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109) Cold Fusion: Fire from Water

Ludwik Kowalski (September 8, 2003)
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043

A week after returning from the 10th International Conference on Cold Fusion I was trying to explain the essence of the cold fusion phenomenon to my sister-in-law, Helen Knott. She wanted a very simple explanation; the video cassette I was showing her was “not good enough,” she said. In my opinion that cassette (“Cold Fusion: Fire from Water” authored by E. Mallove and J. Rothwell), available at

is very good for people who have studied some physics and chemistry; I was not aware that a person without such education might not be able to follow the narrative. This brief summary is dedicated to Helen. It is an introduction that I will make before showing the cassette to a nonscientific audience. I plan to do this at Montclair State University, probably in October or November. Am I right to assume that at least 99% of the general population knows nothing about the cold fusion controversy?

Burning of wood, coal and oil consist of chemical reactions. Each gram of fuel yields a certain amount of thermal energy. But stars, like our sun, have no such chemical fuels; their thermal energy is generated from nuclear reactions, as in a hydrogen bomb. The fuel used in these thermonuclear reactions is hydrogen. The reaction is called “fusion” because two tiny atomic nuclei must fuse into one larger nucleus before the energy is released. The idea of a slow non-explosive “nuclear burning” is not new; scientists started investigating this possibility in early 1950s. For a small fraction of a second they raise the temperature of hydrogen to millions of degrees hoping to get more energy out of a system than the amount of energy needed to operate it.

Unfortunately, progress was much slower than anticipated. Tens of billions of dollars were spent each year but the amount of thermal energy generated in huge fusion furnaces continues to be a small fraction of the energy used to operate them. It is important to emphasize that a great deal of understanding resulted from decades of these investigations. We know that the possibility of building thermonuclear fusion devices producing more energy than is necessary to operate them is real but decades of additional research will be needed to achieve this goal. That is why the entire scientific world was galvanized when two scientists from the University of Utah,
Fleischmann and Pons, made an announcement (in 1989) that they had a device producing more energy than what was needed to operate it. The device was as small as a can of beer and could be operated from a car battery. The cost of materials needed to build a demonstration device was less than $1000.

Even today, nobody understands what was going on, but the amount of excess heat generated was much larger than what could possibly be attributed to chemical reactions going on inside. It was thus hypothesized that nuclear reactions of some kind were taking place in the relatively cold environment. Utah scientists, and others who were able to reproduce the effect, did not say that the reactions were the same as those going on in hot fusion furnaces. But they were criticized as if that was the essence of their discovery. The opponents coined the term cold fusion and convincingly argued that experimental facts, known in 1989, were not consistent with the cold fusion mechanism. Furthermore, many scientists failed to observe excess heat in their laboratories.

On that basis the extraordinary claim of Utah scientists was officially declared to be invalid (by a panel of experts appointed to investigate the phenomenon). Subsequently, the US Department of Energy, and other government agencies, decided not to support cold fusion research. Furthermore, editors of major scientific journals decided not to publish articles devoted to such research. Despite these unprecedented decisions at least one hundred researchers, in several countries, continued to investigate the puzzling phenomenon. Most of them are highly qualified to conduct such research; their expertise was recognized long before the discovery of cold fusion. Fleischmann, for example, was a widely respected electrochemist and a professor at the University of Southampton. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society in England and the author of more than 200 scientific publications. In 1979 he won the medal for Electrochemistry and thermodynamics. Six years later he was awarded the Palladium Medal by the U.S. Electrochemical society. Between 1970 and 1972 he was the president of the International Society of Electrochemistry.

Unlike supporters of other controversial claims, such as UFOs, healing with copper brasletes, perpetual motion machines, etc., nearly all cold fusion investigators are Ph.D. scientists, often retired, who have been associated with prestigious universities and research laboratories. Yet they have been “excommunicated” from the rest of the scientific community as practitioners of “pathological science.” In my opinion, there were no need to condemn a field in less that a year after the first discovery was announced. The field should have been allowed to develop, like any other thread of scientific investigations, in order to decide, scientifically rather than administratively, about the validity of its claims. Some claim that the official “blacklisting” was motivated by political, rather by scientific, reasons. I am not qualified to validate this claim. In my opinion, the arguments used by critics in 1989 are at odds with many recent findings, and a second national evaluation of the entire field, by an appointed panel of experts, is needed.

I also think that the main emphasis should be on scientific aspects of cold fusion; it is premature to argue about practical applications at this time. Promising too much, and too early, was one of the mistakes of those who supported cold fusion when it was originally announced. The present situation is highly abnormal. This can be best illustrated by the titles of two recently published books, that of Robert Park and that of Charles Beaudette. The title of the first book, published in 2000, is “Voodoo Science; the Road from Foolishness to Fraud;“ the name of the second book, published in 2002, is “Excess Heat. Why Cold Fusion Prevailed?” No, cold fusion did not prevail, it is still treated as it were pseudo science. To convince me that cold fusion is real a person should allow me to perform an experiment in which nuclear events, such as progressive accumulation of helium, or tritium, is demonstrated. Such observations have been reported by many investigators but, in the current abnormal situation, I want to see things for myself. I would also be convinced if I could see that isotopic compositions of various chemical elements change in a cold fusion apparatus.

I do believe, that sooner or later, perhaps in fifty years, the cold fusion puzzle will be resolved, one way or another. This optimism is justified because “the scientific process is self-corrective. This unique attribute sets science apart from most other activities. The scientific process may on some occasions move slowly, sometimes even along a circuitous path. The significant characteristic of the scientific method, however, is that in the end it can be relied upon to sort out the valid experimental results from background noise and error.” This statement was made by John Huizenga, the author of a highly critical book about cold fusion, published in 1991. The title of that important book was "Cold Fusion: The Scientific Fiasco of the Century."

The cold fusion episode will never be forgotten; perhaps it will be viewed as the beginning of a very significant new period in the history of science. Suppose that the claim for nuclear reactions occurring in so-called “cold fusion” experiments are definitely validated by mainstream scientists. In that case the problem of blacklisting of a large group of recognized scientists by the so-called “scientific establishment “ will be debated. Something will be done to make sure that a similar event does not happen again. On the other hand, the definite rejection of cold fusion claims will result in focusing on another issue. How come that so many highly qualified scientists, in so many countries, were able to deceive themselves, for decades, by phenomena that were not real? How do we know that phenomena of similar massive self-deception do not exist in other areas of science? Something will be done to improve scientific methodology, to make sure that a similar long-term blindness does not occur again. Of course, such issues belong to the realm of social interactions among scientists. That is why the “cold fusion episode” deserves to become a topic of general interest.

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