What If Cold Fusion Is Real?
It was the most notorious scientific experiment in recent memory – in 1989, the two men who claimed to have discovered the energy of the future were condemned as imposters and exiled by their peers. Can it possibly make sense to reopen the cold fusion investigation? A surprising number of researchers already have.
By Charles Platt
Almost four stories high, framed in steel beams and tangled in pipes, conduits, cables, and coils, the Joint European Torus (JET) claims to be the largest fusion power experiment in the world. Located near Oxford, England, JET is a monument to big science, its donut-shaped containment vessel dwarfing maintenance workers who enter it in protective suits. Here in this gleaming nuclear cauldron, deuterium gas is energized with 7 million amperes and heated to 300 million degrees Celsius – more than 10 times hotter than the center of the sun. Under these extreme conditions atomic nuclei collide and fuse, liberating energy that could provide virtually limitless power.
Read the whole story here…
But you can preview my role in the story below.
On a quiet backstreet near El Camino Real, a profusion of trees screens a sprawling complex of ’60s-style buildings. SRI International is quintessentially Northern California: tasteful, verdant, low-key. Founded in 1946 to tap talent from nearby Stanford University, its innovations include liquid-crystal displays, optical data storage, acoustic modems, pen-input computing, HDTV, artificial heart valves, and speech-recognition software. All its research is sponsored by outside companies or government agencies, mostly seeking practical applications.
Michael McKubre, the Energy Research Center director, is blue-eyed and brawny in jeans and a black T-shirt as he strides vigorously across the lobby to meet me. His longish hair and beard are gray at the edges, but he seems energized and confident, like a woodsman setting out on a hike.
He leads me across a courtyard rimmed with eucalyptus trees, into a building of chemistry labs.
Although born in New Zealand, McKubre has an almost English accent, and his voice is well modulated, as if he once took acting lessons. He’s relaxed, witty, and charming.
When I ask to see one of the laboratories, he opens a door for me.
Currently, McKubre is hosting, at the request of the Electric Power Research Institute, a radically different experiment. We walk down an echoing hallway, into a smaller room crammed with equipment.
Amid the steady hum and whine of cooling fans, a large, bearded guy wearing khaki shorts and a short-sleeved shirt is sitting in front of a video screen.
He introduces himself as Russ George, 48, a former ecologist for the Canadian government who switched to cold fusion more than five years ago.
He says he acquired his initial interest in science from his father, a nuclear physicist. “When we played hide-and-seek as kids,” he tells me, “the children who hid carried radioactive ore, and the seeker carried a Geiger counter.
George has done some contract work on cold fusion for EPRI and the Navy, but much of his research is unpaid.
It’s been a proud and lonely struggle. “I’ve been a voice in the wilderness,” he says. “But I’ve been a visiting scientist at Los Alamos three times, also at a lab in Japan, I’ve given seminars at Lockheed, Lawrence Livermore, Rockwell -“
Beside him is a softball-sized steel sphere, submitted to Russ and his EPRI friends by a lone-wolf experimenter in New Hampshire named Les Case.
Inside the sphere are carbon granules coated with palladium, plus some deuterium gas under pressure.
Case believes that if a moderate amount of heat is applied to these everyday, off-the-shelf items for a couple of weeks, nuclear fusion occurs – just as in a Pons-Fleischmann cell.
Intrigued, Russ put the same ingredients into a sealed 50-cc stainless-steel flask and wrapped it in a heating element. A tube from this flask is connected, now, to a mass-spectrometer – an enigmatic steel cabinet standing behind the video screen. (ed. note – A matched system with light ordinary hydrogen sits side by side as the control experiment.)
“This mass-spec is sensitive enough to detect the difference between helium and deuterium,” says Russ George. “And the video display, here, will tell us how much helium is generated.”
Any production of helium would be stunning proof that fusion is occurring, because helium only results from nuclear reactions. No known chemical interaction can create it.
“The problem is,” McKubre puts in, “helium is also the leakiest gas known to man. So, any time it’s been detected in other cold fusion experiments, people have said it must be getting in from ambient air, which contains about 5 parts per million.”
“Which is precisely what we have now,” says George, pointing to data graphed on the screen.
“Although it’s been building to this level for the past few weeks, starting at 0.1 parts per million.
We do sets of five analyses: First we check for helium in the instrument, then the helium background in ambient air, then the helium being generated by the apparatus. Then we check the air again, and then we check the instrument again.
I take a closer look at the ultrasimple experiment. “You really think there’s fusion going on in there?”
“Electrochemistry doesn’t require much hardware,” says McKubre. “So, you may find isolated individuals doing valuable work. The problem is that even if they’re very able people, they are not surrounded by a peer group that can challenge them and question them.” He pauses. “Consequently, they may make mistakes.”
“Within another few days,” says Russ George, “if the helium level continues to rise, then we’ll have the proof.”
Personally, I can’t wait here for a few days….(ed. note – The writer then travels for two weeks from coast to coast visiting other cold fusion researchers. In his finale of his 10 ten page story he gets back to me.)
It’s 10 days since I visited SRI International. I call Russ George and find him bubbling with enthusiasm, because the mix of carbon, palladium, and deuterium is now generating 10 parts per million of helium – twice the level in ambient air. The only conceivable source of this helium is a nuclear reaction, and George feels that it’s the best-ever proof of cold fusion. “It makes all the sacrifices worthwhile,” he says.
But when I speak to Michael McKubre, he’s as fatalistic as Ed Storms. “I doubt that any single result is going to change everyone’s minds,” he says. After all, skeptics have been unimpressed by other evidence of cold fusion. Why should they be convinced now?
But these are longshots. If they don’t pan out, and the current situation persists, we may be left with the grim scenario described half a century ago by the famous physicist Max Planck: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.