Cold Fusion Rides Again Science magazine publishes more evidence of tabletop nuclear reactions
Cold Fusion Rides Again Science magazine publishes more evidence of tabletop nuclear reactions
Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Monday, March 25, 2002
Science magazine dropped a bombshell earlier this month: The prestigious journal published a paper by a team of researchers at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory who say they have discovered evidence of what looks like nuclear fusion taking place in a relatively inexpensive tabletop device.
The findings bear striking similarities to the controversial cold-fusion claims made by chemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann in 1989, although the particular experiment is different.
There is considerable controversy surrounding the purported discovery, as well as the magazine’s decision to publish the Oak Ridge team’s findings. Many members of the mainstream scientific community, physicists in particular, contend that tabletop fusion is physically impossible and a violation of the basic laws of nature.
The stakes are enormous. On the one hand, if the carefully documented experiment described in Science is successfully replicated elsewhere, related technologies may one day provide humanity with a long sought-after and much-needed new form of renewable, decentralized, nonpolluting energy. On the other hand, if the results are disproved, cold-fusion researchers will suffer a very significant setback.
Like earlier cold-fusion claims, the Oak Ridge team’s results also threaten to undermine public support for conventional hot-fusion research programs, including the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories’ roughly $4 billion National Ignition Facility, which has been plagued by cost overruns and performance problems.
Not surprisingly, thanks to efforts aimed at preventing its publication, the controversial research paper almost never saw the light of day.
When the dust settled, however, news of the research ended up being splashed across four articles in the March 8, 2002, issue of what many regard as the world’s premier peer-reviewed journal of scientific research.
One of the articles details how senior managers at Oak Ridge tried to squelch publication of the research paper despite the fact that it had passed Science magazine’s rigorous, nearly yearlong peer-review process.
In a highly unusual though not unprecedented step, a few weeks before the publication date, the government lab’s top officials contacted the magazine’s editor, former Stanford president and biologist Donald Kennedy, and told him that a subsequent experiment conducted by others at the lab had uncovered errors in the original experiment that rendered the fusion findings null and void. They asked that the article be pulled.
To mollify their superiors, the Oak Ridge research team, led by R. P. Taleyarkhan, agreed to include a mention of the subsequent experiment, which was not peer reviewed and which used different equipment, in their final paper.
But Taleyarkhan’s team also stood by their original conclusions, saying more experiments should be done to uncover the reasons for the discrepancies between the data.
Kennedy made the final call on publication.
“We see no good reason for abandoning our plans to publish the paper, and we can see no merit whatsoever in the efforts to discredit it in advance,” he explained in an editorial he wrote in the same issue of the magazine.
He stood up to a considerable amount of pressure. At the last moment, top Oak Ridge officials had pulled out their biggest gun. Government labs routinely grant scientists permission to publish their research findings unless the work involves classified information. But in this case, they tried to formally withdraw the routine government permission they had previously granted to Taleyarkhan to publish his paper, according to Science magazine.
They were joined in that quest by William Happer, a physicist at Princeton University who headed the U.S. Department of Energy’s science office for two unproductive years in the early 1990s. According to Kennedy, Happer, along with several other senior federal energy scientists, also wrote letters discouraging him from publishing the Taleyarkhan paper as submitted. For his part, Happer says he was only trying to protect Science magazine from the embarrassment of publishing work that would later prove false.
“There was certainly pressure from Oak Ridge to delay, if not to kill, the paper,” Kennedy told Science magazine’s own news reporter. “I’m annoyed at the intervention, and I’m annoyed at the assumptions that nonauthors had the authority to tell us we couldn’t publish the paper.”
The notoriously pugnacious Robert Park, director of public information for the American Physical Society (one of the nation’s premier physics associations), who for years has made a practice of ridiculing scientists, journalists and others who pursue tabletop-fusion theories and applications, also vigorously criticized Kennedy’s decision.
Park wrote scathing editorials attacking Science magazine’s editor both before and after the Taleyarkhan paper hit the newsstands.
One of Park’s other frequent targets is Eugene Mallove the former chief science writer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who wrote the first articles revealing MIT’s reliance on doctored data in its key study that discredited the original Pons-Fleischmann cold-fusion findings.
Mallove resigned from MIT in protest and for the last decade has been publishing the iconoclastic Infinite Energy magazine, which has kept the cold-fusion torch burning (and which has featured reports of experiments remarkably similar to the one recently published in Science).
“Perhaps Science magazine covets the vast readership of Infinite Energy magazine,” Park sniped in the column he writes for the physics group’s Web site, which appeared after word began circulating that Science was about to publish the Taleyarkhan paper.
As the world’s leading debunker of tabletop fusion, Park has put himself at the center of the controversy. If he’s right, historians will look back on him as a sane voice in a wilderness of wild claims. If he’s proven wrong, though, his fall from grace will have come many years too late. Few, if any, American scientists have done more than Park to discourage the pursuit of tabletop forms of nuclear fusion.
In his editorial, Kennedy says it should be left to the open scientific process to determine whether Taleyarkhan and his colleagues got it right.
“Our mission,” Kennedy wrote, “is to put interesting, potentially important science into public view after ensuring its quality as best as we possibly can. After that, efforts at repetition and reinterpretation can take place out in the open. That’s where it belongs, not in an alternative universe in which anonymity prevails, rumor leaks out and facts stay inside.”
The Experiment Behind the Firestorm
At the root of all of this are the details about the latest experiment. The work builds on previous cold-fusion research, even though many researchers have dropped that much- maligned term and now prefer to call it “tabletop fusion” or “sonofusion.”
By any name, though, what is being described remains something most physicists think is impossible. Conventional physics theory holds that nuclear fusion can occur only under massively extreme pressures and temperatures of the sort found at places such as the center of the Sun.
The Oak Ridge team drew some critical lessons from the earlier Pons-Fleischmann experiments. For starters, they did not rely on the often unstable combination of platinum wire, palladium metal and deuterium oxide in which the chemists had first claimed to observe their unexpected fusion finding, but which later proved difficult to replicate.
Instead, Taleyarkhan’s team took some of the same basic concepts and applied them to the long neglected field of sonoluminescence, which was first discovered by scientists at the University of Cologne in 1934. Put simply, sonoluminescence means that bubbles excited by sound waves can emit flashes of light. Until quite recently, the intriguing phenomenon wasn’t very well understood or controllable, but advances in sonoluminescence made the Oak Ridge team’s apparently more reliable approach to creating tabletop fusion possible.
The scientists discovered that with a few extra tweaks (including bombarding a deuterated acetone solution with high-speed neutrons), they could create bubbles that would grow to about 1 millimeter across. Then, in a fraction of a second, they could implode the gas inside the bubbles to just a few nanometers (or billionths of a meter) in diameter.
It’s like taking a small building and instantaneously squishing it to the size of a rock.
“The catastrophic collapse … heats [the solution] to the point at which deuterium atoms collide and fuse, the authors argue,” explains Science writer Charles Seife in an article that accompanies the Taleyarkhan report. The claim that fusion is taking place is bolstered by measurements of two known markers of nuclear reactions, tritium-decay activity and neutron emissions.
It was the absence — or at least inconsistent presence — of those fusion markers that helped create much of the widespread derision about the original Pons-Fleischmann experiment within mainstream physics circles.
Those are the measurements that Taleyarkhan’s bosses say he and his colleagues got wrong. Taleyarkhan’s response is that his team has repeated the experiment many times with the proper controls in place and that any contrary results should in all fairness be subjected to the same peer-review process that was applied to the publication of his article.
Science magazine’s decision to publish the paper promises to take the cold-fusion debate to an even more fevered level. What happens next is not hard to imagine.
Leading members of the mainstream physics community will in all likelihood continue to try to discredit the new research findings. After all, everything they have stood for — and most of the money they get from the federal government — is now at stake.
That’s one reason we will probably see stepped-up criticisms of the Oak Ridge team, including the type of unfair personal attacks that damaged the careers of several noted scientists whose work supported the original Pons-Fleischmann cold-fusion claims (such as John Bockris, a former distinguished professor of physical chemistry at Texas A&M University and co-founder of the International Society for Electrochemistry, and former Stanford Professor Bob Huggins). Science editor Kennedy may also come under continued fire.
The long knives are coming again out not only because of the controversial nature of the research but also because some very considerable sums of money are involved.
The National Ignition Facility hot-fusion project, for example, is the single most expensive item in the Department of Energy’s research budget. The project, which seeks to use superpowerful lasers to create fusion, has been a scientific scandal virtually from the start. Its first director, Michael Campbell, was forced to resign after admitting he didn’t have the Ph.D. from Princeton he claimed he had earned. The as-yet-unsuccessful effort he led is now significantly over budget and years behind schedule.
The cause of good science will be aided by Science magazine’s courageous decision to publish the full details of the latest tabletop-fusion research. It’s possible, of course, that the claims made by Taleyarkhan and his colleagues will be successfully debunked by others, in which case humanity will gain a better understanding of the best ways to measure and identify nuclear reactions. But it’s also possible that Taleyarkhan’s work will finally unleash the physics revolution that Pons, Fleischmann and so many others tried but failed to touch off.
If that happens, we may see the era of fossil fuels at long last begin to draw to a close. Imagine being able to buy little cold-fusion reactors, which would free humanity from our dependence on centralized, polluting forms of energy, as well as the despotic governmental regimes that control them. Big government budgets for hot-fusion programs would likely take a hit, but the global economy would eventually get an invigorating supply of new cheap and clean energy in return.
Taleyarkhan and his colleagues have pledged to work with other scientists to share their methods so their work can be replicated. The critical question now is whether fair and open investigations of their claims will take place here in the United States.
The organized high-level campaign against the publication of Taleyarkhan’s paper is a reflection of how much is at stake.
Either way, though, the steady march of science will go on. The next stop, the Ninth International Conference on Cold Fusion, which most mainstream U.S. physicists are expected to shun, will take place May 19-24, 2002.
The meeting, to be held in Beijing, will be sponsored by that nation’s leading science, physics and technology groups.