No one knows, but the cold-fusion faithful have three leading theories.
The Fleischmann-Pons Effect
Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons weren’t sure what caused the anomalous heat in their experiments, but their best guess was nuclear fusion at room temperature. They proposed that their experiment packed deuterium nuclei into the palladium lattice with enough force to overcome electrostatic repulsion—the “Coulomb barrier”—between the nuclei. Once the nuclei penetrated the Coulomb barrier, the strong nuclear force welded them together, releasing heat.
Peter Hagelstein’s Phonon Theory
Hagelstein, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, believes that the deuterium nuclei in the reaction combine to form helium, but not in the way scientists currently understand fusion. When the deuterium nuclei fuse, the reaction doesn’t release energetic nuclear radiation; instead, energy is distributed as phonons (vibrations of a metal lattice) back into the palladium, which keeps the reaction going.
Allan Widom and Lewis Larsen propose that neutrons catalyze nuclear reactions. First, electrons orbiting outside nuclei get heavier through interactions with electromagnetic field fluctuations; the electrons react with protons, creating neutrons that are captured by nearby nuclei. The process triggers transmutation reactions (one element changing into another element), releasing gamma rays that get converted into heat.
This article appeared in the November 2012 issue of Popular Science.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.