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Cold nuclear fusion

A review of the process discovered by Professors Fleischmann and Pons, and the immediate reactions from the scientific community.

Two chemists, one British and one American, stunned the scientific world when, in a press conference (March 26, 1989), they announced the discovery of a fusion process that works at room temperature. Professor Martin Fleischmann of Southampton University and Professor Stanley Pons of the University of Utah claim to have accomplished something that physicists have been struggling to achieve for decades: a way of producing and harnessing the same kind of energy created by the sun – and doing so without using huge, expensive machines and unmanageably high temperatures. In fact, Fleischmann and Pons say their ëcold fusion' process can be generated in a laboratory test tube, earning it the nickname of "fusion in a jar".

"This morning [before the news conference] my opinion was that [cold fusion] could never happen. And I am extremely happy now because I see a very good chance I was completely wrong."
Edward Teller, the ëfather of the hydrogen bomb' in the Salt Lake City Tribune

The scientific community world-wide has been galvanized by this announcement. Since the early fifties the search has been on for a safe and economical way to harness nuclear power to create energy. At the moment, nuclear fission, in which atomic nuclei are made to split through collision, produces not only tremendous heat, but radiation and radioactive wastes. Fusion, which produces energy by the merging of atomic nuclei, produces no, or very small amounts of waste, but has been thought to involve so much heat – millions of degrees – that it cannot be contained or maintained.

In the cold fusion experiment, the researchers passed an electrical current through two electrodes placed in a test tube containing a solution that included ëheavy water'. All water contains oxygen and hydrogen. But ëheavy' water, found in abundance in seawater, contains a heavy form of hydrogen – the isotope deuterium, and it is the deuterium which was the key to the fusion reaction. Just as happens in the very common processes of electroplating and electrolysis, the oxygen released by the electricity migrated toward the positive electrode, and deuterium toward the negative. In the cold fusion process, however, that negative electrode was made of a metal called palladium, and the nuclei of the deuterium accumulated inside the palladium electrode in high concentrations.

Fleischmann and Pons believe that when enough of these nuclei are packed closely together, they fuse to form helium, giving off enormous amounts of energy. They claim the amount of energy they created was about four times the amount it took to produce the reaction, and the heat generated continued to spread to the surrounding water for hours.

Scientists' responses have been mixed. Seven thousand chemists at a professional meeting cheered Fleischmann and Pons. But other researchers have objected strenuously to the fact that the experiment was announced through a press conference rather than through a scientific publication (though a published description appeared in early April in the Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry and Interfacial Electrochemistry). Many fusion physicists insist that having worked long and hard trying to produce sustainable fusion – including experiments involving heavy water – they think it highly unlikely that two chemists could have understood fusion well enough actually to have produced it. One reason for many scientists' skepticism is that helium and some other by-products of fusion have yet to be found in sufficient quantities to convince them that fusion has indeed taken place. None the less, research institutions all over the world are busy trying to replicate the experiments. As we go to press, Soviet and Hungarian scientists, as well as those at several other American universities, believe they have reproduced the Fleischmann and Pons experiment or generated similar cold fusion processes of their own. And scientists at both MIT and the University of California at Berkeley claim to have come up with their own theoretical explanations for why such cold fusion works. Meantime, Fleischmann and Pons are having ëautopsies' conducted on the palladium they used to see how much helium was produced, and they are trying to find metals cheaper and more easily available than palladium that can generate the same effects.

From the May 1995  issue of Share International

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005