fraud. Ronald Parker, then director of the physics department at MIT, called cold fusion "scientific schlock." Another prominent scientist, Dr. John Maddox, then editor of the prestigious journal "Nature," wrote an influential editorial calling for a halt to funding for cold-fusion research.

Stung by criticism and the loss of support for their work, Pons and Fleischmann drifted off into obscurity, eventually immigrating to the south of France.

Despite the onslaught of negative reports, I wanted to do more stories about cold fusion. It struck me even then that many of the researchers I had interviewed seemed quite credible. Within one year of the first announcement, there were already at least a dozen well-respected scientists at major academic institutions who said they too were observing what has since come to be called "anomalous heat" in Pons-Fleischmann cells. These scientists wanted to know where that heat was coming from. So did I.

Unfortunately, my colleagues on our public-radio program's editorial staff had other ideas. By then, a consensus had already emerged: cold fusion was junk science. I was too close to the story, I was told. Find something else to report on. Don't make a damn fool of yourself.

My experience wasn't unique. The big chill set in at most major media outlets, and stories about cold fusion were frozen out. Within a few short months, the very words "cold fusion" would come to be synonymous with hoax. I kept my cold-fusion file tucked away all these years, but never reported on the subject again.

Until now.

I know this sounds a little like the 1996 movie, "Chain Reaction," where Keanu Reeves plays a brilliant scientist who nearly gets killed by big oil operatives after he stumbles on a new energy source. But Fleischmann, in a recent interview, one of very few published lately, claims the primary reason cold fusion was nearly killed in its crib was that its discovery didn't serve the interests of major existing power structures -- be they Big Oil, Big Science, or just Big Money.

Fortunately, those forces didn't stop the research team at SRI who, with help from an informal network of more than 100 other scientists in Europe and Asia, quietly pressed on with cold-fusion experiments. One researcher, Andy Riley, even lost his life in a hydrogen explosion in SRI's cold-fusion research lab. His colleague, Dr. McKubre, was also injured in the blast. Cold-fusion experiments were also helped along by the advent of the Internet, which strengthened collaborations and information sharing between cold-fusion researchers.

The work now being done on cold fusion is made even more exciting by related findings confirming the presence of fusion by-products in cold-fusion cells. It was the initial report of such findings, incidentally, that led to the nearly decade long fraud investigation of Professor Bockris and his colleagues at Texas A&M. Bockris was eventually cleared, but only after considerable damage had been done to his reputation.

As a result of the personal attacks on Pons, Fleischmann, Bockris, and others, the atmosphere of free and open inquiry that science requires was almost completely destroyed. Fearing similar assaults, many scientists were afraid to study the phenomena or discuss it publicly.

Even SRI's Dr. McKubre, whose experiments are supported by taxpayer dollars, is reluctant to say exactly which agency is sponsoring his work. "I don't want to jeopardize our funding," he says. It's more than remarkable that a scientist, particularly one associated with as venerable an institution as SRI, is unwilling to talk about where he gets his money for fear nefarious forces will cut him off at the pockets. There's something very wrong with that picture.

Hot-fusion theorists, meanwhile, still don't take cold-fusion claims seriously. The Department of Energy's website offers up only a short, derisive dismissal of cold fusion.

Ten years ago, I concluded my last public-radio report on cold fusion with an acknowledgment that nuclear fusion might not be the only explanation for the excess heat observed in the Pons-Fleischmann cells. "If it is not nuclear fusion," I closed, "then the question remains: Exactly where is the excess heat coming from?"

Ten years later, we still don't know. Maybe this time around, we might finally get some answers.


Silicon Valley writer and broadcaster Hal Plotkin's columns will continue to be published by SF Gate despite his fascination with cold fusion.

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