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Unlikely Cold Fusion

July 9, 2012 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 90, ISSUE 28

The following relates to Stephen Ritter’s article on cold fusion (C&EN, May 14, page 42). The “cold fusion” hypothesis, launched in 1989 by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleisch­mann—two electrochemists who detected excess heat when exposing deuterium to a palladium catalyst—was at that time rapidly debunked by the established physics community, who could not find any of the typical traces of nuclear fusion in the Pons and Fleischmann setup. Now the Italian engineer Andrea Rossi pretends to have found cold fusion reactions between hydrogen and nickel atoms in a particular catalyst, as concluded from excess heat displayed by his setup.

Chemists should bear in mind that spontaneous nuclear fusion reactions must, in addition, be exothermic; produce at least two particles (to carry away the fusion energy as kinetic particle energy, preserving total momentum); have a small activation energy, which requires two reacting nuclei of low nuclear charge; and conserve both protons and neutrons of the reacting nuclei, because the cross sections for the weak interaction (proton-to-neutron conversion or vice versa) are far too small to result in substantial conversion.

Chemists should further bear in mind that the energy given off in a nuclear fusion event is in the megaelectron volt (MeV) range, about a million times the energy given off in a chemical reaction event, which is merely in the electron volt range. Particles having kinetic energy in the MeV range necessarily disrupt the structure of matter and thereby produce a large amount of X-radiation, in addition to the nuclear radiation produced in the reaction event itself. Hence, nuclear fusion events are in any case easily detected with the help of an X-ray or gamma counter (Geiger tube).

The excess heat observed by Rossi in his nickel-hydrogen catalyst reaction setup is thus more likely to be due to the combination of hydrogen with oxygen from nickel oxide, to form water (the reaction exploited in commercial NiMH cells), than to the fusion of hydrogen and nickel atomic nuclei. The latter reaction would have an activation energy on the order of more than 4 MeV, and the excess heat reported by Rossi would have produced such a quantity of associated radioactivity that he would no longer be alive.

By Edgar Müller
Prilly, Switzerland

The article on cold fusion tweaked my interest, as I have published four papers on cold fusion (CF) that present a clear, nonnuclear explanation for the Fleisch­­mann and Pons observations. What has been most interesting has been its reception by the CF community.

Usually, when a scientific proposition is crit­­icized, an enthusiastic debate over its mer­­­­its is expected. The end state of that should be one of three options: 1. The prop­osition (or criticism) is found to be wanting, 2. the proposition is found to be accurate, or 3. insufficient evidence is available to decide. Option 3 is a frequent result and is the situation in this case. Though my conventional proposal has some analytic support and predictive capability, no research has been done to prove conclusively that it’s true. Thus more research is indicated, but it must be tailored toward obtaining 1 or 2.

Instead, the CF community has embarked on a campaign to simply denigrate and ignore the proposal. They construct a “straw man” version, “prove” that it is wrong (as expected), and then ignore the explanation. Perhaps the clearest evidence of this is their 2010 publication in the Journal of Environmental Monitoring (DOI: 10.1039/C0EM00267D) where they “rebut” the “random Shanahan CCSH.” However, in all four of my publications, the hypothesized effect is described as systematic. It is nearly impossible to believe that the 10 CF authors writing the rebuttal do not know the difference between systematic and random error. Yet they continue to support this contention as evidenced on the webpages of MIT professor Peter Hagelstein (

Critical review is at the heart of scientific progress. When a critic posits an alternative explanation, the appropriate response should not be to misconstrue the criticism and then ignore it. The consistent use of this tactic is the clearest sign that CF researchers are in fact pseudoscientists, pantomiming the behavior of good scientists.

Rossi’s unwillingness to conduct adequate scientific exploration of his “E-Cat” is likewise a dead giveaway that all is not right in Bologna. The proffered demonstrations and explanations leave the viewer completely unsure if what is being assumed by Rossi does in fact occur. Until such ambiguity is removed, readers should remain cautious, especially given that Rossi favors a “low-energy nuclear reaction (LENR)” or “CF” explanation for his results. Hopefully, CF is really not being “revived,” as it was and is an excellent example of junk science.

By Kirk L. Shanahan
Aiken, S.C.



This article has been sent to the following recipient:

will galison (July 12, 2012 12:44 PM)
Kirk Shanahan (July 12, 2012 3:48 PM)
I assume you think the upcoming revisit by 60 Minutes means something. It might if they actually talk to anybody who knows the _current_ skeptical arguments. Their prior special a couple of years back was noticably absent anyone of that nature.

By the way, the letter by E. Muller gives a set of arguments that are easily rebutted by the simple statement "it's a new phenomenon". Once that is said, prior knowledge becomes much less important, but instead the quality of the new data becomes paramount. Any truly new phenomenon will not conform to prior knowledge, that's just the definition of 'newness'. Then, that little bit of extra data that is required by the famous adage "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is all that is needed. Unfortunately the data presented by cold fusion researhers is ambiguous and in insufficent quantity and quality.
Collin (April 23, 2013 11:24 PM)
Kirk, I have read your essay on the NASA website, and I am very impressed, both with your hypothesis and also with your message of neutrality and open-mindedness. I hold passionately to these same ideals. I would like to read more about hypotheses like yours, and also to discuss with you via email an idea of my own that I'd like your opinion of.
Scott Sample (April 13, 2014 10:43 AM)
I often find that science is a fickle beast when left in the hands of people without either vision, or worse, those who care more about popular consensus than actually looking for the truth. So many areas of science has been listed as "junk science" at one time or another that is now considered a real field of research, and still there are some areas that despite good evidence, are still considered psuedo-science.

For example, for a long time giant squid were considered crypt ids and not considered to be a field of real research. Even though all the evidence was there in various forms showing they exist, it really wasn't until enough of them washed up or were snagged in nets that they were finally considered to be real. Another example might be ufology and some crop circle research. Granted there are many hoaxes, but there are also many that have been found where physical properties of the grains within the circles have undergone some unknown process, but still all circles are considered taboo in the scientific community as well as most forms of ufology.

I might also remind the community that for many years science has stated that there cannot possibly be any large animals left on land that has not already been catalogued. Despite reports of locals in vietnam who reported two animals that they saw regularly in the jungle but again the scientific community discounted their existence until photographers caught them on film. Again, this was junk science. So has been the case for many things; dinosaurs, the sun being the center of the solar system, secret societies influence today, etc.

I should also remind you that many things that we deem impossible are actually being actively researched by secret divisions of the government or in in use today because of secret research. One example might be the stealth aircraft of today, another would be the nuclear bomb, still another could be the ion drive of DS1, robotic exploration of Mars, computers, superconductors and their ability to seemingly counteract gravity, etc. All of these were considered taboo at some point by the scientific community at large.

So, to say that CF is junk science, to me, is just another example of the scientific community peddling popular belief instead of the search for truth. I must also state that I remember that first announcement and the cover of Time Magazine about CF back in the 80's. What I remember is that right after the announcement, several universities immediately reconstructed the experiment and reported the same results, including Berkeley. However a few days after, every university who at first reported positive results back-peddled and stated they were wrong and the results were not conclusive. After a week or so, not another word about CF was ever run again on any news channel or article that I saw. This sounded like CF was taken and turned into a secret field of research at that point.

I respect your position, but I also believe that all research should be considered the search for truth and should not be so easily dismissed. Then there's the argument that some things just aren't possible with our current level of knowledge and we should be willing to concede that there may be advancements along the lines that may make the "junk" science of today a real possibility.

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