IN A MEETING ROOM tucked away in a far corner of Chicago's mammoth McCormick Place Convention Center, a small band of faithful cold fusion researchers and advocates gathered on March 29, the final day of the American Chemical Society national meeting, for a symposium to showcase evidence in support of the original cold fusion findings that were announced at a press conference 18 years ago.
This time, the speakers conceded that the massive amount of cheap, pollution-free energy once hoped for by fusing deuterium nuclei at room temperature was not likely to be achieved anytime soon, if ever.
Back in 1989, electrochemists Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton, in England, and B. Stanley Pons of the University of Utah made the stunning announcement that they had achieved sustained fusion of deuterium atoms that diffused into the palladium cathode of an electrochemical cell containing heavy water (deuterium oxide). Dozens of research labs worldwide immediately began trying to repeat the experiments. There were a few scattered confirmations of excess heat or telltale signs of fusion in the form of helium, tritium, and other by-products, but the results could not be reproduced on demand.
Many researchers ascribed the unpredictable effects to artifacts or sloppy lab work. Fusion fever quickly abated, and most scientists dismissed cold fusion as an embarrassing mistake.
Although the field has been relegated to the fringes of science, a band of reputable researchers quietly continue to study "low-energy nuclear reactions," as cold fusion is now called. The researchers are not really expecting to prove deuterium fusion is occurring, but they are looking into the possibility of nonfusion nuclear reactions, including transmutation of heavy elements into other elements. In Chicago, some of these scientists got a rare opportunity to report their research in a major forum, although few came to listen.
"Even though cold fusion is considered controversial, the scientific process demands of us to keep an open mind and examine new results," commented Gopal Coimbatore, a researcher in the Institute of Environmental & Human Health at Texas Tech University. Coimbatore served as the Chicago program chair for the Division of Environmental Chemistry, which sponsored the symposium. With a potential global energy crisis looming, "it behooves the scientific community to look at all options available," Coimbatore told C&EN.
Steven B. Krivit, editor of the online magazine New Energy Times, led off the symposium with an overview of the history of cold fusion from its inception to the present. Krivit explained that Fleischmann and Pons made some mistakes in their early experiments and in how they announced their initial findings and later interacted with the scientific community and the media. But some aspects of the original findings have held up to scrutiny, Krivit believes. Significant data, he claimed, now show that the observed excess heat produced during the experiments and the formation of by-products, primarily helium and tritium, are real. And the reproducibility of experiments has gotten much better, he noted.
"It might be fusion, or maybe it's not," Krivit observed. "But something interesting is going on." Still, with the field's reputation "in the doghouse" for the past 18 years, Krivit said, he doesn't expect the new results to be embraced overnight.
One of the original criticisms of the Fleischmann-Pons research was alleged errors in measuring excess heat generated during the experiments. In Chicago, longtime cold fusion researcher Melvin H. Miles, now a chemistry professor at the University of La Verne, in California, presented a thorough analysis of live and blank cold fusion calorimetry experiments dating back to the 1990s. He showed that the precision of the measurements left only one conclusion: The excess heat observed must be the result of nuclear events because the energy released is greater than can be explained by any known chemical reaction.
The study was carried out with Fleischmann, now 80, who was listed as a coauthor on the abstract, although he was unable to travel from England to the ACS meeting.
"OUR WORK shows that cold fusion effects are real, but we cannot assess if the excess heat can become useful," Miles said. "Much more research is needed to answer such a question."
In another presentation, covering what is considered some of the most promising current research, analytical chemist Pamela A. Mosier-Boss of the Navy's Space & Naval Warfare Systems Center, in San Diego, described work carried out over many years to form deuterium-laced palladium electrodes. In this technique, palladium and deuterium are codeposited on a cathode by passing a current through a solution of palladium chloride in deuterium oxide. Nuclear reactions appear to take place during the deposition, she said, as evidenced by the generation of excess heat and the detection of high-energy particles, such as protons and alpha particles, as well as other nuclear emissions.
Physicist Robert L. Park of the University of Maryland, an outspoken critic of cold fusion, was reserved when asked to comment on the ACS symposium and the latest results. "What's new is that the faithful researchers have decided to stop sulking and rejoin the community of scientists," Park said. He takes this as "a positive sign," and the results "look interesting." But so far "there's not much to show for it," he added.
Like other interested scientists, Park is waiting for additional results to emerge and independent verification of the experiments. Thus, it doesn't look like the fusion fever of '89 is about to make a comeback.