Fringe Science and Cold Fusion

Back in the day — the 1960’s when I was growing up on Dad’s store of Golden Age science fiction and UFO books — ideas about anti-gravity were in fashion. We were in the middle of a space race with the Soviets, UFOs were buzzing about in the skies and performing impossible aerial tricks, and obviously there was a fortune to be made if you could bottle anti-gravity. Every issue of Popular Science magazine had plans for Anti-Gravity devices, for the low-low cost of $1 US, plus shipping and handling.

Even as a child I realized that plans for anti-gravity that only cost a dollar would not be any good at all. I never parted with my dollar — after all, a dollar was worth eight comic books and four cherry licorice whips!

One of the anti-gravity ideas that made the rounds about the time I started college was that of converting angular momentum to linear momentum. You’d spin up a gyroscope, and then compel it to convert some of its angular momentum into linear momentum to move “forward” along its axis. Point the axis upward, and you have an effective anti-gravity device, with the advantage that it would even work in open space without a nearby source of gravity. A collection of elaborate magazine articles, diagrams, and half-baked theories flowed from this idea.

Inventors created all kinds of devices that spun and swung and hopped, jerked, twitched, and rattled, trying to shake a bit of that angular momentum loose to make a working space drive. They came up with remarkably clever ways of measuring how their device “became lighter” when it was running, and all they needed was a measly few thousand dollars from a far-sighted investor to perfect their idea.

Now, it turns out there’s usually an elegant test for these kinds of miracle devices. For this particular class of angular-to-linear momentum devices, the test is not to point it upward while it bounces on a bathroom scale — many spring-balance mechanical scales will read low if you bounce rapidly on them (a good thing to know if you’re involved in Weight Watchers) — the test is to point it sideways while suspended from a string. If it pulls the string away from the vertical even a little bit, and stays there, you have a working space drive.

Otherwise, you ain’t got nuttin’.

None of these devices could ever pass this test, and it doesn’t take thousands of dollars to put the test together. It takes a bit of string — okay, maybe a bit of steel cable, given the size of some of the contraptions — and a nice, solid ceiling joist. Ten bucks at the hardware store.

I’ve always found these kinds of hoaxes fascinating. I  wanted to believe in them, and still do. But I don’t believe in them because … well, they’re hoaxes. They aren’t real.

Forty years later, the topic du jour is energy, not gravity, and there are inventors running about pleading for a measly few million dollars from a far-sighted investor to perfect their idea.

One such concept is the “over-unity” magnetic motor. Another is the “zero-point” or “free energy” generator. Both rely upon fleecing people with misrepresented theories and bogus measurements.

For all these devices, the simple test is the “eternal teapot.” You should be able to keep a pot of water boiling indefinitely.

The “indefinitely” part is important. There are a lot of ways to temporarily store energy — batteries, for instance. No small number of free energy devices presented for patent approval consisted of a lot of batteries, sometimes concealed under a false floor. You’d plug the device into a wall socket to “start the reaction.” Wheels would spin, lights would flash, reagents would gurgle — and the batteries would quietly charge. Then you’d pull the plug and watch the device “run without external inputs.” The hope was that the patent examiner’s attention would fail before the batteries did, but if not — well, that’s where the inventor needed just a bit of investment capital to “perfect the idea.”

Note that these are not perpetual motion machines. Perpetual motion is passé. These all purport to use up fuel of some sort, albeit a “mysterious” fuel, like the zero-point vacuum state energy. Something that isn’t properly recognized by “the hidebound high priesthood of Academic Science.”

Fair enough, if the device can keep a pot of tea going indefinitely. Otherwise, yeah, yeah, whatever. Here’s cab fare home: go away.

This brings us to cold fusion.

Unlike these other “free energy” inventions, nuclear fusion is reasonably well-understood, and is universally considered (by that academic high priesthood) to be the mechanism that produces the enormous and long-lived torrent of energy that comes from our sun. It has been demonstrated on a small scale in the laboratory. It has been demonstrated in a much more spectacular way in the H-bomb: the hydrogen fusion bomb.

The big problem with nuclear fusion, as we currently practice it, is that it is “hot” fusion, requiring enormous temperatures or incredible pressures to get the hydrogen fuel to ignite at the nuclear level. Gravity provides pressure inside the sun; a specially shaped plutonium fission bomb provides both the heat and pressure in the hydrogen bomb. Neither is something you want in your house.

Most institutional research into nuclear fusion — for power — has run along two approaches, both of which rely upon both heat and pressure to ignite the nuclear reaction.

One is the “magnetic pinch” reactor, which relies upon magnetic fields to do what gravity does for the sun. The other is the “inertial confinement” reactor, which uses high-powered lasers to vaporize the outer layers of a small, frozen pellet of fuel: to vaporize it so rapidly and so violently (and so evenly) that the inertia of the atoms prevents them from expanding fast enough to relieve the pressure on the atoms at the center of the fuel pellet. This pressure does what gravity does for the sun, and ignites a nuclear reaction at the center of the fuel pellet.

Both of these methods are enormously expensive. Neither works well, though inertial confinement research has developed powerful enough lasers that it is just now approaching “break even” where they can produce more energy from the fusion than it takes to start the reaction: meaning they could, in principle, reach a point where they could keep a teapot boiling indefinitely.

Why is fusion so difficult?

The philosophical answer is that if it weren’t so difficult, the whole universe would have collapsed a long time ago, and we wouldn’t be here to ask that question.

The more specific answer is that atomic nuclei — the parts of the atoms involved in fusion — have a positive electrical charge, and that electrical charge causes the nuclei to repel each other. The repulsion gets stronger the closer the nuclei get. Trying to get them within kissing distance of each other, where they can react, takes a lot of force — like the gravitational field of the sun. Indeed, if the sun were a bit smaller, it wouldn’t have enough gravity to light the fire.

So what is “cold fusion?” It’s a theoretical process by which atomic nuclei are finessed into close enough contact to allow fusion.

When “cold fusion” made its huge splash in 1989 with the work of Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, it created a firestorm of interest, because it provided an entirely plausible mechanism for a process that could — in theory — have produced vast amounts of extremely clean energy. The way it then played out is an interesting study in the sociology of science and technology.

The basic problem, of course, was that no one could replicate the results.

It’s interesting to compare this to the recent flap over neutrinos traveling faster than light. The measurement was clear enough, and at some level, the entire particle physics community wanted it to be true: it would be something really new in a field that hasn’t had a substantial experimental challenge to standard theories in three decades. But no one really believed it. So they kept studying the tests and the results until they found the measurement error. Everyone heaved a bittersweet sigh of simultaneous relief and sorrow.

By contrast, the scientific community crucified Pons and Fleischmann.

I think there were three main factors involved in this response.

One is that the people who tried to replicate the results probably really believed in cold fusion. Yes, scientists are supposed to be objective, and skeptical, and all that. It’s built into the structure of scientific reasoning that hypotheses are disconfirmed, not confirmed. But the disappointment with the faster-than-light neutrinos was of the “Yes, Charlotte, there really are no unicorns” variety. The disappointment with cold fusion was the “Dangit, there ain’t no gold in them hills” variety.

Second, Pons and Fleischmann were both electrochemists, not physicists. Science, like any other human endeavor, is territorial. Nuclear fusion is the exclusive hunting ground of physicists, and for a mere electrochemist to claim a scoop of that magnitude was all but insufferable.

But the third issue was the killer. Pons and Fleischmann broke one of the cardinal rules of academia: they issued a press-release before their paper had been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and stepped on toes in the process. This is much worse than picking up your soup bowl and slurping at a state dinner.

Had their results been replicated, it’s likely all of the above would have been forgiven. Since they weren’t replicated, however, Pons and Fleischmann were labeled “frauds” and the study of cold fusion was labeled “pathological science.” The entire field of study has been a career-killer for the last twenty years.

There have been some interesting recent developments, however.

A few years back, a fellow by the name of Andrea Rossi claimed to have a “catalyzed” reactor that uses plain old hydrogen gas and plain old nickel under a modest amount of heat and pressure, that produces trace amounts of copper, a few gamma rays, and a lot of heat. Most aspects of Rossi’s behavior have followed the classic hoax pattern: no academic credentials, paranoid secrecy, refusal to submit to open third-party testing, demands to receive a patent before revealing the nature of his discovery, claims of expert support from unnamed individuals who have requested anonymity, bombastic and contradictory performance claims, and self-promotion. He was swiftly surrounded by the cloud of True Believers who speculated breathlessly on each of his terse announcements of progress or (more often) technical difficulties.

Then Rossi did something a little out of the ordinary for a hoaxer. He offered to build a one megawatt power plant — an industrial heating system — for a large unnamed customer, using his own money, and said he would be paid for the device when he demonstrated that it worked.

This is the eternal teapot test, but on an industrial scale.

Most of the news surrounding Rossi has remained spotty and secretive, plagued with delays and corrections. The customer in the above test was reputedly satisfied and paid Rossi for the reactor, but the customer remains secret — it’s believed to be a military organization, and many suspect it is the US DARPA — so nothing can be verified.

However, other players are now rapidly entering the picture. Wired magazine published this article in September of 2012 that describes some of the accelerating developments. Other individuals have duplicated some of Rossi’s claims and are demonstrating them openly.

MIT has started a short course called “Cold Fusion 101,” which involves a lab section in which an experimental palladium-based cold fusion cell has been running for a number of months — palladium was the lattice material Pons and Fleischmann used in their original experiment. Part of the course syllabus involves a theoretical analysis of why both the MIT and CalTech attempts to replicate the original Pons and Fleischmann effect failed.

Perhaps most significantly, the name of the field of study has changed. Cold Fusion was labeled “junk science” in the early 1990’s. Any low-level research that continued was generally called LENR (Low Energy Nuclear Reactions) to avoid the stigma. It appears to have changed again, and is now called LANR (Lattice Assisted Nuclear Reactions) in the MIT course.

Martin Fleischmann died last August, but it’s possible that Stanley Pons will live to see his name cleared and his research vindicated.

This entry was posted in General.

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