“Mills is the ONLY one with a true understanding of what’s going on… A chemical catalysis reaction to a lower state of hydrogen (hydrino)… It’s NOT Cold Fusion, and NEVER was!” ⚛️
‘Triple tracks’ claimed as evidence for neutron emission from palladium deuteride. Photo: US Government, public domain
Cold fusion: A potential energy gamechanger
Think it’s a failure, a joke? Think again. Big investors are positioning themselves, Japan & US in the lead
By Jonathan TENNENBAUM
This is the first of three installments.
A desktop-sized nuclear reactor that generates energy without radioactivity – it sounds too good to be true. Indeed, the discovery of a novel form of nuclear energy called “cold fusion,” proclaimed in 1989 by the chemists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, has long been dismissed by the mainstream scientific community as a case of faulty measurement or even self-delusion.
Some scientists disagreed, however, finding more and more evidence for radioactivity-free nuclear energy generation occurring under the sorts of conditions Fleischmann and Pons had created: in crystalline materials infused with large quantities of hydrogen or its non-radioactive isotope deuterium.
Now a combination of three factors – accumulation of credible experimental results over the ensuing 30-odd years, resolution of some major issues regarding reproducibility and a developing technology base – has brought cold fusion to the threshold of a breakout.
Big players are quietly investing substantial sums into cold fusion research, positioning themselves for what could turn out to be a major game-changer on the global energy scene. Japan and the United States are way ahead.
In Japan, presently the leading nation in this field, the sponsors include Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi Estate Company, Toyota, Nissan, Tanaka Precious Metals and the Miura Corporation, a major producer of heating equipment.
From the US side Google has become active, sponsoring a multi-university study of cold fusion and reportedly working to recruit promising young scientists to cold fusion research.
Another prominent US investor is Tom Darden (Cherokee Investment Partners, Industrial Heat). It is an open secret, I am told, that Bill Gates, in addition to his work in other aspects of futuristic nuclear technology, is also engaged in this area.
The wave of interest in cold fusion was evident behind the scenes at the 22nd International Conference on Condensed Matter Nuclear Science (abbreviated ICCF-22) in Assisi, Italy, earlier this year.
Condensed matter nuclear physics is the technical name for the new area of science and technology that has emerged over the 30-odd years since the first announcement of cold fusion. This and the following articles provide a non-technical overview of where things stand at the moment.
What did Fleischmann and Pons do in 1989? Put very simply, they used an electric current to force large amounts of deuterium into a bar of palladium metal. After a certain time the bar began to produce more heat than could be attributed to the input energy. In some of their experiments the excess heat continued for days, releasing net amounts of energy hundreds of times larger than could be accounted for by any known chemical reaction.
Fleischmann and Pons concluded that the source must be nuclear fusion reactions – in this specific case, the fusing of pairs of deuterium nuclei to form helium.
Fusion reactions have long been known as the energy source of the sun and also of the hydrogen bomb, mankind’s first and so far only realization of fusion energy on a significant scale.
The biggest problem is that hydrogen nuclei, being positively charged, repel each other. In order to bring them close enough for fusion reactions to occur, one either must compress the hydrogen fuel to practically unrealizable densities or else must cause the nuclei in the fuel to collide with one another at high velocities – velocities equivalent to temperatures of tens of millions of degrees. This, at least, is what conventional nuclear physics tells us.
At the same time, fusion reactions invariably release large amounts of high-energy radiation, which can be deadly to humans and cause materials in the vicinity to become radioactive.
Technologies exist to reach the required temperatures under controlled conditions; but despite billions of dollars of investment into fusion test reactors, the realization of “hot fusion” as a commercially viable energy source still appears distant. We hope that innovative privately-financed projects, now under way, will improve at least the medium-term prospects for hot fusion.
Fleischmann and Pons started out with a simple, even naive idea. It is well known that palladium can absorb large amounts of hydrogen. In fact, palladium alloys have been studied as a means of storing hydrogen in hydrogen-powered vehicles.
Moreover the process of electrolysis, familiar to chemists, provides a means to “pump” hydrogen nuclei into palladium with the equivalent of 10,000 or more times ordinary atmospheric pressure. Inside the palladium crystal, hydrogen nuclei are present at high density and also able to move around rather freely.
Could fusion reactions happen? Not in any significant numbers, nuclear physics would appear to tell us; the estimated reaction rates remain almost infinitesimally small.
However, there were reasons to think that nuclei might interact differently, when embedded in a dense crystalline environment, than when they float around in a vacuum. Among other things, the repulsive forces between the hydrogen nuclei might be significantly weakened by the high density of electrons in their crystalline environment. Under such conditions, perhaps, the standard estimates for fusion reaction rates might give the wrong answer.
Fleischmann and Pons decided to give it a try, using deuterium (rather than ordinary hydrogen) on account of its higher reactivity. One can appreciate the incredulity of the scientific community in 1989, when the two scientists announced they had realized nuclear fusion at room temperature – “cold” fusion – in a table-top-sized experiment.
Following the spectacular announcement, scientists around the world rushed to their laboratories to replicate the Fleischmann-Pons results. The result was devastating. In the vast majority of cases – although not all – they found absolutely nothing. Sometimes some sporadic pulses of heat were observed, and sometimes tiny amounts of radiation, but these were mostly attributed to spurious causes or experimental error.
Only a minority, including Fleischmann and Pons themselves, continued to believe that the cold fusion phenomenon was real. After some years of controversy, cold fusion was essentially written off by the scientific community. Leading scientific journals stopped accepting research papers on the subject, and government financial support dropped off nearly completely.
It has not helped that alongside real scientists, dubious persons and entities have emerged, attempting to make money at the expense of serious research. In these muddied waters, the concept “cold fusion” came to be associated with “pathological science,” quackery or even fraud.
So why are Google and others now taking such an interest in this supposedly “nonexistent” process? One reason is the fever-pitch of concern over global warming and the resulting demand for CO2-free technologies, prompting governments and private investors to look closely at all potential options, including those in the high risk, high return category.
According to Michael McKubre, a pioneer of cold fusion research and keynote speaker at the ICCF-22 conference, Google had concluded from its studies that so-called renewable energy sources alone could not solve mankind’s energy problem.
In terms of economically viable CO2-free power generation, that left only nuclear energy in some form: advanced 4th generation nuclear fission reactors that promise to be safer and cheaper, or hot fusion or . . . cold fusion. Why not take a second look?
30 years in the cold
In the early 1990s a minority of scientists from high-level national laboratories and universities, notably in the US, France, Italy, Japan, India, Russia and China had disagreed with the consensus view on cold fusion.
From their own experiments they became convinced that the phenomena reported by Fleischmann and Pons – while sporadic and maddeningly difficult to reproduce in a reliable manner – were real. They continued to investigate, often risking their careers and reputations in the process.
Meanwhile, a handful of leading theoretical physicists rejected the notion that cold fusion is physically impossible. These included Nobel Prize-winner Julian Schwinger, Peter Hagelstein (made famous by his work on the X-ray laser) and the well-known quantum physicist Giuliano Preparata.
They pointed out that the nuclear processes in the Fleischmann-Pons and related experiments were occurring under conditions that had never been studied carefully by physicists before. When nuclei are embedded at high density in the lattice structure of a crystal, their behavior can change radically. Some basic rules and assumptions of conventional nuclear physics no longer apply. Not only fusion, but also other nuclear reactions might possibly occur.
Some researchers suggested, in fact, that the cause of heat generation and other anomalous phenomena in the Fleischmann-Pons type of experiments might not be conventional fusion reactions between nuclei of hydrogen but some other nuclear process. One possibility is that reactions might involve nuclei of the host material – palladium, for example. (Until such issues are clarified, researchers in this domain mostly prefer to use the inclusive term “low energy nuclear reactions,” abbreviated LENR, instead of cold fusion. For the purposes of this article I shall stick with the popularized term, cold fusion, intended in a generic sense.)
In the subsequent period a vast number of experiments were carried out, not only on setups of the Pons-Fleischmann type, but with a wide variety of other systems in which hydrogen or deuterium nuclei are densely embedded in the crystalline structures of metals. The data base is impressive. Apart from excess heat a whole array of other anomalous phenomena turned up, pointing to nuclear processes of a new type.
Some experiments have revealed faint emissions of radiation, confirming the presence of nuclear reactions, but at extremely low, harmless levels, totally incommensurate with the amounts of heat being produced. Repeatedly evidence was found that the elemental composition of the material had changed during the experiment. Excluding laboratory contamination the only explanation is nuclear transmutation – the transformation of one chemical element into another. Amazing.
Two major challenges have faced cold fusion research since the beginning. First is how to obtain excess heat and other effects in a fully reproducible fashion. It was not enough that these effects had been observed again and again by reputable scientists in laboratories around the world. Without being able to demonstrate cold fusion “on demand” it would hardly be possible to dispel the doubts of the scientific community and to lower the perceived risk among would-be investors.
The second big challenge is to come up with a plausible theoretical explanation for the cold fusion phenomenon: a theory that can be tested experimentally and can serve as a guide for developing cold fusion/LENR and related technologies to the point of commercial application.
Attaining reproducibility has proven to be much, much more difficult than originally thought. The reason, apart from lack of research funds, evidently lies in the complexity of the physical process itself. In my opinion – and judging from the ICCF-22 conference – cold fusion is not some sort of magic bullet that will instantly solve mankind’s energy problems without a commensurate effort in fundamental and applied R&D.
Fortunately, after nearly 30 years of effort, great progress has been made toward defining the necessary conditions for cold fusion to occur, and creating a technology base for future commercial applications.
In my view the existence and reproducibility of cold fusion (or, more broadly, LENR) have now been established beyond any reasonable doubt. Here I mean, more precisely: nuclear reactions generating substantial amounts of heat, realizable on a laboratory scale at moderate temperatures in certain solid-state materials implanted to a high density with deuterium or hydrogen; and releasing at most a negligible amount of radiation.
Having attended the ICCF-22 conference, spoken with researchers and studied relevant technical publications, I do not think an unbiased scientist who looks into the matter closely can come to any other conclusion.
Jonathan Tennenbaum received his PhD in mathematics from the University of California in 1972 at age 23. Also a physicist, linguist and concert pianist, he’s a former editor of FUSION magazine. He lives in Berlin and travels frequently to Asia and elsewhere, consulting on economics, science and technology.
Prof. Yasuhiro Iwamura, head of the Condensed Matter Nuclear Research Center at Tohoku University and one of Japan’s leading cold fusion scientists. Photo: courtesy Yasuhiro Iwamura
Cold fusion 2: Japan wins with systematic method
Meanwhile there’s sensational news from Google
This is the second of a three-part series. Click here to read part one, which relates how early experimentation in cold fusion was largely abandoned due to disappointing results when researchers attempted to replicate findings – but the second wave of research is now showing promising results.
In my view Japan – without question the world leader today when it comes to experimental research in this field – has produced the most compelling demonstrations of the existence and reproducibility of cold fusion.
Japan owes its leading position in large measure to consistent institutional and industrial support and a systematic, step-by-step approach emphasizing the development of advanced materials for cold fusion devices. Cold fusion research lies at the intersection of nuclear physics and materials science, and Japan’s successes in cold fusion would be impossible without a strong industrial base in the fields of nanomaterials and nanotechnology.
The Japanese effort has also profited from the leadership provided by Akito Takahashi of Osaka University, known for his work on hot fusion and other areas of nuclear science, who has been actively involved in cold fusion since its earliest days.
A watershed was reached two years ago with the completion of a multi-institutional project sponsored by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), one of the largest public funding agencies in Japan, working under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The project involved a collaboration among Kyushu University, Tohoku University, Nagoya University, Nissan Motor Co and Technova (a technology firm in which Toyota Motor Corp is a principal shareholder).
The series of 16 collaborative experiments aimed to clarify the nature of “the anomalous heat generation phenomena” in hydrogen-saturated metals, and to reproduce these phenomena in a consistent manner. For this purpose the collaborative effort focused on a technology that Japanese scientists have brought to a high level of maturity: gas loading of specially-prepared “nano-structured materials.”
It is worth describing this method in a bit of detail so that the reader can get a better idea of how cold fusion energy-generation technology might look in the future. Gas loading is an alternative approach to that originally taken by Fleischmann and Pons. The sample material is placed in a closed chamber, which is then filled with hydrogen (or deuterium) gas under pressure, causing a portion of the hydrogen to be absorbed into the sample. Given the right choice of materials gas loading can achieve a high density of absorbed hydrogen nuclei in the sample.
In the relevant experiments, heating elements were installed in the chamber so that experiments could be carried out both at room temperature and at temperatures in the 100-450°C range.
As testified by nearly three decades of experience, the principal key to success lies in the choice and preparation of the sample material. What counts most is the detailed structure on the scale of microns down to nanometers – millionths of a millimeter.
Whether or not the cold fusion effects occur, and how large they will be, depends on the precise geometry of the sample’s crystal structure, on the type and density of defects and impurities, their positions in the crystal lattice, on surface characteristics, etc.
In ordinary industrially produced metals the microstructure and nanostructure can differ very greatly from one batch to another. “Palladium is not palladium!” No two palladium bars are alike in their microstructure; each one retains in its structure a memory of its entire past.
This circumstance – together with failure to attain a sufficiently high density of hydrogen in the sample – explains in great part why past attempts to reproduce the results of cold fusion experiments have so often ended in failure.
Accordingly, Japanese scientists invest great effort into “engineering” specialized materials for cold fusion, using production methods that make it possible to control the nanostructure of the sample to a high degree.
The NEDO program experiments employed metal composite powders synthesized from various combinations of the elements copper, nickel and palladium, in the form of nanoparticles embedded in larger (micrometer-sized) particles of zirconium and silicon oxide.
As a demonstration of reproducibility, samples of palladium-nickel-zirconium oxide powder, taken from a single batch of production, were employed in independent parallel test runs at laboratories at Kobe University and Tohoku University. Both laboratories observed sustained excess heat over a period of more than 10 days. The data were qualitatively and quantitatively similar between the two laboratories.
Other collaborative experiments verified the continuous generation of excess heat over periods ranging up to a month. All 11 experiments using the specially-prepared palladium-nickel-zirconium and copper-nickel-zirconium samples demonstrated net heat production. The total amounts of energy released were larger per atom than in any known chemical reaction, sometimes by a factor of several hundred.
In the course of these experiments, the Japanese researchers verified the existence of other phenomena frequently reported from cold fusion experiments, such as occasional releases of energy in the form of sharp bursts.
Important for future commercial applications was the confirmation that comparable – if slightly lower – amounts of energy could be obtained using ordinary hydrogen rather than deuterium, which is much more expensive to produce.
The results of the NEDO project come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the Japanese cold fusion effort. This effort has produced a plethora of similar or quantitatively even better results over recent years.
Another chapter of cold fusion research in Japan concerns the perspectives for utilizing cold fusion-related technology to neutralize high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, including Fukushima. The basic idea was suggested by the frequent observations of the transmutation of elements in cold fusion experiments.
For more than a decade Mitsubishi Heavy Industries supported research effects in this direction, and extremely promising results were published. More recently the MHI group, led by Yasuhiro Iwamura, has been transferred to a new Condensed Matter Nuclear Research Center at Tohoku University.
Google comes on board
While the Japanese quietly continue their step-by-step progress toward commercial applications, the most sensational news about cold fusion has come from America.
On May 27 of this year the world’s most prestigious scientific journal, Nature, published a detailed research article on cold fusion, co-authored by scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Maryland, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories, the University of British Columbia, the Canadian Institute of Advanced Research – and Google Inc.
It would have been sensational enough for Nature to publish any research at all concerning this supposedly discredited area, but the presence of a Google representative on the list of authors guaranteed a second surprise. And a signal, too. The collaborative research reported in the article was sponsored by Google with some collateral support from federally-funded scientific institutions of the US and Canada.
Entitled “Revisiting the cold case of cold fusion,” the Nature article describes the preliminary results of a collaborative effort designed to take an independent, fresh look at cold fusion.
The Google-sponsored program was launched in 2015. It assembled a new network of research teams, which embarked on designing and carrying out experiments to test the validity of key claims made by cold fusion experimenters. Experienced old veterans of cold fusion research were deliberately not included in the teams.
The Nature article emphasizes the Google teams’ efforts to resolve difficult technical issues that have plagued cold fusion experiments from the beginning, noting that “a few years, not just a few months, were going to be necessary to construct the requisite apparatus and conduct statistically significant numbers of experiments.”
So what are the results? So far nothing, according to the authors – no sign so far of the cold fusion phenomena selected for study. Some readers might conclude: “Aha! One more proof that cold fusion does not exist!” But this is obviously not the conclusion the authors themselves draw.
In fact, as I learned at the ICCF-22 conference, the Google-sponsored effort remains ongoing and is actually being expanded. So why publish such an article now? Clearly the purpose lies not in the experimental results per se – which are just preliminary – but rather to break the taboo against cold fusion research in the scientific community. And to draw more people into the effort.
The article in Nature concludes with an unusual “call to action,” in which the authors state, in part:
The underlying motivation of our effort is that our society is in urgent need of a clean energy breakthrough. Finding breakthroughs requires risk-taking, and we contend that revisiting cold fusion is a risk worth taking. We hope our journey will inspire others to produce and contribute data in this intriguing parameter space.
This is not an all-or-nothing endeavor. Even if we do not find a transformative energy source … the search for a reference experiment for cold fusion remains a worthy pursuit because the quest to understand and control unusual states of matter is both interesting and important.
Feeling the elephant
That brings us to a few words about the theoretical side of cold fusion research. At present, there is no single, experimentally-proven theory explaining the phenomena observed in cold fusion experiments. Instead, we have a variety of interesting hypotheses, many of which contradict each other.
I am reminded of the ancient proverb of “blind men feeling the elephant.” Feeling different parts of the animal with their hands, each of the blind men comes to a different conclusion. Without a plausible theory to guide them, cold fusion experimentalists are also groping in the dark.
In this context, one of the highlights of the ICCF-22 conference was a series of presentations by Peter Hagelstein and his collaborators at MIT, where new activities in the domain of cold fusion are being planned. Hagenstein’s theory has the advantage of predicting important and testable physical effects that are not directly connected with cold fusion per se.
The central issue of any cold fusion theory is to understand how the behavior of an atomic nucleus changes when the nucleus is located in the dense and highly structured environment of a crystal.
Up until recently, nuclear physics has nearly entirely ignored the possible influence of such an environment on what we might term the inner life of a nucleus. Nuclear physics and solid-state physics were in this sense regarded as completely separated disciplines.
According to Hagelstein, however, modern quantum theory provides for the existence of a coupling between a nucleus and vibrations of the crystal lattice in which it is embedded – vibrational waves known as phonons.
Among other things, nuclei can transfer large amounts of energy to phonons, which would finally appear as heat rather than high-energy radiation. Applied to nuclei which have just been formed by a fusion reaction, this could explain the absence of large amounts of radiation in cold fusion experiments.
Also, the ability of nearby nuclei to interact with each other via phonons might provide a mechanism for nuclear reactions such as fusion to occur at vastly higher rates in a crystalline environment. All of this points to a possible explanation of cold fusion.
Independently from that, however, Hagelstein’s theory predicts the possibility of a transfer of energy from one nucleus to another across a considerable distance within a crystal. Subsequently, the MIT group was able to obtain strong experimental evidence for exactly this phenomenon.
The newly-discovered form of “nuclear excitation transfer” in crystals could have significant technological applications of its own. Here we have one of many examples of potential spin-offs of cold fusion research.
To read part one of this series, click here. Next, part three: Asia and the commercial future of cold fusion – it’s not just Japan; India and China may become players
Former Atomic Energy Commission chairmen M Srinivasan (L) and PK Iyengar (died 2011), giants of India’s early research into cold fusion, at a 2006 meeting. Photo: AFP / Prakash Singh
Cold fusion 3: commercial future and Asia
India and China may become players; heating, an early application
It is safe to say that cold fusion, if followed through in all its implications, has the potential to unleash revolutionary developments in many fields of science and technology. Moreover, it is likely that cold fusion is only one of a much broader family of nuclear reactions – Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) – occurring in dense materials, which can generate energy without dangerous release of radiation and might be realized by relatively simple, compact devices.
Judging from the ICCF-22 conference and relevant research literature – and disregarding various sensational, but dubious claims that continue to muddy the waters – it is reasonable to expect that the first commercial applications will emerge over the next five to 10 years in the domain of heat generation in the temperature range up to 200° C.
Early applications could include the heating of rooms and buildings – already a very large market – as well as heat production for various industrial processes. Advantages would include small size, operation over long periods – perhaps years – without refueling and complete absence of CO2 emissions. Even where refueling might be needed, the availability of hydrogen is virtually unlimited and its price is low.
Here one must bear in mind that cold fusion has already proven its ability to release hundreds of times more energy per gram of supplied hydrogen than does chemical combustion. When optimized, the factor may grow to tens of thousands of times or even hundreds of thousands times more energy.
The results of Japanese research into materials for cold fusion reactors also suggest that they could be made quite inexpensive. These prospective advantages rest on the assumptions that the level of heat generation can be regulated in a safe manner and that the host material will not need to be replaced too often. At this point I see no reason not to be optimistic.
The higher the temperature, and the greater the power density that cold fusion reactors can provide, the wider will be the range of potential applications. In compact and portable form, cold fusion devices might prove suitable in the future for powering cars and airplanes, for example. But I shall not attempt to speculate further here.
Where Asia stands
With Japan appearing to be the leading nation in the world today in the field of cold fusion experiments and relevant technology, what about the other Asian countries? What about India and China?
From discussions at ICCF-22 I got the impression that cold fusion research is only barely alive in India today. This is surprising given that the late PK Iyengar, one of the fathers of the Indian nuclear program and director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) at the time of the Fleishmann-Pons experiment, became a great supporter of cold fusion research.
Under his leadership BARC carried out a variety of important experimental investigations, verifying the essential phenomena of cold fusion and demonstrating their nuclear origin. Already by the end of 1989, the Indian Atomic Energy Agency published a book by Iyengar and his colleague M Srinivasan entitled BARC Studies In Cold Fusion. At the height of cold fusion research in India, research groups all over the country were involved.
What happened? In 1990 Iyengar left BARC to become chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India. His successor at BARC was, it seems, bitterly opposed to cold fusion and wasted no opportunity to shut down any work in this field.
As in so many other countries, Indian cold fusion research has suffered greatly from the rejection of cold fusion by the mainline scientific community of the US, and the resulting stigma associated with work in this direction
The good news is that since 2016 cold fusion has picked up again in India. Among other things India’s National Thermal Power Corporation is reportedly sponsoring a cold fusion effort at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay. A dozen or more other research groups are also active in cold fusion, and there appears to be significant excitement among young researchers. Nevertheless, the level of funding still remains low.
What about China? Research activity has been going on more or less continuously, with China’s top academic institution, Qinghua University playing the leading role. But as far as I can see, the effort has long remained low-key, most likely out of fear of losing face in the international scientific community. In a 2015 report on “Nuclear Developments in China” the nuclear engineer Guo Wentao characterized the prevailing attitude toward cold fusion with the following words:
In China, the research on LENR is still at the beginning stage. China is still holding back to see whether the international LENR field will have a breakthrough. China’s attitude towards LENR is to wait until there is a reliable message indicating that there has been a real breakthrough in this field. LENR supporters regret that this also means that China is probably to miss the best chance to develop LENR technology in case this phenomenon can be used commercially.
From what I can gather, this attitude has continued up until recently. It will be interesting to see whether the developments reported in this article, will wake up the dragon.
Maybe that has already happened. The next international conference on cold fusion – ICCF 23 – is scheduled to take place in China next year.
Jonathan Tennenbaum received his PhD in mathematics from the University of California in 1972 at age 23. Also a physicist, linguist and concert pianist, he’s a former editor of FUSION magazine. He lives in Berlin and travels frequently to Asia and elsewhere, consulting on economics, science and technology.