Weird Science 

Cold-fusion believers work on, even as mainstream science gives them the cold shoulder.

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Inside his small brick Salt Lake City home, a stone’s throw from an LDS church building and hidden from the street by an overgrown yard, Billings Brown prepares the largest cold-fusion experiment ever attempted'or so he believes. If it works, the experiment will destroy his living room and dust Billings and his son, Tom, with deadly radiation.

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Brown, a retired rocket scientist in his 80s, thinks he’s figured out the secret to cold fusion 16 years after University of Utah professor Stanley Pons and his mentor, Martin Fleischmann, shook the world by announcing they had harnessed in a test tube the energy-producing engine of the sun.

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Eight months after their 1989 announcement, Pons and Fleischmann were laughed out of polite academic society, dismissed as delusional or quacks. Two years later, after an embarrassed Utah Legislature spent $5 million on aborted cold-fusion research and the university’s president had resigned, Pons and Fleischmann rode out of town on a rail, choosing self-imposed exile in France. After hogging global news headlines for a few months, Time magazine named cold fusion one of the worst ideas of the century, along with aerosol cheese. After the ridicule, it disappeared into obscurity.

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But cold fusion never died. In the years since 1989, a few obstinate scientists soldiered on under the upturned noses of their peers. Titillated by the possibility of a vast source of new energy, U.S. government weapons makers and giant Japanese industrial groups quietly siphoned money into further study of a dismissed idea.

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Underground Science

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Forced underground, cold fusion has since become a cult, complete with its own cheerleaders, magazines, hats and coffee mugs, along with a regular academic conference to which few but the cold fusionists themselves pay any attention. Some cold-fusion researchers have become conspiracy buffs, sure that Dick Cheney and big oil are thwarting their efforts. One current story alleges that fossil-fuel forces killed off cold fusion’s greatest champion, Infinite Energy magazine editor Eugene Mallove, who was murdered last year during an apparent robbery.

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Successors to Pons and Fleischmann have invented all sorts of new ways to conduct the Utah experiment: balls filled with gas, sound waves that create mysteriously glowing bubbles in water. They don’t yet have what Pons predicted was possible more than a decade ago'a cold-fusion water heater strong enough to make a nice cup of tea'but their halting and sporadic results continue to suggest the disgraced Utah chemist may have been on to something.

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With oil prices climbing, predictions of an oil shortage mounting and oil politics anchoring the U.S. military in the mire of the Middle East, the possibility of cold fusion means this science won’t die anytime soon.

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“We’re nearing the end of the fossil-fuel era. We’ve got to find something else,” said Brown. “I do think there is energy locked up in the [cold-fusion] system that can be gotten out. I’m not sure I know how, but I’ll give it the old college try.”

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But is this just wishful thinking? Science requires that experiments be repeatable; nuclear science requires the release of radiation. Cold fusion failed both tests 16 years ago. Today’s cold fusionists say they’ve found radioactivity and can make cold fusion happen at the drop of a hat but complain the early debacle at the University of Utah so prejudiced scientific attitudes that no one takes their results seriously.

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The science has succeeded in interesting and dividing a panel of U.S. Department of Energy experts. Late last year, a DOE panel released a new review of cold fusion, recommending that “funding agencies should entertain individual well-designed proposals for experiments.”

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The evidence is harder to ignore than it was in 1989. At least one thing seems clear today: Fusion is possible on a desktop, if not the way Pons and Fleischmann tried it. This April, UCLA researchers published a paper in the prestigious journal Nature describing a crystal-powered fusion device small enough to fit in the palm of the hand.

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The modicum of respect now accorded cold fusion is just enough to give cold-fusion disciples continued hope in the Second Coming of their science. This year, a California company, citing the DOE review, went public offering an investment in cold fusion. D2Fusion, of Foster City, Calif., claims it will have Pons’ water heater ready for testing by the end of the year.

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Before cranking up their latest experiment, the Browns want to retrieve some data. They believe test No. 28 was the most successful yet, but the computer Tom hooked to the cold-fusion cell for the all-night run may have missed recording some data. Brown’s granddaughter came home after he went to bed, found the computer running and switched it off. In her defense, cold fusion is extremely boring to watch and nothing appeared to be happening.

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Tom, a programmer, hooked up a computer to monitor the experiments but must scrounge supplies. He’s found home cold fusion a trickier business post 9/11 than in Pons’ day. Many supply houses won’t sell to individuals. Tom, a scoutmaster, has better luck shopping locally, saying he’s gathering material for a child’s science project.

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The Brown’s experiment'a Mason Jar inside a goldfish bowl'sits on the fireplace. The flue is blocked by a piece of cardboard. An upside-down piece of carpet protects the floor. Metal electrodes poking through a jar lid attach to wires with wooden clothespins. More wires lead to a computer on a small wooden desk with peeling green paint.

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What the Browns are attempting sounds almost mythic: a reprise of the last, great unpublished experiment of Pons and Fleischmann. One of Brown’s sons studied at the University of Utah in 1989 and was a friend of Pons and Fleischmann’s lab assistant. The young Brown brought home tales of an experiment that destroyed the lab. On Father’s Day 2004, after a day at the library, Brown telephoned Tom to say he’d at last figured out what had caused the reaction.

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Brown speaks with the nuanced and measured tone of a scientist. Tom talks excitedly of the possibilities of cold-fusion home water heaters operating for pennies a year, of removing the salt from the sea and turning the world’s deserts into breadbaskets. He talks of an end to war.

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God and King

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True cold fusion means a virtually unlimited supply of clean energy. Its fuel would be seawater, and unlike today’s nuclear power reactors, it would produce no radioactive waste.

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“The person who does it will be a god,” said Tom, his large body leaning forward on a dwarfed desk chair. “They would be treated like a king.”

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The world’s nuclear power plants work through fission, the splitting of heavy atoms. Fusion, the opposite process, joins nuclei of two light-weight atoms. It’s the process that fuels the sun, and governments have spent billions in hopes of creating a practical application for it on Earth.

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Nuclei have powerful charges that repel each other. Joining them to produce energy is like trying to push together the wrong side of two magnets. Virtually all scientists say this resistance force can only be overcome using intense heat or speed. The true cold fusionist believes otherwise. And, as the name implies, they believe the process can occur at room temperature.

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On March 23, 1989, a nervous looking Stanley Pons, head of the University of Utah chemistry department, and his long-haired mentor, Englishman Martin Fleischmann, walked on stage for a press conference and claimed to have accomplished cold fusion in a test tube using two car batteries.

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Russ George was working with an energy industry research group in California at the time. “I remember the nuclear power people looking at a videotape of the press conference from Utah, getting out tape and measuring the apparatus with a ruler on the TV screen.”

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George immediately went to his Palo Alto garage and built a Pons-Fleischmann cell. He would become hooked for life.

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In the aftermath of the announcement, scientists from across the globe would claim to have re-created Pons and Fleischmann’s experiment. Just as quickly, most retracted their claims after new measurements. By the end of 1989, after tapping a scientific team to investigate Pons and Fleischmann’s claims, the U.S. Department of Energy deemed them null and void. It would take another 15 years for the DOE’s interest to be even remotely revived.

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Fleischmann said circumstances forced the scientists to announce cold fusion two years too early. At the time, a BYU researcher also was working on cold fusion, and patent attorneys had advised the University of Utah team to be the first to make an announcement.

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“If we had been left alone at the U of U, if we had adequate funding and people had not bothered us, we would probably have got to a usable device around ’92,” Fleischmann said from his home in Tisbury, England.

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“Science is a very fragile endeavor,” he said. “You can easily misdirect it.nn

The Birth of Cool

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Fleischmann, then one of the most respected electrochemists of his day, and Pons, his former student, claimed to have come up with the idea for cold fusion during a hike in Millcreek Canyon before repairing to Pons’ kitchen to hash out device details over a bottle of Jack Daniels.

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Fleischmann had come across an article in an old scientific journal describing the ability of palladium metal to soak up hydrogen like a sponge. Fleischmann theorized if enough hydrogen were forced out of water and into the metal, the nuclei might fuse. If they used, instead, water containing deuterium'a form of hydrogen that comes packaged as “heavy water” for production of nuclear bombs'the results might be remarkable.

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A Pons-Fleischmann cell is a lot like the time-tested junior high school science fair demonstration of electrolysis in which electric current causes water to break down into its component parts of oxygen and hydrogen.

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When current is run through a Pons-Fleischmann cell, heavy hydrogen'deuterium'is released from the heavy water to absorb into the palladium electrodes. In the years since 1989, experimenters in search of cost-efficient cold fusion have used regular tap water, along with nickel or copper electrodes, enabling junior high school students'and the Browns'to attempt cold fusion for pennies on the dollar.

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Cold fusion’s tricky part is measuring its effects. The temperature of the cell is measured for heat, and scientists try to capture anything coming off the cell for evidence of radioactive particles. The debate about cold fusion is whether cold fusionists can use a thermometer. Critics contend they can’t.

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Had Pons and Fleischmann measured correctly, the amount of heat coming off of their cell would have indicated a huge release of energy, or the creation of a small bomb. But in terms of degrees, the amount of heat was extremely small'so small in fact that it was difficult to say if any energy was produced.

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Cold fusionists say the first attempt to reproduce the 1989 results failed because Pons and Fleischmann held back the design for a palladium electrode that would work. Fleischmann acknowledged the scientists had an exclusive agreement with the factory that made the metal. Once others figured out the metal design problem, they got results.

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Steve Krivit, who along with Nadine Winocur chronicled cold fusions’ history since Pons and Fleischmann for his 2004 book The Rebirth of Cold Fusion, said researchers can now reproduce the effect more than 80 percent of the time.

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Krivit became a cold-fusion enthusiast after meeting scientists attending the 2003 International Conference on Cold Fusion, the 10th such conference since it was first inaugurated at the University of Utah.

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“These were, as far as I could tell, real scientists,” he said. “There was no other logical alternative than to accept these people were credible.nn

Krivit’s online magazine New Energy Times is on a mission to make cold fusion respectable again.

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Since their exile from universities, cold-fusion scientists talk to themselves and no one else, supported by an underground of earnest believers that publish the scientists’ papers alongside outlandish claims of the fantastic.

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Jed Rothwell, who has spent years collecting the scientific papers of cold fusionists, said amateur interest from the sci-fi crowd “breaks your heart,” but is an unavoidable byproduct of any science related to energy.

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Infinite Energy magazine, the granddaddy of the cold-fusion press, is funded by science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. The 1999 documentary, Cold Fusion: Fire from Water, is narrated by James Doohan. That’s “Scotty,” the Star Trek engineer who emerged once each episode to complain about the “dilithium crystals.nn

But there also are legit scientists too stubborn, or inspired, to stop.

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George, whose father worked on the Manhattan Project, is one such researcher. After cobbling-together his garage experiment, he went on to invite himself to all the major laboratories pursuing cold-fusion research. They included SRI International, where a coalition of electric utilities financed experiments; Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the atomic bomb; the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, which partnered with the Naval Air Warfare Center, and the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center for 10 years of cold-fusion research.

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Other one-time backers of cold-fusion investigations included NASA, the French Atomic Energy Commission and the Japanese government’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization. For about five years after leaving Utah, Pons and Fleischmann continued experiments at a laboratory near Nice, France, funded with about $30 million from a subsidiary of the Toyota automobile company. There, they parted disagreeably; no one in the cold-fusion world has heard from Pons since.

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Evidence, Please

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One of the main problems with cold fusion'in addition to the fact that it’s impossible according to conventional physics'is that early experiments didn’t appear to produce any radioactive products typical of fusion.

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At SRI, a private lab near Stanford University, George worked with researchers on an experiment that found helium, a known fusion byproduct, coming off the cell. The measured helium was low, leaving lingering questions about whether air, which contains 5 parts-per-million helium, might have gotten into the machine.

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Some of the best evidence for cold fusion comes from the U.S. Navy’s 10-year project. Navy scientists showed helium production and an improved experiment that sped up the reaction to occur almost instantaneously, rather than the weeks or months Pons and Fleischmann waited for heat.

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Navy scientists trained an infrared camera on the palladium electrode and produced images that appeared to show tiny nuclear explosions on the surface of the metal. A paper by the Navy research team was recently published in a German scientific journal.

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George’s travels also took him to Japan. There he met an aging cold fusionist who designed a cell using deuterium gas George claims works 100 percent of the time. George is basing his company, D2Fusion, on the technology.

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The claims of another Japanese cold fusionist financed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are, if possible, more unbelievable than cold-fusion energy. Yasuhiro Iwamura, who leads a team of researchers at Mitsubishi’s Advanced Technology Research Center, claims that alchemy'the timeless dream of turning base metals into gold'is happening inside of his cold-fusion cell.

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Palladium is equivalent in price to gold because the entire supply is demanded for pollution-reducing catalytic converters in cars. Instead of turning cheap metal into gold, Iwamura found his palladium cathodes were transmuting into lesser stuff like quartz, or lead. It’s not necessarily the most profitable trick, but if true, would be indisputable evidence of a nuclear process.

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Chase Peterson, University of Utah president in 1989 and now a Park City resident, continues to follow cold fusion’s developments.

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“I don’t believe in it or disbelieve in it,” he said. “I only believe in a process that says something this interesting ought to be investigated. … Many hundreds of labs have now confirmed the phenomena.”

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In the early days of cold fusion, Peterson recalled, some University of Utah researchers received subtle threats of funding cuts if they didn’t stop researching cold fusion. Attitudes haven’t changed much.

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“When you have a mindset like that, there is no way to break into it, except with the laborious work that’s now being done to prove or disprove what’s going on.”

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In 2003, a group of the movement’s key researchers petitioned the Department of Energy to take a fresh look at cold fusion. When the review results came out, some cold fusionists held them up as a triumph. They were anything but.

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Half of the DOE reviewers were convinced of the scientists’ claims that the machine produced energy. Half weren’t. Even those who believed the heat effect was real suggested the cold fusionists still had no idea what was going on, writing the effect couldn’t be repeated at will and hadn’t increased in magnitude “in over a decade of work.”

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Just one reviewer believed the scientists’ evidence for a nuclear reaction. Two-thirds said it wasn’t there.

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Today, much of the “new” cold fusion work is years old, and big money from governments and industry has dried up.

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“Pathological Science”

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Traditionally, for a new scientific discovery to take hold, its opponents must die, said Rothwell. “The trouble with cold fusion was it was discovered by old men and rejected by younger men,” he said.

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Though a believer, Rothwell has no hope for cold fusion, predicting “gradual extinction” as aging cold fusionists die. He expects this November’s 12th international cold fusion conference in Shizuoka, Japan, will be the last.

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Critics of cold fusion call it a classic example of “pathological science,” experiments with results so tiny it’s difficult to say for sure if anything is going on, conducted by scientists who really want to believe something is.

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“It’s an interesting psychology,” said John Huizenga, an emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of Rochester who was co-chairman of the DOE’s 1989 review panel. Cold fusion “is just going on and on. I can’t believe it.”

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Huizenga acknowledges not having read all the cold-fusion papers since 1989 but is familiar with the claims submitted to the DOE, including the reports of helium production as proof for a nuclear reaction.

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When cold fusionists failed to find lots of radioactivity coming out of their cells, they began arguing that cold fusion was a new kind of nuclear reaction that produced helium but no neutrons or other fusion products.

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The problem with that, Huizenga said, is low-energy fusion of deuterium has been known since particle accelerator experiments in the 1950s and the reactions look the same as other fusion, with helium the primary byproduct only once every 10 million occurrences.

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Contrast the helium-only theory with tabletop fusion claims published this April in Nature. Three UCLA researchers say they’ve made a fusion device that produced a continuous stream of neutrons and X-rays, both more likely fusion products than helium.

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Just like the earlier cold-fusion experiments, the UCLA team tried to fuse deuterium. In their device, deuterium nuclei are shot through a beam produced by a heated pyroelectric crystal. The beam smashes into a stationary target coated with deuterium. Essentially, they’ve built a tiny particle accelerator.

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The UCLA group was extremely careful in its press announcement not to claim any excess energy. Instead, they say they’ve invented a portable neutron generator that could be useful, for example, as a security device for looking inside luggage at airports. The scientists’ wildest claim is that a scaled-up version could eventually be a propulsion system for miniature spacecraft. Perhaps Scotty’s dilithium crystals will become a reality after all.

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Of course, if the UCLA experiment induced fusion from a desktop experiment, it’s producing energy. Cold-fusion critic Huizenga said it may well be the real thing.

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But the UCLA claim holds no interest for the cold fusionists, who dismiss it as more “hot fusion” from the people who’ve been thwarting them for decades. The cold fusionists are sure of their facts and say if the facts don’t fit the theory, the theory must bend.

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“The whole question is whether we are using the correct paradigm to interpret the nature of the world. I don’t believe we are,” said Fleischmann. “Originally, science was based on the Newtonian classic, then quantum mechanics. People believe that is as far as we can go.nn

Michael Shermer, director of The Skeptics Society, calls cold fusion a prime example of smart people fooling themselves.

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“If, after 15 years, they still don’t have consistent results other labs can produce, then there’s nothing to it,” Shermer said. “It’s pseudo-science. That’s one of the signs. It looks like science. It claims to be. But nobody can reproduce it. Only the guy making the claim gets the results.

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“Energy too cheap to meter? That would change the world,” he said. “If there is just even a shred of data that seems to indicate there might be hope, some people will. … Hope springs eternal.nn

Fox and Cold Fusion

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Will the world’s scientists ever come up with “energy too cheap to meter”? One who thinks so is Utah’s Hal Fox, cold fusion’s original cheerleader. He continues to believe, despite having determined long ago that cold fusion isn’t the answer.

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In the days after the 1989 announcement, Fox, a retired rocket scientist, set up shop at the University of Utah Research Park as the Cold Fusion Information Center. He was eventually shouldered out of the park as the last embarrassing link to the episode but, undaunted, moved his operation to an abandoned fast-food restaurant on 3300 South. He’s still there, editing the Journal of New Energy for a scant 50 subscribers.

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Fox replicated Pons-Fleischmann after three years of work. “Then I got looking at it and thought, ‘What can I do with hot water to power my home?’nn

So much energy is lost converting heat to electricity for power lines that cold fusion would need to produce many hundreds of times the heat shown so far just to break even after using electricity to run a cold-fusion cell.

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That doesn’t bother Fox. He’s got something better.

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After traveling the world looking for a new form of energy, Fox discovered Ken Shoulders, a one-time staff scientist at SRI and presenter at cold-fusion conferences. Fox believes Shoulders’ discovery, “charge clusters,” can clean polluted water and could eventually produce energy. His current commercial thrust is making liquid radioactive waste safe through transmutation.

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In his backroom lab, Fox pours water from the Great Salt Lake into an old peanut-butter jar. The word “creamy” is just visible in the lid, through which zirconium electrodes poke into the solution.

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A blinding, white flickering light and a loud bubbling noise gradually falls away as the light turns yellow and forms a bubble.

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So far, Fox said the technique has purified any water he puts in.

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Back to the Beginning

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Billings Brown thinks cold fusion will ultimately be understood as a conventional nuclear reaction. He thinks the secret has something to do with material floating in the jar that Pons and Fleischmann didn’t know was important. Maybe the lithium salt Pons and Fleischmann used as an electricity conductor, or boron, an element known to leach out of glass test tubes.

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Brown and Tom have run about 35 experiments testing the theory and experimenting with different metals, including nickel. If cold fusion ever becomes commercial, it must get away from using expensive palladium, they say.

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The Browns know such an approach reduces their chance of getting a reaction, but they don’t care. Before it can make sense as a commercial power source, cold-fusion reactions must reach huge proportions. To prove the doubters wrong, cold fusion must produce heat that can’t be dismissed as error in measurement. The Browns are thinking big.

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The key, Brown said, is “critical size, like a nuclear bomb. Fermi [the father of the atomic bomb] kept adding until he got to critical size. The cold-fusion guys all used very small experiments … except the final experiment of Pons and Fleischmann.”

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Pons and Fleischmann typically used small wire cathodes, from 1 millimeter to 4 millimeters. The lore handed to the Browns via Pons and Fleischmann’s lab assistant says that one evening the assistant dipped a 1-centimeter cube into the heavy water instead. When he returned the next morning, the reactor vessel was shattered, the fish tank that surrounded it with water was gone. A 14-inch diameter hole was found burnt into the desktop, and the lab was contaminated with radioactivity.

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The story sounds fantastic, but Fleischmann confirmed the general outline. He said repeating the bigger experiment is one avenue he would have pursued, given the time and money.

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“I have reason to believe that was their one successful experiment that they ignored,” Brown said. “We’re going to go all the way back to the beginning.”

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Where Pons and Fleischmann performed cold fusion in a test tube, the Browns began with a half-pint jar, before moving to a pint and, now, a quart container.

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Tom has just procured a thick piece of copper to use as an electrode. Billings fills the jar with distilled water, plus a secret added ingredient. They plug the apparatus into a wall socket, and wait.

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