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Big Idea: Bring Back the "Cold Fusion" Dream

Science & Tech  (tags: computers, concept, discovery, energy, environment, habitat, investigation, nasa, NewTechnology, science, scientists, society, study, technology, world )

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A new theory may explain the notorious cold fusion experiment from two decades ago, reigniting hopes of a clean-energy breakthrough.

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Kit B (276)
Friday November 9, 2012, 8:07 am
(Image: Electrolysis cell schematic -- Wikipedia/Pbroks13)

In 1989 Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann made a sensational claim that would have changed the world—had it been true. They said they had achieved nuclear fusion at room temperature using a simple tabletop device, thus creating a revolutionary clean energy source they called “cold fusion.”

Unfortunately for the University of Utah chemists, multiple attempts to replicate their experiment over ensuing months failed. Cold fusion was considered debunked, and it has lived beyond the fringe of mainstream science ever since.

Yet quietly, more than 20 years later, two of the world’s largest mainstream scientific institutions—NASA and the European physics research center CERN—have revisited the controversial energy-generating experiment. A growing cadre of scientists now suspect that Pons and Fleischmann’s observations were the result not of fusion but of more plausible physical processes. Some are even cautiously optimistic that those processes could be exploited to generate abundant amounts of clean energy. “There’s enough evidence that says we need to look at this,” says Joseph Zawodny, a physicist at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.

The man most responsible for the change of thinking is a technology and energy consultant with a background in physics named Lewis Larsen. In 1989 he was paying attention when Pons and Fleischmann described how a set of palladium rods, connected to an electric current and immersed in lithium-enriched water, churned out more energy in the form of heat than it received in electricity. He followed along as subsequent experiments achieved mixed results. Some seemed to produce a lot of heat, others little or none. Yet a nagging question persisted: If the contraptions really were putting out more energy than they took in, what could be responsible?

Pons and Fleischmann’s infamous explanation was that hydrogen nuclei were fusing inside the metal rods. Larsen, along with virtually every physicist on the planet, knew that was implausible: Fusion requires enormous temperatures and pressures, which is why it occurs only in stars and bombs. But the heat seemed real, at least in some cases. So in 1997, when hedge fund executives asked Larsen to explore wild-card ideas for energy production, he decided to investigate the cold fusion mystery using only established physics.

Cold, Yes, But Not Fusion

Sifting through physics literature, Larsen considered other nuclear reactions that could subtly produce energy. One candidate was radioactive decay, which occurs when unstable atomic nuclei release energy in the form of radiation. Some elements found in nature, like radium, undergo this decay. Could something in the cold fusion apparatus be doing much the same? Larsen formulated a theory showing how that could happen, and in 2004 he recruited Northeastern University theoretical physicist Allan Widom to hone his ideas.

Their theory showed how a film of negatively charged electrons covering the palladium could combine with positively charged protons from the water’s hydrogen atoms to form neutrons. Those neutrons could then be gobbled up by nearby lithium nuclei, disturbing the delicate balance of protons and neutrons that keep the nuclei stable. The lithium nuclei would rapidly decay, first into beryllium and then into helium, and emit radiation. Finally, the film of electrons would absorb the radiation and reemit it as heat. Widom and Larsen called this chain of events a low-energy nuclear reaction, or LENR—a more accurate and palatable term than cold fusion. The European Physical Journal C published their theory in 2006.

The paper did not make a splash at first. By then, scores of wild-eyed papers had claimed to explain cold fusion. Yet Widom-Larsen theory had more going for it. For one, it had the authority of a respected theorist in Widom. It also had the ring of plausibility: It proposed a phenomenon permitted by the known laws of physics, no new science required. “Widom-Larsen theory is the best formulated explanation of what’s going on,” says Ephraim Fischbach, a Purdue University physicist who is not involved in LENR research.

In addition, Widom and Larsen theorized that the same neutron production process could happen in nature. Recently, scientists found one piece of supporting evidence for that. In March a study in Physical Review Letters described a large flux of neutrons during thunderstorms—perhaps, Larsen says, the result of LENRs in the atmosphere sparked by electricity from lightning.

As the Widom-Larsen theory gains traction, more physicists are emerging to put it to the test. In March, Yogendra Srivastava from the University of Perugia in Italy, who worked with Widom and Larsen on their theory, chaired a LENR-themed colloquium at CERN—the institution’s first official examination of “cold fusion” in more than two decades. Soon after, NASA released details on a $200,000-a-year research program on LENRs, led by Zawodny. “The theory made it past peer review in a real journal,” he says. “But I’m always skeptical. I only believe what I can prove.”

Game Changer or Dud?

Zawodny has designed a stamp-size array of metal tiles to test the theory. According to Larsen’s paper, the properties of some of the tiles should make it easier for electrons and protons to merge and form neutrons. If Zawodny observes evidence of neutron production, then he plans to do a follow-up experiment to see if those neutrons are fueling radioactive decay. Even if he gets the expected results, though, it would take several years and many corroborating experiments before LENRs could be considered confirmed.

Larsen, who formed the company Lattice Energy in 2001 as he was formulating his theory, has his eyes on the big prize: converting nuclear-generated heat into electricity, the unfulfilled original promise of cold fusion. He hopes to raise $25 million over the next few years to build prototype LENR generators.

So far, Larsen still has only a theory and some circumstantial evidence. But if LENRs could be proved and tamed—a very big if—the effect could be transformative. Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA Langley, wrote in an online article that LENRs could potentially satisfy the world’s energy needs at a quarter the cost of coal. Zawodny adds to that enthusiasm in an accompanying video. “If we were to have such a thing,” he says, “it would be the sort of technology that would fuel our future growth and expansion and have the ability to raise the standard of living of the entire world.”
*************Many detailed links within body of article at Visit Site*******

By Mark Anderson | Discover Magazine |

Kit B (276)
Friday November 9, 2012, 9:28 am is actually an easy article to read. It doesn't require a degree in science nor does it pretend a final break through, only some ideas on one of the many things people are testing, considering and some times find applicable to the needs of alternative energy sources.

No space aliens, no green fairies - the only way out of this is reasoned science and constant experimentation. Haven't we ignored science for long enough?

Roger G (154)
Friday November 9, 2012, 10:34 am
noted, thanks !

Past Member (0)
Friday November 9, 2012, 11:38 am
Good article. The best science we have for clean energy production is solar, wind, wave action, and biofuels. As for cold fusion, I have always thought the idea quite appealing, but I have yet to see sufficient proof that it can be made to work on a large scale without costing more energy than it produces. However, if it ever can be made to work, then that would appear to be a really good thing. It definitely is a step away from fossil fuels. Are there byproducts or environmental impacts that need to be considered? Nuclear was initially considered "a clean alternative."

Robert O (12)
Friday November 9, 2012, 1:19 pm
Thanks Kit.

Past Member (0)
Friday November 9, 2012, 3:37 pm

Stephen B (23)
Saturday November 10, 2012, 10:29 am
Hi :)

Here is info on a current Cold Fusion-claim.

Essentially, there are claims of a working reactor in the lab-phase, but almost nobody has been allowed to see it. I believe there is something plausible going on because the person behind it, Rossi, has staked his entire career on the thing. That said, I don't know if his design will be scalable for electricity-production for the grid or up to the 600 C standard for thermal generation-based electricity-production. Even if not, there is a fair chance it could be usable for heating, either for buildings or industrial processes.

Kit B (276)
Saturday November 10, 2012, 11:25 am

Well if "Rossi" says it is true....

Stephen certainly you have enough back ground in science to know this article is addressing facts.

Thomas B (1)
Saturday November 10, 2012, 1:47 pm
Demand that Congress repeal the second law of thermodynamics now! Gaws, this is becoming the Fox News of the left.

Freya H (357)
Saturday November 10, 2012, 1:58 pm
I have on occasion read that cold fusion may not be a pipe dream - and in respectable magazines and on trustworthy web sites.

Stephen B (23)
Saturday November 10, 2012, 6:21 pm
Hi again :)

I think I just realized why the original experimenters thought they had cold fusion: The ultimate decay-products of the lithium are helium-atoms. The usual idea for fusion is to turn hydrogen into Helium. They probably saw the helium and assumed it came from the hydrogen (as they intended) rather than lithium (as seems to have happened by accident), They should have checked for confounding factors.

Hi Thomas,

Fusion does not violate the Second Law of thermodynamics. The energy-supply from it would not be limitless, but for our purposes it more than suffice because the fuel, hydrogen, is so plentiful and the energy is so dense. For example, in 18 cubic metres of water, there should be enough hydrogen to, at 100% efficiency, get about ten times the current U.S. total annual energy-use (or double the human global energy-use). Then there is the fact that out in space, hydrogen is very common, so it would be a fine power-source well into the Star Trek-distant future.

The science behind it is fairly well-understood (with a few limitations regarding the internal structure of protons, neutrons, and most nuclei which), so the issue is really a matter of catalyzing the reaction to reduce the required input-energy and getting high enough efficiency to get positive energy-output. We have some ideas of how to catalyze it (like the CNO-cycle found in larger stars), and the technology that goes into particle-colliders like the LHC is all about concentrating large amounts of input-energy to increase efficiency. We are building the tools we need to make it work.

While a lot of stories posted on Care2 really do fit the profile of "Fox of the Left", this one is fine. As "big idea" projects go, cold fusion is pretty reasonable and beneficial.

Kerrie G (116)
Sunday November 11, 2012, 5:06 am
Noted, thanks.

Alicia V (181)
Sunday November 11, 2012, 9:44 am

Becky B (0)
Sunday November 11, 2012, 1:09 pm
In honor of science why would any reasonable person consider nuclear energy, cold fusion or not, when the danger of even small amounts of waste have never been solved. Supposedly cold fusion has little or no waste, but where is the proof, and what are we do to with even the small amounts of waste? Nuclear Power is dangerous and still not safe. We are not willing to change our lifestyles, we have not used solar, wind and ocean power that is there for us. Until we are willing to change we are doomed to suffer the consequences of our wasteful lifestyles. I would much rather see an article on how to manage the waste problems we have with the current Nuclear Plants than to read a fantasy about another Nuclear panacea.

Talya H (10)
Sunday November 11, 2012, 5:59 pm
Thanks for the share!

Gloria p (304)
Monday November 12, 2012, 4:43 am
Green Star to Kit. Cold fusion is worth researching again.

Kit B (276)
Monday November 12, 2012, 6:13 am

Well, Mari as I have submitted articles about this in the past, you might want to do some research into the possible near future uses of nuclear energy as a clean, waste-free source of energy.

Stephen B (23)
Monday November 12, 2012, 6:22 pm
Hi Mori :)

The trouble with most nuclear waste has actually been solved. The problem is that in the U.S., at least, due to Cold War-era politics, reprocessing of highly radioactive nuclear by-products is illegal. That law is outdated and was never terribly intelligent to begin with. There is also some newer technology to handle low-radioactive waste, described in one of my very old Care2 threads and here:
(Israel wants to undercut Arab-controlled oil and natural gas, so a lot of non-fossil-fuel energy-research goes on there.)

Solar and wind-power has its uses, but for the electric grids of industrialized countries with modern infrastructure, the energy-density is just too low and the sources are too unreliable. Ocean-power has long been seen as a potential major source, but due to engineering-limits and geography, it can only be set up in certain places. The sort of huge-scale project which would make a large difference runs into engineering-challenges from being constantly immersed in corrosive saltwater, dealing with forces over an enormous area, weather, and just generally dealing with enormous forces. Still, I am hopeful for this one because as long as the problem is only engineering and not in the underlying science, the solution is pretty much always to give lots of smart people the time they need to work it out. :)

Kit B (276)
Monday November 12, 2012, 6:40 pm


Some months ago I submitted articles on new research with the US, China, France and few other countries for new nuclear technology. Should this work prove to be effective it will allow a no waste, clean burning (to use a practical phrase) safe nuclear fuel system. There would be no need for "plants" as we know them.

Though nuclear is still even with this advancement, not the final answer. We would be foolish to move from one use of limited resource, to another. And yes, even uranium is a limited resource.

Stephen B (23)
Monday November 12, 2012, 11:29 pm
Hi Kit :)

Do you mean modular stuff like the Gen4 reactors and miniaturization from advances like salt-based cooling?

You're right that fission of uranium and thorium are probably not a good final answer. The energy-content of its known reserves on Earth is orders of magnitude greater than those of fossil fuels, though, and its is mostly found in far friendlier places (with the primary known reserves in Australia, India, the U.S., Canada, Russia, China, and other relatively peaceful places). Also, radioactive elements tend to be very large atoms (at least very large as atoms go) and their instability can break up crystals. As planets form and solidify, this keeps them in the melt longer, leaving them closer to the surface (so their abundance, in known reserves, decreases exponentially with depth), and this is expected to be true for any rocky planet where it is found, so while the elements are rare, they should be disproportionately accessible.

However, any modern technology is only good as a stepping-stone. We just need one good enough to get us to something better, and there are a few possibilities. The energy-content of uranium can power our economy until we can develop the tools necessary for fusion. Other, more exotic and distant possible power-sources include Star Trek-style baryogenesis/annihilation (converting electrons to anti-protons or protons into positrons and giving a little over 130 times as much energy per hydrogen atom as would nuclear fusion) and straight-up Cosmic String-based power (exploiting a theoretically possible loophole in conservation of energy for a real endless supply). There is also the idea of space-based manufacturing, theoretically possible with today's technology, which could allow a vastly more effective use of solar power (no night, no weather, no winter, much less wear-and-tear, none of today's major sources of inefficiency). That last one, I think, we could really reach using fission.

Kit B (276)
Tuesday November 13, 2012, 4:18 pm

There ya go, Stephen we need that sort of thinking. Creating new and expanded paradigms of collective ideas. We can get on to new ways to keep our power sources moving toward better, cleaner technologies. Excellent input and thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.
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