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171) When will we hear from the DOE?

Ludwik Kowalski (9/4/04)
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043

Do you remember the April, 2004, issue of Physics Today? It published a short article of Tont Feder entitled “DOE Warms to Cold Fusion. According to James Decker, deputy director of DOE's Office of Science, she wrote, a review of cold fusion will begin in the next month or so and it “won't take a long time--it's a matter of weeks or months.“ That was half a year ago; not much was written on the subject since that time. But, according to Justin Mullins article, in the September 2004 issue of IEEE Spectrum on Line,

“Later this month, the U.S. Department of Energy will receive a report from a panel of experts on the prospects for cold fusion -- the supposed generation of thermonuclear energy using tabletop apparatus.” I would like to thank Steven Krivit for informing me about this paper yesterday. The Internet search engine tells me that Justin Mullins is a science journalist and one of the editors of New Science. But is he the author of the IEEE piece? I do not know; perhaps it is somebody else with the same name. And how does he know that the panel report will be ready this month? I asked Steven this question. The answer was: “He doesn't KNOW, but is guessing. According to information I have heard from insiders, his guess is accurate.” I know, from one of the participants, that the panel review took place on August 23 and 24. But I have no idea when will the report be released.

I hope that the panel will look upon cold fusion as a set of interesting scientific claims; looking at it as a technology for “generation of thermonuclear energy using tabletop apparatus,” as described by Mullin, would be totally unjustified at this time. My Letter to the Editor of Physics Today (just published in the September, 2004, issue ), focuses on that topic. Here is the content of my letter:

As a physics teacher who is uncertain how to answer students' questions about cold fusion, I welcome the upcoming US Department of Energy investigation of recent claims in this controversial area. I agree with Toni Feder (Physics Today, April 2004, page 27) that "skepticism about the credibility and reproducibility of cold fusion remains widespread."

I have some questions I'd like to see the DOE investigators answer. Is it true that unexpected emission of neutrons, protons, tritons, and alpha particles (at rates significantly above the background) has been observed in several cold fusion experiments? Has accumulation of helium-4, at the rate of about one atom per 24 MeV of excess heat, been confirmed by many scientists, as reported by electrochemist Michael McKubre in Feder's story? Have highly abnormal isotopic ratios been found in some cold fusion setups? Is there any indication that leading cold fusion scientists are incompetent or that their data are fraudulent? Is the research methodology that cold fusion scientists use different from that used in other areas of physical science? Answers to these questions will help me decide what to think about cold fusion and what to tell students about it.

Speculations about practical applications of new findings should be de-emphasized at this time. They will emerge naturally when basic scientific claims are recognized as valid and when researchers in cold fusion are no longer treated as if they were con artists and charlatans. The "chilling effect" mentioned by Randall Hekman in the Physics Today story prevents young scientists from entering the area of cold fusion research. I also agree with chemist Allen Bard that being able to reproduce experimental results is not good enough; it is only a preliminary step. But wasn't poor reproducibility the central point of criticism when cold fusion was first investigated 15 years ago? In my opinion, experimental claims should not be disqualified solely on reproducibility; validation should depend on credentials of researchers and, above all, on methodologies they used in particular experiments. “

I was very surprised that my letter to the editor was not “one of many.” Does it mean that nobody else reacted to Feder’s article? That is not likely to be the case. In the e-mail message the editor wrote to me that they expect to have a “lively discussion” on the subject and that several letters had already been accepted. The implication was that my letter will not be in the first bunch to be published. And then, at the end of July, I was informed that my letter was accepted. I was also given an opportunity to revise the letter. The last sentence was added at this time. I was tempted to add more but was afraid that this might delay the publication. What happened? Why other letters were not published at the same time?

My guess is that they received many letters that will appear in the next issue. My letter was probably chosen because it shows no bias toward or against cold fusion. It could be published alone without giving preference to one point of view or another. Other contributors will probably be made by active research scientists; I am eager to read them and to learn from them. I am happy that my letter was published at this time; perhaps it will be taken seriously by the members of the panel investigating cold fusion.

Let me end this short essay with some extracts from Feder’s article. Referring to her interview with Decker she quotes him: “Whether or not it has applications to the energy business is clearly unknown at this point, but you need to sort out the science before you think about applications." Is this an indication that the panel will focus on science and not on science fiction? I hope so. Referring to a excess power she wrote: "We know that this has economic implications and, potentially, security implications. The main application that cold fusion enthusiasts foresee following from their work is a clean source of energy; transmutation of nuclear waste and tritium production to augment weapons are also on their list.” It is difficult to be an enthusiast and not to allow the enthusiasm to interfere with objectivity.

As I wrote before, appearance of excess power per se is not an indication that nuclear energy is involved. The only way to make excess power relevant, in the contest of cold fusion, is to focus on the associated accumulation of reaction products. Many cold fusion researchers are fully aware of this. Contrary to initial expectations radioactive byproducts, if any, are not always dominant. That makes their identification difficult when the amounts of released energy are small. Another difficulty has to do with the possible “electric battery” effects. How do we know that a positive excess power, observed in a later part of an experiment, is not accompanied by an earlier negative excess? By negative excess power I mean some kind of storage of supplied energy, for example, in a chemical compound. Both difficulties were recognized when the discovery of cold fusion was announced in 1989.

Some theoretical physicists (see units #162, #168 and #170) try to bypass the difficulties by postulating that excess power can come from nowhere. They speculate about the so-called “zero point energy of vacuum” without performing experiments to validate such ideas. I am neither qualified nor ready to defend this approach. In my opinion, the panel of scientists investigation cold fusion should focus on claims supported by experimental evidence. Theoretical models are important components of our understanding of nature but focusing on them at this time, in the highly controversial area of excess power, seems to be premature. Discussion involving theoretical models will develop spontaneously after the reality of at least one experimental claim is recognized. A panel-investigation approach to a scientific controversy is highly unusual; in this case it is needed to correct the effect of an error made fifteen years ago. The main purpose should be to establish normality not to make a definite pronouncement about a set of claims.

A recent overview of cold fusion, by a scientist: Edmund Storms, was submitted to the panel of experts appointed by the DOE to reevaluate cold fusion. The reevaluation, as indicated by Storms, started on August 23, 2004. To see his overview go to:


and scroll down to the link “Why I believe 'Cold Fusion' is Real.” Click on that link and the pdf file containing the paper will be downloaded to your computer. It is interesting that neither zero point energy nor hydrinos are mentioned. This confirms what I wrote about these fields; they are not part of cold fusion. Let me pause now. Additional paragraphs are likly to be appended to this essay in coming weeks. They will focus on the expected “lively discussion” triggered by the DOE initiative, and by Feder’s article.

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