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Fw: [skepticism] Cold Fusion

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  • Jeroen Kumeling
    ... From: box191@inet-hwy.com Cold fusion is back by Hal Plotkin On Friday, March 26, 1999, the director of Menlo Park-based SRI International s Energy
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 1, 1999
      From: box191@...

      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
      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 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
      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

      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

      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

      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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