Fw: [skepticism] Cold Fusion
Cold fusion is back
by Hal Plotkin
On Friday, March 26, 1999, the director of Menlo Park-based
SRI International's Energy Research Center, Dr. Michael
McKubre, presented 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
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 were 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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