Looking for new energy solutions, scientists are increasingly embracing the idea of cold fusion, once considered a junk science along the lines of alchemy. "Cold fusion" describes the nuclear fusion of atoms at close to room temperatures, as opposed to the epic temperatures at which nuclei fuse inside stars. If realized on a practical scale, it could provide the world with a virtually limitless source of energy.
Several new frontiers in cold fusion research are on display this week at the American Chemical Society's annual meeting in San Francisco. One researcher is working on a new kind of battery that uses a new cold fusion process and has a longer shelf life than conventional batteries. Another researcher has experimental evidence that some forms of bacteria use a type of cold fusion, and their biologically driven transmutations could help dispose of nuclear waste.
German chemist Jan Marwan, who organized the Low-Energy Nuclear Reactions symposium at the ACS meeting, said scientists are no longer afraid to talk about cold fusion.
"I've also noticed that the field is gaining new researchers from universities that had previously not pursued cold fusion research. More and more people are becoming interested in it," he said in a statement. "There's still some resistance to this field. But we just have to keep on as we have done so far, exploring cold fusion step by step, and that will make it a successful alternative energy source."
The term dates to 1989, when Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton and Stanley Pons of the University of Utah reported achieving nuclear fusion at room temperature with a simple device. Their claim ignited an international firestorm -- which was soon quashed when no other scientists could duplicate their results. Soon after Fleischmann's and Pons' paper was published, cold fusion fell into disrepute. (Although it did have a brief starring role alongside Elisabeth Shue.)
But new research is bringing cold fusion toward mainstream acceptance, Marwan said. The number of papers on the topic has quadrupled since 2007, and several papers presented at the ACS conference use the term "cold fusion" or the "Fleischmann-Pons Effect" to describe the phenomenon, he said.
Here's a glimpse at 5 promising pathways to cold fusion, courtesy of the American Chemical Society.
Cold Fusion Battery
George Miley, a researcher at the University of Illinois, is developing a type of cold fusion energy cell. The process would work by purposely creating defects in an electrolyte cell's metal electrode. Deuterium atoms -- also called heavy hydrogen atoms -- migrate from the electrolyte into the defective electrode, where they pile up and get very dense. Then the atoms undergo a nuclear reaction, much like the cold fusion originally described by Fleischmann and Pons. Add in some energy conversion pieces, and the result is a battery that can produce electricity. The battery would last much longer than your average Duracell, thanks to the nuclear reactions.
New Calorimeter to Track Cold Fusion at Work
Melvin Miles, a researcher at Dixie State College in St. George, Utah, is working on a new type of calorimeter that could measure heat effects produced by electrochemical reactions. Built using store-bought copper tubing, a glass test tube and Mobil-1 oil, the calorimeter is very stable, allowing for accurate measurements of heat transfer.
The goal is to study cold fusion, but the calorimeter can also be used to study the heat created in other chemical reactions, Miles reports. He used the system to measure what happened when he charged an ammonium chloride solution, and found that it formed nitrogen trichloride and 50 megawatts of excess power.
Transmutation in Biological Systems
Ukrainian scientist Vladimir Vysotskii reports experimental evidence that certain bacteria can undergo a type of cold fusion process. In a talk scheduled for Monday afternoon, he was slated to describe studies of nuclear transmutation -- the transformation of one element into another -- in biological systems. His experiments examined stable and radioactive isotopes. Theoretically, cold fusion could be used to reduce nuclear waste.
One of the most controversial aspects of cold fusion is excess heat production, which seems to violate laws of thermodynamics. Peter Hagelstein, a scientist at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, has several new theoretical models that can help explain the excess heat production in cold fusion.
In a nuclear reaction, one would expect that the excess energy would appear as kinetic energy -- but in the Fleischmann-Pons experiment, there are not as many energetic particles as there should be. Hagelstein's models help explain the energy changes, by breaking large bits of energy into a lot of small bits.
A Cold Fusion Device That Uses Oil
During the heyday of cold fusion research, especially in Japan and Germany, much attention focused on making liquid fuels from coal, according to Tadahiko Mizuno, a researcher at Hokkaido University in Japan. In one such study, researchers observed large amounts of excess heat. Mizuno replicated that study to determine if he could control the excess heat effect.
He used phenanthrene, a heavy oil fraction, and subjected it to high pressure and heat in the presence of a metal catalyst. The reaction caused excess heat, strong gamma radiation and a slew of hydrocarbons. Mizuno also measured isotopes of elements ranging from hydrogen to lead.
He said the formation of hydrocarbons doesn't account for the excess heat caused by the reaction. Heat production reached 60 watts -- way higher than it should have been for chemical reactions.
"Overall heat production exceeded any conceivable chemical reaction by two orders of magnitude," he wrote.
regarding the calorimeter, i don't think there was an excess of 50 megawatts. either that's a typo, the calorimeter has a flaw, or ammonium chloride is the answer to the world's energy problems.
Hey, as long as it has a snowball's chance (cold fusion-snowball- bad joke) of ending oil dependency, I say give it a shot. What have we got to lose?
oh for god's sake not this again. Every year at APS and ACS there is a session set aside for cold fusion talks - they are generally given by lawyers, science writers, and high-school chemistry teachers who, in good faith, believe they have overcome the realities of fusion science. Let's make this clear once and for all: fusion requires completely overcoming the repulsive force between atomic nuclei. This is incredibly difficult. There is no trick to getting around it; you HAVE to force two nuclei into close enough contact that the weak force overrides the Coulomb repulsion. There is no gentle way to do this; there is no clever trick to beat the requirement, and atoms absolutely will not do this on their own.
Fusion occurs in nature only when the enormous force of gravity from an incredibly massive object crushes atoms together. Fusion occurs in the lab only when nuclei are smacked into each other at high speed or compressed by enormous external fields. In either case, the INITIAL expenditure in either kinetic or potential energy is very high, far higher than the energy released by any possible combination of chemical interactions (stable atoms having only so much electronic potential to give). You would need a molecule with the equivalent of several million excess electrons on it before you could muster the necessary chemical potential to initiate a fusion reaction.
And are we to believe that bacteria are capable of applying static forces equivalent to the interior of stars? Or containing particles with kinetic energies only achievable by the application of dozens of giant lasers?
So then where does the energy from fusion go if it stays at room temperature?
@alliusdragonfly, your comments are generally true, but whether you mean it or not, the implication is that fusion can only be achieved by enormous energy-gobbling machines.
Machines for producing fusion are much simpler and cheaper than the attention-getting grande-projets style billion-dollar experiments under way; no need for massive Death Star laser arrays or national-power-grid-consuming confinement electromagnets.
Do-it-yourself fusion has been around since the 1930's in the form of desktop particle accelerators or variations of Farnsworth Fusors (since the 1950's). These modestly powered machines produce fusion. Accelerating ions to sufficient energies is not very difficult. The CRT of a typical TV produces energetic electrons "heated" to 200 million K when they hit the screen. Renewed research into electrostatic confinement like the Bussard Polywell is generating promising results, though this is different from cold fusion.
The point is, whether or not cold fusion experiments are producing anything noteworthy yet, the best way to generate fusion economically is far from understood, so let's encourage innovative (or imaginative) experiments.
@alliusdragonfly, you are obviously a lot smarter than I, no doubt about it. Now that that is out of the way, I can get to my disagreement with your post.
"And are we to believe that bacteria are capable of applying static forces equivalent to the interior of stars? Or containing particles with kinetic energies only achievable by the application of dozens of giant lasers?"
When I read this part of your comment, it made me think of the pistol shrimp, or Alpheidae. The pistol shrimp can, for just a split second, create temperatures that rival the surface of the sun. They do that by rapidly closing their large claw and creating a cavitation bubble that reaches incredible temperatures as it quickly collapses.
That obviously has little to do with your statement, but I just think it shows that nature is capable of incredible things. Is it doubtful, possibly borderline insane, to imagine that such bacteria exist and are the key to cold fusion? Yes, but what is science if it isn't dabbling in the kookier side of experiments?
im all for new ideas but as for what we've got to lose?
perhaps time and money
@aliusdragonfly, while it may seem far fetched "traditional" fusion is still, at best, decades away (at a commercial level). So in the meantime why not explore some other options. Not everyone gets to work on the big exciting stuff. And if in the end, cold fusion doesn't work, we need the data to support that conclusion as well. Many times in the lab we can discover something and find it works perfectly within a certain set of conditions but even after that we still have to go through the grunt work of running the same experiment at other parameters just to have the data to prove that our "sweet spot" is the only sweet spot, or the best sweet spot, available. You remind me of the kids at science fair's that only choose hypothesis they know they can prove correct, when its the ones you prove incorrect that you sometimes learn the most from.
"You would need a molecule with the equivalent of several million excess electrons on it before you could muster the necessary chemical potential to initiate a fusion reaction."
This is the kind of rhetoric that makes me think of all the hysterical, innumerate objections to low-energy nuclear reactions that have hindered research efforts in the field for the past twenty years, coming from people who ought to know better. If science is to be believed, we owe it to the public to provide sincere explanations of observed phenomena.
I'm not persuaded by rhetoric. I'm persuaded by calculations, elucidations, experimental evidence, references.
Those theorizing that such reactions can exist still have quite a large burden of proof. They should be ask to give quantitative predictions: what is the expected reaction rate? and why? and, what alternative hypotheses have been thoroughly explored?
@aliusdragonfly repeats, unwittingly I'm sure, a common conceit among scientists. It is often the case that a physicist (the discipline in which I have my B.Sc.) will only see things in terms of physics. Thus you get statements like, "you would need a molecule with the equivalent of several million excess electrons on it before you could muster the necessary chemical potential to initiate a fusion reaction."
If the only means for fusion is physical, then he's probably right.
However, there may be other means for achieving the same thing, both chemical and biological are mentioned in passing.
If I remember correctly, Rutherford said "in science there is only physics, all the rest is stamp collecting." I enjoy that quote as much as the next physics guy on a mug or t-shirt but as a test for scientific "correctness".
Its not just physicists who do this... all disciplines do it. And not everyone does it either.
Steven B. Krivit, a leading journalist in the field, points out that what is generally referred to as cold fusion does not involve fusion but that the experiments do prove the discovery of a potentially abundant source of clean nuclear energy probably from electroweak interactions. See our March 22, 2010 story about this at pesn.com/2010/03/22/9501630_Krivit_says_cold_fusion_is_not_fusion_but_LENR/
It's always right around April 1st that this story resurfaces.
Well stated as usual.
The way the coulomb barrier is reduced is a technique called catalysis. A regular solid like palladium, which has the unusual capacity to filter deuterium, ie deuterium can get inside, has a ground state which includes, as all metal lattices must, standing waves of conduction electrons. These standing waves amount to peaked piles of electrons in a small area which attract D+ from all around closer and closer, so close in fact that the Coulomb barrier at room level temperatures can be reduced in relative terms by 40 orders of magnitude, leading to a finite overlap of the deuterium wavefunctions and a reasonable rate of fusion events (see theoretical QED calculation by Giuliano Preparata based on ideas of solids by Philip Anderson). Loading the deuterium into the palladium becomes a determining problem,originally by simple electrolysis in Pons and Fleischman, improved by Roger Stringham with D2O gas bubbles imploded by sound waves which expands the crystal structure to admit more deuterium at loading factors of .7 or more Ds per palladium nucleus, and by George Miley who generates dislocations in the lattice to admit even higher numbers of deuterium to be stored in the dislocations. Others have found ways to overcome the Coulomb barrier. Nuclear reaction (real alchemy) are happening at room temperatures (low energies). There is no doubt about it. The challenge is to design a process which doesn't damage itself while it heats up its environment.
It's not deuterium atoms, it's deuterium molecules. They should have science-trained people working in a science publication.
Deuterium is an atom, it's a heavy isotope of Hydrogen.
Maybe science-trained people should do their own fact-checking before posting comments on a science-trained publication.
Gah, you beat me to it
I remember picking up a book about hydrogen isotopes in second grade and pretty much memorising it... even then I was on my way of becoming a nerd :D
On that note, as far as I can tell, theres to much talk and less construction, the only way to know for sure is to test and see, arguing won't get you anywhere.
as for what have we got to lose, if we do try it and we lose billions of dollars and millions of man-hours, how is it different from the stimulus bill, but if we dont try it because of sceptics and conspricy therorists ( that means you, aliusdragonfly) then we have passed up huge scientific realm and potential clean energy source. If sceptics had stopped the creation of nuclear physics, the atom bomb would never have been created, during WWII, America would have invaded Japan with a predicted 200,000 casualties to America and even more to Japanese civillians, the Cold WAr never would have happened, and America would not have become the global superpower that it is today, and nuclear power would not exist
At best, it's still just a heat engine, requiring concentration in a turbine at ~30% efficiency to generate electricity. For a much better idea, using very HOT (1-2 bn °K) but very small fusion events, check out focusfusion.org .
Can you say "5¢/W, ¼¢/kwh" about any other prospect?
the excess heat would be the biggest concern for the batteries. Any extra heat around hydrogen would be a bad thing in an enclosed vehicle.