Low Energy Nuclear Reaction (LENR) : Cold fusion reborn

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Probably most of those with scientific interest are aware of the “cold fusion” controversy of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In brief summary, two researchers, Stanley Pons (University of Utah) and Martin Fleishmann (University of Southhampton, then one of the world’s leading and award winning electrochemists) reported they had experimentally observed the release of excess energy in a solution of heavy water that they believed could only be explained by a  fusion reaction essentially at room temperatures. They also reported fusion by-products remained after the conclusion of the experiment. This reported discovery was promptly deemed “cold fusion” by the media.

The implications were breathtaking: that all of the world’s energy requirements could be met by simple, safe and inexpensive devices that could be  easily mass produced thereby replacing fossil fuels, nuclear power plants, solar, wind and all other current and proposed  means of producing energy including vast projects underway that had the ultimate goal of producing fusion energy at very high temperaures.

This report caused an uproar among researchers and produced immediate suggestions that Pons and Fleishmann were either mistaken, incompetent or even charlatans. They were severely criticized for making such an annoncement before peer reviewed scientific papers had been published (although this reportedly was forced by the University of Utah over the objections of Pons and Fleishmann). Reknown physicists immediately asserted that there was no known scientfiic basis for the reports and that “cold fusion” was contrary to well understood scientific knowlege and principles.

Indeed, numerous attempts to replicate their experiment failed (although there were at least two reports of confirmation). Eventually the Physics department at MIT, which had invested considerable resources with the apparent goal of debunking this entire field of research, held a ‘wake” (a costume party) for cold fusion, gleefully branding it a fantasy and substantially discrediting the scientific reputations of Pons and Fleishmann.

End of story? Not quite. Over the years since the 1980’s there were suggestions  that those who had attempted to duplicate the experiment were in such a rush to discredit the findings that they proceeded with insufficent information of the details of the original experiment (the results of which which Pons and Fleishmann admitted they did not fully understand themselves) and accordingly their experiments did not actually duplicate the  original attempts by Pons and Fleishmann. Researchers in India, China , Italy and elsewhere and a number of American researchers (working “underground” lest their professional reputations be ruined) repeatedly observed  tantalizing but inconclusive hints that there might be validity to Pons and Fleismans early experiments.  (If researching this on line look for e-cat and LENR (low energy nuclear reactions), the new name of cold fusion substituted since the very term cold fusion can be a career killer for researchers). Pons and Fleishmann themselves continued to research cold fusion for several years in France with funding provided by Toyota , however, most prominant physists continued to insist that cold fusion is contrary to all know physics and accordingly is impossible (but these objections have become fewer and at a considerably lower decible level as experimental evidence has mounted that there might be something to it after all).

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Unfortunately, the entire issue has been muddled by “true believers” who without scientific credentials almost religiously and with scarcely disguised fanaticism have insisted on cold fusion as a solution to virtually all energy needs and problems and as an absolute certainty rather than as an interesting phenomena deserving further investigation. There are even reports that a LENR 1 mgwatt generator is available for order now (the E-Cat invented by Andrea Rossi) and that  cold fusion devices for use in individual households for home heating and perhaps electrical generation  may soon be marketed  but whether these reports are real or fraudulent or are  phantoms existing only in the journals of the cold fusion subculture remains to be seen.  (Of course even a fanatic or a lunatic can be right on occasion. See the movie “Conspiracy Theory” for a detailed depiction of this possibility).

 

The bottom line: recent experiments not only seem to verify that excess heat is generated at room temperatures but  at least suggest that such heat may be the result of a nuclear reaction (although alternative explanations for the excess energy generation have been suggested). The experimental data has become so pursuasive that cold fusion (now called LENR) has emerged from its underground research status even in this country and world wide scientific conferences on LENR have become routine. NASA and the Department of Energy are now providing funding (albeit at a low level) for LENR research projects and the U.S. Navy is or has been involved in LENR research. According to NASA researchers several labs have blown up and windows have melted during LENR research, graphically demonstrating that significant energy has been produced.  Even MIT professors have  sponsored conferences and classes on the subject (although it probably is fair to say most MIT researchers remain skeptical).  Alternative theories as to how the excess heat is generated have been offered but there is now little dispute that excess heat is in fact generated as reported by Pons and Fleishmann (apologies to these researchers are due but too late. Fleishmann died two years ago and Pons has given up his American citizenship and now is a citizen of France).

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The implications indeed are enormous. The devices currently being used in experiments are small and inexpensive. They suggest the possibility of a LENR device in individual households and possibly to an end to the use of fossil fuels altogether.
Unfortunately there are vested interests in continuing more traditional fusion research who scorn all LENR research. It certainly is true that entire careers of hundreds if not thousand of researchers may be brutely interrupted or ended if LENR pans out. The tokamak research reactor under construction in south  France (ITER or International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor)) which is not yet close to a break even and self sustaining energy production point (i.e. more enegy produced than required to operate the reactor which is the holy grail of fusion research referred to as the “ignition point”) and the total investment required to bring it to the break even point (which is not expected to be attained until 2020) will be over $50 billion. (Interestingly, it appears that the entire tokamak approach may have been rendered obsolete even if LENR turns out to be a blind alley because of research being done at Lawrence Livermore and elsewhere using lasers to produce fusion and/or alternative confinement approaches. Livermore is currently retooling for heavier elements and is expected reach the break even energy production goal or ignition point within the next year or so).

Which brings us to the Lockheed-Martin announcement  which I discussed in a previous blog. Despite the technological credibility of the Skunk Works, there remains a considerable amount of skepticim of this announcement (that they will have a working model fusion reactor able to be transported by a small truck and able to generate 100 mgwatts within five years) which emanates largely but not solely from the same people who debunk LENR. Indeed, the implications of both the Lockheed announcement and the potental of LENR are so enormous that a certain amount of skepticism is justified (In the words of Carl Sagan, “extraordinay claims require extraordinary proof”). It has even been speculated by some *mostly by cold fusion advocates) that the (perhaps premature) Lockheed announcement was sparked in part by recent LENR developments since they too have an investment of money, time, and careers in  more conventional if dynamically robust fusion research although the announcement may also have been the result of progress made by competing companies such as Helion (which indicates the expectation to have a compact fusion device of 50 mgwatts ready by 2019) or even as a result of the reasons expressed  in the announcement: i.e. seeking collaborators and additional outside funding.

I will await eagerly for future developments  from Lockheed, Lawrence Livermore and  LENR research (and perhaps from Helion who if their reports are to be believed may astonish us all). I consider the Livermore and Lockheed research highly likely to produce  positive results based on the technological credibility of both organizations. LENR research, on the other hand, can only be deemed very interesting until firm and replicable research results are revealed and credible and widely accepted scientific explanations for the obsevations are published. The most we can say for now is that unlike what occurred with its cold fusion incarnation, LENR research should not be casually dismissed and should be carefully examined.  It may even turn out to be the miracle its supporters have long and insistedly maintained; however, caution is required since some of the leading figures (i.e. Rossi) have “colorful” backgrounds, are resistant to truly independent tests and are very secretive as to the details of their inventions (which often but not always is a hallmark of fraud).

As for the Tokamak research and the ITER facility in south France, much valuable scientific knowlege doubtlessly  has been obtained from it but it appears the time may be approaching  to pull the plug on what has become an unrewarding financial black hole and apply these funds to more promising areas of research.

The times they are a changing. Stay tuned.

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