On March 23-24, 2010 the American Chemical Society, one of the largest science organizations in the world, hosted a conference called New Energy Technology, during its national meeting. Fifty papers were presented. Another name for the topic of the conference was ‘cold fusion.’
In a way, I’m reluctant to bring up the topic of cold fusion. The reason is not because cold fusion was a botched ‘epic breakthrough’ in 1989. It became a media circus. Then the field imploded into utter disrepute when the original experiment by Fleischmann and Pons could not be repeated. [Overview at Wikipedia: Cold Fusion]
No, the reason for the reluctance is the raised profile of science bashing that exists in countries such as the United States and Great Britain. There are anti-science voices finding amplification through the money and organization of anti-global warming interests. Some of those interests have origins in the energy industry. These voices are primed and ready to jump on something like a revival of cold fusion – a potential alternative energy source. They will cry ‘more bad science.’ It’s not. It is science doing what science is good at doing – challenging and responding. But that won’t matter to people for whom the narrative and its impact is far more important than the reality.
I’ll try for a brief reality-based narrative.
Cold fusion is not having a ‘revival.’ However, the idea that there is something going on with the electrolysis of palladium and heavy water (or some variation thereof), continues to stimulate experimentation.
Even after 1989, some laboratories, for example in Japan, France, and the U.S., continued to work on it; usually without much success. In 2004 a repeat of the 1989 U.S. Department of Energy study that summarized the findings on cold fusion as negative: “While significant progress has been made in the sophistication of calorimeters since the review of this subject in 1989, the conclusions reached by the reviewers today are similar to those found in the 1989 review.”
There were caveats: “The current reviewers identified a number of basic science research areas that could be helpful in resolving some of the controversies in the field, two of which were:
1) material science aspects of deuterated metals using modern characterization techniques, and
2) the study of particles reportedly emitted from deuterated foils using state-of-the-art apparatus and methods.
The reviewers believed that this field would benefit from the peer-review processes associated with proposal submission to agencies and paper submission to archival journals.”
These two slightly equivocating points, negative findings but research to be done, triggered another round of mainstream science ostracism but provided a handful of researchers with the threads to pull themselves forward.
The first big failure set up the pattern. It made it extremely difficult for scientists to do the typical slow, incremental science that might, or might not, lead to something substantial. Essentially, no respect and no funding. That difficulty might be seen as unfair. However, cold fusion is extraordinary science: It seems to promise a source of almost inexhaustible energy (fusion) without the frighteningly high temperatures and pressures of traditional fusion processes. Cold fusion was also a mystery (still is) that seemed to challenge some of the basic tenets of nuclear physics. Cold fusion is not ‘normal’ science. Its visibility was and will be far higher than most topics in science. The penalties for being wrong on high profile science are greater, as they should be.
Scientists working on cold fusion are aware of this. Most would prefer to take the profile down many notches. Instead of cold fusion, they’re more likely to call it low energy nuclear reaction (LENR) or condensed matter nuclear science. Not hiding it, exactly, but trying to de-dramatize the research. Not all of them take this approach. Some are quite content to throw gantlets and write pugnacious papers. As one of the more moderate researchers put it, the lack of mainstream recognition – specifically the peer review and publishing channels – allowed a lot of undisciplined science and scientists (a.k.a. cranks) into the field. Still, in 2010 there are several hundred researchers working on various aspects of cold fusion. Some are from well known universities and laboratories, including the U.S. military. They are still not well regarded by mainstream science, but they persist.
None of this is new to science. Science has often been unfair. Sometime the people who have suffered the slings and arrows get their day, if only after they’re long dead. Sometimes they get no day at all, ever, even if their science becomes accepted.
Science demands evidence. Cold fusion has had a problem with that. Science requires experiments that can be repeated. Cold fusion is infamous for that. Then too, evidence is not always convincing, which means there is an element of narrative, even in scientific discourse. Cold fusion has even more trouble with that, because its original narrative was a crock. The narrative of any scientific finding is at least helped by having a plausible theory of explanation. Cold fusion has had a big problem with that too. It’s one thing to point to a demonstration of cold fusion and say ‘it works’ (when it doesn’t) and even worse when you can’t provide a solid theory for why it works (or doesn’t).
Cold fusion is digging itself out of a really deep hole. It will take far more evidence than usually required to regain mainstream acceptability. Some solid theory wouldn’t hurt. It can happen though – if the research has enough evidence and it can make its case. There are plenty of examples – plate tectonics for one, the theory of relativity for another.
Because cold fusion is also a technology, if it works – if somebody actually demonstrates the creation of fusion energy at low temperatures – then eventually cold fusion will get its day. The world wants other ways to make energy. If the theory lags behind, well, that’s okay. (After all, the laws of gravity are used all the time, even though we still don’t know what gravity is.) Don’t be surprised if you see contradictory positions on the newest cold fusion research. If the science deniers jump in, the volume of contradiction will be beyond belief – literally.