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Cold fusion -- Is there anything to it?

Updated on December 11, 2010

Is cold fusion equal in credibility to spoon bending?

Fusion is the opposite of fission. Fission makes energy available by blowing atoms apart. Fusion pushes atoms so close together that they become one, and in the process release a lot of energy.

Science "101" as they say, says that atoms really don't like being pushed together. It's so difficult to do this, that fusion requires very fast moving atoms. To get fast moving atoms, you need a lot of heat, (millions of degrees C).

So Science "101" says fusion near room temperatures is not possible, neither is spoon bending possible by thought alone or gentle rubbing. It takes a violent input of energy to bend a spoon. It's been as simple as that for many years prior to 1989.

What happened in 1989?

At the University of Utah, February 1985 in Room 1113 of the North Henry Eyring Building an experiment left overnight made a 14 inch hole in the laboratory bench.

Pons and Fleischmann spent 5 years and many thousands of dollars before making an announcement.

In March 1989, two credible scientists announced the discovery or invention of a simple bench-top apparatus. This simple apparatus consisted of a container of deuterium oxide , a palladium coil as one electrode, and a palladium rod as another. A moderate voltage was applied between the electrodes.

On the face of it, it appears no more complicated than a battery made from a lemon. On the face of it, it should not work. In fact it should not work so much, that the idea is absurd.

Yet that was their claim. They claimed that, given enough time, deuterium atoms fused inside the palladium electrodes.

That claim was extraordinary, and if true potentially life changing for everyone on Earth. If true it would collapse every centralised power generating company. It would devastate many mining industries. Cold fusion would allow isolated households to generate their own electricity on demand. Cold fusion directly impacts the careers and funding given to hot fusion projects. Truth of such a claim implies monumental consequences.

The deuterium in a unit of seawater there could produce ten times the energy compared to the same unit of gasoline.

There was a big fuss.

Of course, such a simple apparatus and such grand claims permitted multiple disciplines to test the claims.

Although the apparatus was simple, measuring the results was difficult. No one was able to reliably reproduce the results and measure the results.

The experiment was not properly documented, and both scientists were chemists not particle physicists. There is nothing wrong being a chemist, but it was a little like a mechanical engineer building a rocket. There is a lot to know about rocket science that is not in the domain of mechanical engineering (and vice versa). Similarly, two chemists making claims about high energy particle physics makes the claim even more astounding.

Pons and Fleischmann broke several scientific protocols.

  • The first anyone knew of it was via press conference. SILLY!
  • Documentation was not precise. BAD!
  • Results were exaggerated. UNETHICAL!

As a result, they were rapidly and viscously vilified by the scientific community. The claims were rapidly and convincingly debunked.

Fleischmann's communication of how to do the experiment was poor, and in part, this masked the real complexity of the experiment. Unfortunately, Fleischmann, being at the top of his field, thought the experiment was simple. Undoubtedly, this portrayal was damaging.

Has it really died?

No. Cold Fusion research continued for many years,and some research is still being done. Large governments like in Japan funded significant research. By all accounts I've read, it looks like most research continued 'underground' in fear of the exposé so rapidly discrediting official work on the topic'. 

Normally, you expect some maverick nut-cases to continue to conduct pseudo scientific junk experiments on proven impossible-claims - as in perpetual motion machines and other free energy devices. But CF seemed for many years to enjoy the attention of some secretive, but nonetheless skilled and serious scientists.

You might be wondering then, "Why have we not seen results"? 

"Les Case, an MIT-trained chemical engineer with more than 20 patents under his belt, discovered that cold fusion reactions could be made more reliable by the addition of a carbon catalyst. Case used his own funds to support his work; his technique is the one now being replicated by SRI's McKubre." --

What results?

Many experiments around the world have produced episodes of 'excess heat'. By 'excess', the figure can be something like 25 times the amount of energy out compared to that put in. This is a very significant gain. You would expect therefore to be able to buy CF batteries and drive CF cars, and cook your food using CF ovens. But this is not the case because 70% of the time excess heat is not produced. Furthermore, it can take days or weeks to get excess heat. Whatever triggers the results don't seem to be controlled or consistent. Some people think it may be dependent on the nature of the particular palladium in use and how it was manufactured. Such unreliability means CF is a long way from becoming a commercial product.

In 2002, it is claimed that about 50 establishments and 500 researchers attracted 200 or so to conferences every 18 months.

60 Minutes covered a CF story on April 22 2009. (The link has a video)

Furthermore, there is no electro-chemists' CF "101". It is not understood. It seems to "do something nuclear" but nobody really understands what is happening.

Some say the term "Cold Fusion" has been abandoned and it was never the wish of Fleischman to use that term. You will now find the term "Nuclear Effect" used. However, I don't think the term has completely gone.

"So we have, I think, within two years with reasonable funding, we could have the whole thing locked up. What is going on? What is the heat effect? What are the products? What is the reaction? What is it good for? Whether we do that or not will entirely depend upon whether the funding is made available for that purpose." -- Dr. Michael McKubre (2002)

That prediction is 7 years overdue now (2011) - Perhaps next year?

What is the "nuclear effect"?

This link discusses the work done at SRI. (2009).

Pons and Fleischmann conjectured that deuterium atoms fused inside the palladium lattice but it seems that is not what happens exactly during the production of excess heat. The figures obtained indicate it is not a purely chemical reaction as the heat production is too high. The process does not appear to cause radiation. However, byproducts of a nuclear reaction (Tritium for example) are noted by Dr Michael McKubre.

Dr. Michael McKubre is a scientist with SRI International Laboratory in Menlo Park, California. In January 1992, one of McKubre's cold fusion cells exploded. It killed one of his collaborators, wounded him, and wounded three others. Clearly, considerable power can be unlocked from the setup. Something must be going on.

There is a dragon under my bed.

If I told you there was a dragon under my bed, it would be an extraordinary claim. In fact, you would know instantly that I was joking. But what if I was not joking?

What if I really thought there was a dragon under my bed, a real, scaly fire-breathing mythical-style dragon?

Of course, such an extraordinary claim would require extraordinary evidence.

What if I produced footprints, pooh, a scale or two, and some charred furniture? All that could be faked. All that evidence is nowhere near enough to make you convinced (without seeing it) that there is a dragon under my bed. But if I said there was a small lizard under my bed, much less evidence (if any) would be demanded.

Cold Fusion faces a similar problem. It is, by any measure, an extra ordinary claim. Let's summarise:

  • One unit of seawater's deuterium has 10 x the power of gasoline of the same volume.
  • Nuclear fusion - or at least a nuclear reaction is sustainable at room temperature rather than millions of degrees.
  • The efficiency is in the order of 25. ( one unit of energy in gives 25 out.)
  • This nuclear reaction produces no radiation.
  • The reaction could cheaply solve the energy crisis.
  • The reaction will be sustainable for very long periods.

These are extraordinary claims. The established scientific community recognize the magnitude and rightly demand a great deal of highly verifiable evidence. That evidence has not been consistent.

To make matters worse, we have suggestions of conspiracy. Apparently physicists are defending their funding, physicists are defending their pride, traditional energy companies are defending their profits and so on.

Crackpot "science"

"Forget the Rube Goldberg mechanical perpetual motion contraptions; they had to stop eventually. In contrast, new solid-state (no moving parts) energy converters are said to draw from an energy field in surrounding space. This source of abundant power is known by physicists as the zero-point quantum fluctuations of vacuum space. Zero-point refers to the fact that even at a temperature at which heat movement in molecules stops cold, zero degrees Kelvin, there is still a jiggling movement, said to be from inter-dimensional fluctuations or cosmic energy. Magnetism and vortexian or spin-upon-a-spin motions seem to line up these random fluctuations of space and put them to work, as in the Searl Effect (Atlantis Rising, first issue" --

Sleeping in the asylum

To make matters even worse, the internet permits the juxtaposition of crackpot pseudo scientific free-energy machines with cold fusion. An example is in the panel to the right. In this techno-babble, it ultimately claims that energy may be sucked out of the quantum vacuum. This is not possible. It's a common and well debunked load of cods wallop.

Yet from the very same source, cold fusion gets an entry, and I quote:

"In Japan, cold fusion is called New Hydrogen Energy, and that oil-dependent nation welcomes successful experiments. In contrast, two pioneering experimenters were hounded out of North America. David Lewis described this scene as Heavy Watergate in Atlantis Rising, issue two.

Update: A successful experiment was served up in Monte Carlo in April, at the Fifth International Conference on Cold Fusion. Clean Energy Technologies Inc. of Florida demonstrated a cold fusion cell with energy output as much as ten times more than input. Other companies are also gambling on this new source of heat energy which could drive electric generators.

What exactly causes atomic nuclei to fuse, and release energy, without extreme high temperatures and pressures? A Romanian physicist writing in Infinite Energy magazine, Dr. Peter Gluck, wonders if it could be only partly a catalytic nuclear effect, and partly a catalytic quantum effect providing the capture of the zero-point energy, The ubiquitous z-p energy."

It's somewhat sad to see words like "catalytic quantum effect" which seems to me, to mean little more than Bart Simpson's "purple monkey dishwasher" quote.

Summing up

Cold fusion may yet produce useful practical energy. It's not pseudo science. It does not deserve to be bedfellow with zero-point energy machines and the like. I think Pons and Fleischmann got a raw deal, but they did make mistakes, and paid dearly for them.

Perhaps nothing commercial will ever be produced. If so, let's hope it's because science proves it not viable compared to commercial and egotistical pressures hounding it out. Let's hope for all our sakes that there is something to it, and eventually enough funding - either private, maverick or official permits commercial development.

Is Cold Fusion a possible source of practical energy?

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    • Manna in the wild profile imageAUTHOR

      Manna in the wild 

      7 years ago from Australia

      Thanks for the link.

    • Rock_nj profile image

      John Coviello 

      7 years ago from New Jersey

      Nice hub on the history of cold fusion. I just published a Hub about Cold Fusion and the impending commercial development of a Cold Fusion reactor by Italian scientists.

      Cold Fusion Is Real and Commercial Development Is Near

    • Manna in the wild profile imageAUTHOR

      Manna in the wild 

      7 years ago from Australia

      Sorry Quizzlii - I don't know the answer to that if I understand the question that is.

      Anyway - I'll throw it open to anyone who can make a contribution.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Im sure this will probably sound stupid, but has anyone heard of any mention of a "nuclear catalyst" or anything along the lines of a material (theoretical is fine) that could facilitate nuclear reactions? Im fairly certain that they dont exist, even theoretically, but it never hurts to ask....

    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 

      7 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      Now I have some idea of what happened to this promising idea. Thanks.

    • Joyus Crynoid profile image

      Joyus Crynoid 

      7 years ago from Eden

      And it's not just getting published, it's getting (and staying) funded. In my experience grant review panels are much more daunting than manuscript reviewers, in part because the competition for limited funds is so great. The reviewers very often have to split hairs to choose between outstanding proposals. The unfortunate thing about it is that it is a fairly conservative process, so novel or risky proposals are often the ones that get rejected.

    • Manna in the wild profile imageAUTHOR

      Manna in the wild 

      7 years ago from Australia

      @Joyus Crynoid - yes! My last attempt at a serious scientific publication was no more pleasant than being sand-blasted and rolled in salt. Thanks for reading.

    • Joyus Crynoid profile image

      Joyus Crynoid 

      7 years ago from Eden

      Good balanced treatment of this controversial bit of recent scientific history, and an enjoyable read to boot. You are right about the science world being rife with politics and ego. A strong ego is a pre-requisite for success--you don't get anywhere without running the gauntlet of peer review, which is less than entirely objective. It's not for the faint of heart.

    • Manna in the wild profile imageAUTHOR

      Manna in the wild 

      7 years ago from Australia

      Thank you Jeff, yes it seems the science world is rife with politics and ego. One might think a career in physics would be intellectual and leisurely, but it's more like a marathon while simultaneously boxing using Queensberry rules amongst an audience of snipers.

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 

      7 years ago from St. Louis

      Excellent science writing with humor and clarity. I enjoyed this. I was wondering why I hadn't heard much about cold fusion.


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