The Universe is filled with hot fusion, in the cores of stars. And scientists have even been able to replicate this stellar process in expensive experiments. But wouldn’t it be amazing if you could produce energy from fusion without all that equipment, and high temperatures and pressures? Pons and Fleischmann announced exactly that back in 1989, but things didn’t quite turn out as planned…
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Female Speaker: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by Swinburne Astronomy Online, the world’s longest-running online astronomy degree program. Visit astronomy.swin.edu.au for more information.
Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast Episode 325: Cold Fusion. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain; I’m the publisher of Universe Today and with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville and director of CosmoQuest. Hey, Pamela. How you doing?
Pamela Gay: I’m doing well. I feel like a space cadet and I’m going to blame all the winter weather for freezing my brain cells.
Fraser Cain: You totally should. It’s awful. Just awful cold. I think everyone’s experienced it. There’s storms in the east and there’s just been a real cold snap here on the west coast. We’ve gotten down to -12 Celsius, which for the people in the middle of Canada, they just laugh at me but -12 is cold.
Pamela Gay: I admit, I slid backwards out of my driveway rather than rolling out of my driveway this morning.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. When you get this kind of – it warms up during the day and then it gets really cold at night and then you just get this black ice that forms and yeah, it’s a disaster.
Pamela Gay: Yeah.
Fraser Cain: So I just want to thank everyone for giving us a rating and a review on iTunes. We really appreciate it. We got a ton of great reviews and in fact we ended up on the “What’s Hot” list for the U.S. and for U.K. —
Pamela Gay: Which was awesome.
Fraser Cain: – and that was great. Yeah. So great.
Pamela Gay: They were screen capturing.
Fraser Cain: So thanks again and then also I just want to remind you that of course you can subscribe to us on iTunes or just using our podcast RSS feed but also you can subscribe to us through YouTube so if you’re on the Astrosphere vids channel, make sure you subscribe on YouTube and then you’ll get notifications for all of these shows and all the other shows that we do through CosmoQuest and Astrosphere and Universe Today. It’s good stuff. So now I know a lot of people also were wondering where do they find the Weekly Space Hangout.
The audio-only feed of it. You can get that through the 365-days of Astronomy feed. So if you subscribe to that you’ll get that every week, as well. Alright, let’s get rolling.
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Fraser Cain: So the universe is filled with hot fusion in the course of stars and scientists have even been able to replicate the stellar process in expensive experiments. Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could produce energy from fusion without all that equipment and high temperatures and pressures? Pons and Fleischman announce exactly that back in 1989 but things didn’t quite turn out as planned. So before we get into what cold fusion is, what’s talk about what hot fusion is. What’s going on in the process of hot fusion?
Pamela Gay: Well, with hot fusion we have very hot, dense places like well, the center of the sun, and in these hot, dense places atoms are getting crushed together such that you end up with two hydrogen atoms combining to form helium. You’ll end up with carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen getting produced and this is because at those high temperatures things are moving really, really fast. At these high densities it’s impossible for these things not to get so close together that they overcome the normal, repulsive forces that cause protons not to collide and when you get those protons close enough together, the strong force is able to take over and glue them with gluons into new atoms.
Fraser Cain: The great part is that energy pours out —
Pamela Gay: Yes.
Fraser Cain: – of this process. Wouldn’t that be amazing? So scientists have attempted to replicate this process with experiments here on Earth and that’s actually going really well. I mean it’s always 30 years off, right? Where are we in the state of hot fusion experiments?
Pamela Gay: So with hot fusion there’s laboratory reactions; there always have been. You pour in more energy than you get out but you can study how fusion happens. You can study what are the byproducts? What ratios do you get things? You can confirm all the math works. There’s some really neat plans where they’re trying to use lasers to compress small glass beads that have stuff in them – exactly what the stuff is depends on the experiment – and they’re trying to zot these small, glass beads from pretty much all sides at once with multiple high-energy lasers.
The idea is that if you pulse the laser at the glass bead, you’ll get fusion within the glass bead; release huge amounts of energy and maybe this is the pathways for hot fusion as an energy source on Earth. So far it’s not working. Lots of people think it’s never going to work but hey, it’s giant lasers so the DOD keeps paying for it.
Fraser Cain: Right, but then the Holy Grail, of course, is just that the net energy is positive. That you may have to pump in mountains and mountains of energy through these lasers to heat up these glass beads but by doing that fusion process you will unlock this process that happens in the sun and energy will pour out and —
Pamela Gay: More importantly, though, it’s clean energy.
Fraser Cain: Yes.
Pamela Gay: When we have normal nuclear power reactors that are burning whatever particular thing they’re burning, they’re giving off all sorts of really nasty radioactive byproducts that end up in some cases spilling, in other cases just pilling up because we don’t know where to put it. These nuclear byproducts are hot; are giving off deadly radiation for upwards of hundreds of thousands of years. With fusion, it’s hydrogen giving off helium. We’re good with helium.
Fraser Cain: We need helium.
Pamela Gay: We need it. We’re running out of it.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. Let’s fill some balloons with it. Okay, so then let’s talk about cold fusion. I guess in theory, right, this is great. You don’t need – some other process that crushes atoms together and produces byproducts that doesn’t require gigantic lasers and enormous facilities, right?
Pamela Gay: Well, you still have to crush them together; the trick’s finding a way to crush those hydrogen atoms together without needing – well, start-light temperatures. Well, it’s the star-light temperatures take vast amounts of energy to create but you do have to have some way to crush the atoms.
Fraser Cain: So tell me a story, Pamela. Tell me a story about cold fusion.
Pamela Gay: So there’s this metal called palladium and being a bit dyslexic, my brain sees this word and wants to turn it into paladin every time I see it, which the idea of this shining hero coming to rescue us with cold energy does somehow – anyways, that’s where my psychosis goes in the morning.
Fraser Cain: It’s totally awful good. I totally agree with you.
Pamela Gay: So you have this metal, palladium, and it was recognized that palladium will happily let hydrogen into its matrix. You have this metal and hydrogen can get in. Okay, that’s kind of boring. So what? This got people to thinking, if I have a chunk of palladium, what if I could cram the hydrogen into the palladium so densely that within the palladium metals I could get fusion going on? This idea has been kicking around pretty much since the ‘70s. There was a patent placed on the idea and so what happened was, eventually, Pons and Fleischman, they took a calorimeter – this is something that most of us had to build at some point in high school biology class or chemistry class.
You can use a calorimeter to measure how much energy is coming out of something by measuring the energy very, very precisely. Temperature’s another way at looking at energy. So they took this very well-insulated, very precise, measuring calorimeter and filled it with heavy water. This is water that, instead of having normal, Plain-Jane hydrogen with no neutrons, instead has deuterium. They thought that if you had an electrolyte and deuterium in the doer and you then ran electricity through this fluid – so you have along the wall of the calorimeter what’s called an anode – this is a positively charged surface.
Then you have into the center of the calorimeter a cathode; this is a negatively charged surface – that you could get a hydrogen off of the water, in this case deuterium, off of the water and deuterium fuses at a lower energy than normal hydrogen. This is why they were using the heavy water. So if you have the heavy water, the palladium will happily, on the negatively charged cathode, suck in the hydrogen, electromagnetic force tears the molecules apart, the oxygen goes to the anode, the hydrogen goes into the cathode, cramming together in the cathode.
The thought was that if you do this over a long period of time, just keep flowing the electricity through the system, you build up the hydrogen until fusion took place. The claims that have been made by more than one not-at-top-ranked-research-center scientists – these claims have been made multiple times but the experiment has never been proven out at any of the big-name, top research centers that have tried it.
The claim has been made that if you flow the electricity through the system long enough, you’ll have this nice, standard, 30? Celsius experiment going and going and going and all of a sudden, zap – it jumps up to 50? Celsius and off and on, off and on the temperature fluctuates until it appears the fusion reaction has ended. That’s when all the deuterium, in theory, is used up. So this is the claim that has been made.
Fraser Cain: Right, and so were you around when – I mean do you recall when Pons and Fleischman made their announcement?
Pamela Gay: I remember seeing it on the news right before I was supposed to go get the bus to go to school. I was a kid but —
Fraser Cain: Yeah, where was I?
Pamela Gay: – I remember this occurring because it was like – it was on the Today show; it was all over. This was the key to clean energy and so this was – a kid. I was in ninth grade when this happened and this was – I want to say this was well before the movie, The Saint came out with was based on this idea, the idea of cold fusion, except the woman they had playing the part of scientist was much sexier.
Fraser Cain: Right. The thing is so Pons and Fleischman – I mean they went about it wrong, right? Which is the way they announced this to the world is not in the way scientists traditionally run through – run out their experiments, especially something so dramatic as this. They held a big press conference —
Pamela Gay: Yeah.
Fraser Cain: – and announced it, which was not the right way to go about it.
Pamela Gay: Well, and there was another problem to it. There was another group that had been working at another research facility in Utah and they had similar research. The two groups had been talking to each other; they were going to be submitting a pair of papers. There was an agreement that they were going to meet at an airport, FedEx their papers to the Journal of Nature together and unfortunately the University of Utah, according to some reports, pressured Pons and Fleischman – and so this is university politics playing a role – pressured Pons and Fleischman into not doing the upright thing and submitting the thing for joint publication along with this other research team. So they just went to the press.
Fraser Cain: Pons and Fleischman – I mean they were some of the world’s leading electrochemists.
Pamela Gay: Yeah.
Fraser Cain: I mean they were not pseudoscientists —
Pamela Gay: No.
Fraser Cain: – and so I’m sure it – for them, it really was a difficult decision to go that way.
Pamela Gay: Yeah. They’re at a Ph. D.-granting university, the University of Utah. It’s not a university to be shrugged at. It’s a – these are solid scientists doing solid work, planning to put it through peer review. Planning to do everything right, but this is the type of thing where other teams have had patents for similar work where if what they had done had proved right, the University of Utah, if they were able to patent the process, would’ve made billions and billions of dollars.
Fraser Cain: Trillions. I mean all free energy? It’s insane, right?
Pamela Gay: Well, it’s not free.
Fraser Cain: Well, net positive energy.
Pamela Gay: Cheap energy.
Fraser Cain: I mean, sure. Cheap energy. Yeah, yeah. I mean it would’ve made, as you said —
Pamela Gay: Pollution free and —
Fraser Cain: – billions or trillions. Free energy —
Pamela Gay: It’s pollution free.
Fraser Cain: Oh, we’ll get onto free energy in a bit, here but —
Pamela Gay: I didn’t say “free.” I said, “pollution free.”
Fraser Cain: Pollution free. No, no. We’re going to get to free energy. I want to talk about free energy, too. Right, and so they made their announcement, right?
Pamela Gay: Yeah, and everyone jumped on it. It was an amazing story and pretty much overnight major research institutions all over the world started trying to replicate what they’d heard, based on this scant information that had been published. That’s another one of the problems, is when you’re publishing something like this, you want to lay it all out. You have the detailed schematics; you explain the energy in, you explain the energy out. You explain what equipment you used; how you measured this. What the errors are; what the errors are here.
How you verified this. How you verified that. You want all the checks and balances in so that you know what issues there might be. There’s actually been a whole bunch of top done papers on this that have over and over had to be retracted because, upon further review, it was realized, “Oh, there was something wrong with my temperature gauge. Oh, there was a short in my wiring. Oh…” All these little things that were able to be discovered later. Pons and Fleischman didn’t have that.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, and in many cases – so had they – I mean they hadn’t gone through traditional peer-review process, right? They hadn’t given this out to a bunch of people, asked them to replicate the experiment or find the problems. Even a lot of the cases, as scientists, it’s very, “Here’s the thing we found. It’s probably not true but please poke some holes in it or see if this helps you out,” but the university would just run with it. The press went bonkers with it.
Pamela Gay: Well, it did get submitted for peer review. It went to The Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry. It’s not Nature but then again Nature’s a journal where lots of papers have to get retracted because it turns out the research was just premature. So it did go through peer review and they tried. They tried to be legitimate scientists. They tried to do everything right. Somewhere there is a mistake and I don’t think anyone will ever know what went wrong with their experiments. There was an error that led their university – because there’s always some press officer going, “Hey, you’ve got something? Hey, you got something?”
You got to let the press officers know at least 30 days in advance or they get upset. There’s university pressure. So you have scientists trying to do it right; trying to go through peer review; trying to put everything out there correctly, getting pushed to publication early. Having to break their agreements with other scientists. We’ll never know what went wrong other than people saw dollar signs.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. So what now do we think was going on?
Pamela Gay: This is actually what’s called a pathological science. It’s an area of science that the people engaged in the field refuse to give up, no matter how much evidence you give them that the tree you are barking up does not contain squirrels. They keep chasing after cold fusion, using electrolysis, various government agencies keep throwing small amounts of money at the problem but so far it’s not working. There are related fields.
Electrolysis doesn’t seem to be the way to get low-temperature fusion but other people have tried a process called bubble fusion, which is where you grow ever-larger bubbles in a fluid, special chemicals get used, and when the bubbles burst during the process called cavitation, you can potentially – if you have correctly deuterated material that will – so this is a fluid that’s enriched with deuterium – when it collapses, the deuterium gets smashed together. Perhaps you’ll get fusion. This is another route people are going.
There was, again, a publication put out. This time, it did show up in Science but no one’s been able to replicate those results, either. So we’re in a position where you have people who think they’ve replicated the work; they think they proved it right; they think they did it. No. So we’re trying.
Fraser Cain: It’s not the kind of research that has gone away completely. I mean in the time – when I started Universe Today, it was still, whatever, ten years after the announcement from Pons and Fleischman. We’ve been doing it for 15 years and, occasionally, interesting press releases come out and say that they’re – that it won’t completely die.
Pamela Gay: All because a press officer can write a good press release does not mean —
Fraser Cain: Maybe —
Pamela Gay: – the science is good. People still look for the Holy Grail. We call them crazy.
Fraser Cain: Right. Well, there are still hundreds of people working in this area so it’s not completely, completely, I guess – not everyone has just decided, “That’s it. It’s ridiculous. I’m not gonna work on it anymore.”
Pamela Gay: I don’t think it’s hundreds of people. I think it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars gets spent on this every year. This is low-budget research that’s not getting that support, that doesn’t have mainline research papers that often. There’s every few years conferences on it to see, “Okay, is this something we should continue doing?” It’s just not proven tractable to room temperatures compressed deuterium atoms that close together. We’re just not finding a physical mechanism to do it.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, and at this point the funding – as you said – it’s not hundreds of thousands. The funding is really drying up.
Pamela Gay: Yeah.
Fraser Cain: There are some recommendations. I know that the Department of Energy or Department of Defense has been looking for money but it’s all starting to peter out.
Pamela Gay: Yeah, and this one mostly is funded through the Department of Energy; DOD likes the big laser fusion projects. They like lasers. It’s painful to watch, in a way. The bubble cavitation, I think is really interesting because there’s lots of interesting physics going on but it doesn’t seem like a way to get continued reactions to take place. The cold fusion with electrolysis just doesn’t seem to be working.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, and so I think at this point, unless something really interesting happens, it’s just going to continue to settle down and then eventually just completely leave the mainstream research.
Pamela Gay: I think we’re just waiting for that generation of scientists to die.
Fraser Cain: Right. As always. I think what’s important, as well, is that it had all the trappings, I think, of a – more of a pseudoscience type thing that we see a lot of. Even to this day, that every now and then someone says they’re about to test some kind of free energy. Energy from water. Some kind of machine that’s going to produce energy that’s a net positive. Perpetual motion. I think there’s a standard way that we need to approach all of this stuff, which is skeptically.
Pamela Gay: Well, with cold fusion, it’s one of those borderland sciences. There’s no reason at the surface that you shouldn’t be able to find a low-temperature way to get the needed densities. Only question is how and it turns out that the “how” doesn’t actually seem to be possible with any of the technologies we’ve tried.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, so how should people approach this kind of stuff?
Pamela Gay: Is there an underlying physics that can explain what’s going on? If you have to re-write the rules of physics, it’s probably pseudoscience. If there’s underlying physics that says, “This technique is physically allowed; we just don’t know if it will mechanically work,” and that’s what we’re facing; is it doesn’t seem to mechanically work but it’s physically allowed with these processes. If the physics exists, then it becomes a question of, “Huh, can you do it?” It’s the “Can you do it,” where we’re failing.
Fraser Cain: Do you think, then, that it’s always going to be impossible or do you think that at some point, if people do keep cranking away at it, someone will come up with a way to approach it?
Pamela Gay: I think we’ve pretty much played out the using palladium and electrolysis. That is not leading to anything and we keep trying it and no. I am more willing to look at the bubble cavitation research. The bubbles collapsing – I think that’s something that we’re still figuring out that was only started in 2002 but I’d want to see that research taking place, if you’re going to fund it, within an environment where what you’re trying to study actually is what’s the physics of bubble cavitation. You’re not funding the, “We’re going to find low-cost energy.”
So we can understand the physics of that better. What I think there’s space for is to find new technologies; perhaps new ways to use magnetic fields. New ways to cram things together that will lead to fusion at lower temperatures. There’s an awful lot of time to figure out technologies that can squish atoms together. I give us time.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, and you never know how this stuff’s going to come back around and play out in ways that maybe we had no expectations.
Pamela Gay: Right.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, and it’s too bad that the whole – now if you’re hooking up some heavy water in an experiment and you’re trying to crush it together and you’re using palladium, then your funding all gets cut when there’s interest – as you said – there’s interesting research to be done into cavitation, into about using a matrix – a metal matrix – for cramming hydrogen together. I mean this kind of work should still get done.
Pamela Gay: Well, I think we’re done figuring out the palladium.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, but a new matrix, maybe.
Pamela Gay: Yeah. The thing about asking for funding is you have to always present what’s new about what I’m doing, what results do I think I’m going to see, what research am I building on, what are the physical rules that allow for what I’m predicting to happen? People can put in to do innovative research and the peer review system should be good enough. It’s not always, but it should be good enough to say, “This idea over here, let’s give them seed funding to try it. Okay, the seed funding worked. Let’s scale this up.”
That’s how funding should work and the people who have crazy ideas for infinite energy that breaks the rules of physics, they’re not going to get funded but when you have legitimate researchers who have the infrastructure of a large public institution like Pons and Fleischman had, if they have a valid idea, trying that idea, we shouldn’t be afraid to try new things but we also need to stop funding things that we know aren’t working. That’s what peer review does.
Fraser Cain: I think the media, as a member of the media, I try to encourage this, is this skepticism. That when people make these kinds of claims, when it’s presented in a way that’s unusual to be extra skeptical. That’s when we, as the media, need to bring in a lot of those weasel words, you know?
Pamela Gay: Yeah.
Fraser Cain: We need to say, “These people are reporting,” “This might be happening,” “A lot of people are skeptical. Here’s what other people think,” and to really approach this almost like we’ve been invited to the peer review and to say, “Hey, I know you say you think this stuff is true, and I’m not an electrochemist so I can’t necessarily decide whether or not what you’re saying is real or not, but I can at least know that every time someone has tried to make that kind of a presentation in the past, here’s how it often plays out.”
Pamela Gay: Yeah.
Fraser Cain: “Let’s work together – us as the people who are trying to publicize what you’re doing – to make sure that it’s a lot smoother and there are certain hoops that must be jumped through.”
Pamela Gay: The question I think you have to ask of every website you go to, every press release you read, is “Where is the money trail?” If you find that the press release that you’re looking at is one that if it’s successful has the potential for the university to get large contracts to continue this research for commercial firms, be skeptical. If it’s bragging rights for intellectual merit, I think that’s kind of cool. So when it comes to science, sometimes you have to be more skeptical the more likely money’s at play. That’s true of just about everything.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, and I love the first rule of questions and headlines. Have you ever heard this?
Pamela Gay: No. I haven’t.
Fraser Cain: If you ever see a question in a headline like, “Have astronomers discovered another Earth?”
Pamela Gay: No.
Fraser Cain: Or whatever? The answer’s always no. If the headline is a question, the answer is no. You need to read the article. So, yeah. It works. Awesome. Well, thanks Pamela.
Pamela Gay: My pleasure.
Fraser Cain: Thanks for listening to Astronomy Cast, a nonprofit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at astronomycast.com. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet us @astronomycast. Like us on Facebook or Circle us on Google+. We record our show live on Google+ every Monday at 12:00 P.M. Pacific, 3:00 P.M. Eastern or 2000 Greenwich Mean Time. If you miss the live event, you can always catch up over at cosmoquest.org.
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Duration: 31 minutes