Watered Down: The Death – and Rebirth – of Cold Fusion

“I believe that water will one day be used as a fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light…”

Jules Verne – from Mysterious Island, 1874

On March 23rd, 1989, Dr. Stanley Pons and Dr. Martin Fleischmann – two of the world’s most respected electrochemists – appeared at a press conference initiated by their employer, the University of Utah. There, Pons and Fleischmann made a remarkable announcement to a stunned audience. They claimed to have discovered a method for generating nuclear-like energy from simple water. Unlike conventional thermonuclear fusion, this new process could be accomplished at room temperature, or just slightly above, meaning it left no deadly radioactive waste. The mainstream media quickly dubbed this process “cold fusion.”

Two scientists claim to have discovered cold fusion

Image taken from http://coldfusionnow.org

The implications of this announcement were nothing short of extraordinary. If true, it meant the world was finally within reach of a cheap, infinitely renewable, totally non-polluting energy source.

Supporting evidence from other labs seemed to confirm that a reaction of some kind was indeed present. Dr. M Srinivasan, of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, later recounted his own findings in a documentary, stating, “the most important and unbelievable phenomenon at the time was the observation of tritium.” For all intents and purposes, tritium is the key indicator of a nuclear reaction.

Despite such intriguing evidence, a frenzy of harsh criticisms erupted like a nuclear bomb. The scientific establishment declared outright war on the very idea of cold fusion, arguing it violated all known laws of physics. When they failed to immediately replicate the original findings for themselves, rival scientists labeled the work of Pons and Fleischmann as “sloppy” and “inaccurate.” Soon, both men were charged with allegations of fraudulence – allegations which had no corroborating proof.

The media latched onto this narrative and cold fusion became a world-wide joke, an example of “junk science” on par with the Flat Earth theory. Once highly regarded in their fields, both Pons and Fleischmann were forced to leave the United States in absolute disgrace. The term “cold fusion” became every bit as toxic as nuclear radiation.

News media denounces the remarkable cold fusion claims

Image taken from http://newenergytimes.com

Was this hostile campaign against cold fusion motivated by genuine scientific concern? Or were there other factors at work, factors that had nothing to do with science and everything to do with money, politics, ego, and power?

For many of us, it is difficult to imagine scientists as anything else than altruistic professionals, men and women striving for the betterment of all humanity. While for the most part true, there is a long, dark history in the scientific world of defamation, underhanded tactics, and bitter feuds.

Isaac Newton, the father of modern physics, waged an aggressive battle against Gottfried Leibniz, a German philosopher who Newton believed “stole some of his calculation methods, even though Leibniz had conceived of some of the basic ideas of calculus on his own. As old men, the two great thinkers frequently and publicly fought about their contributions to calculus […] Newton used his position as president of the Royal Society to anonymously draft a report claiming that he was the inventor of calculus. The rivalry continued until Leibniz’s death.”

Leibniz wasn’t alone. Astronomer John Flamsteed “felt that Newton didn’t adequately acknowledge his contributions to the Principia. He may have been justified: Newton removed all references to Flamsteed in the second edition of the Principia.” (howstuffworks.com)

Inventor Thomas Edison is now-well known for his questionable business dealings and pirated ideas. Although credited with originating the fluoroscope and the phonograph, these inventions existed years before Edison patented his own versions. He made no effort to assign credit to their respective inventors, instead happily profiting from their creations. Worst, Edison obtained a copy of Georges Méliès’s “A Trip to the Moon” and exhibited the film himself, reaping “huge amounts of money […] although Méliès didn’t get a cent from these showings. When Méliès finally arrived in America to show the film, at a great personal cost, everybody had already seen it. This caused Méliès an enormous financial loss that may have directly led to his infamous bankruptcy.”

Edison also waged a shameless PR war against Nikola Tesla, arguably the greatest mind of the modern age. Tesla originated alternating current, radio, fluorescent lighting, remote control, and robotics. A total of seven hundred patents owe their existence to Nikola Tesla. He “designed several products for Edison, expecting to receive a promised $50,000 bonus for his efforts (about $1 million today). But when Tesla asked for his reward in the spring of 1885, Edison told him it had been a joke all along. Tesla quit.” Later on, Edison held public gatherings where he electrocuted dogs, cows, horses, and even an elephant, all of this in a flagrant, irresponsible attempt to scare people away from Tesla’s alternating current. (cnn.com)

If titans like Newton and Edison were not above such follies, then what of contemporary scientists who operate in a world where special interests, power brokers, and dollar signs rule?

The cold fusion backlash has its origins in a patent dispute. Steven E. Jones, a physics professor at Brigham Young University (who would later claim the World Trade Towers were brought down by controlled demolition), learned of the cold fusion progress made by Pons and Fleischmann. In a brazen attempt to undermine their research and steal the spotlight for himself, Jones went public with his own flawed results, while at the same time dismissing the work of Pons and Fleischmann. Fearing Jones might derail their hopes of patenting their own hard-earned process, Pons and Fleischmann were pressured by the University of Utah to circumvent the cherished “peer review” system and announce their findings prematurely.

This controversial choice marked both men as easy targets for ridicule, but certain powerful institutions had an even greater motivation for killing cold fusion. At the time of the announcement, billions of government dollars were tied up in the conventional “hot fusion” industry. Physicists from hot fusion facilities such as Princeton and MIT were among the most vocal of critics. And for good reason. Their budgets were based largely on grants and funding to develop hot fusion technologies. They had taken massive amounts of money from public coffers  over the previous four decades to construct magnetically ringed tokamak reactors, all in a continuously fruitless effort to duplicate solar fusion. If this new process was indeed true, it meant chemists would be able to produce renewable energy for pennies vs. the billions of dollars physicists had come to rely on for their own never-ending research.

Princeton's tokamak nuclear reactor. Image taken from http://www.sciencephoto.com

Princeton’s tokamak nuclear reactor. Image taken from http://www.sciencephoto.com

Despite the devastating fallout from the 1989 announcement, certain scientists continued to investigate cold fusion in secret. We are seeing their results today. NASA has recently begun developing technology that may eventually place a clean-burning nuclear reactor in every household across the globe. Just one day ago, an Italian engineer claimed to have achieved cold fusion, his remarkable results independently verified by a group of third-party experts. See the below links for more information.

And yet, the stigma from that 1989 announcement remains just as volatile as ever. Read this article – and the heated comments section – for a firsthand look at the intensity of the cold fusion debate.

For the longest time, heavier than air flight was deemed impossible. Then came the Wright brothers. Perhaps soon, we’ll look back and think, “they said the same thing about cold fusion.”


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