By Bob Fagaly, Ph.D.
One thing about roller coasters is that you go up and down and up and down, but at the finish, you are in the same place you started.
One of the more intriguing “discoveries” in science happened a little over two decades ago. In March of 1989, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann at the University of Utah announced that they had measured what they believed to be the byproducts of a nuclear fusion reaction.
Rather than the traditional plasma physics experiments using vacuum chambers larger than your house and temperatures approaching the sun’s core (more than a hundred millions degrees), their bench top apparatus looked like your normal glass electrochemical reaction chamber. Their experiment involved electrolysis of heavy water (D2O) on the surface of a palladium (Pd) electrode.
If Cold Fusion were real, we would have had a cheap, safe and abundant source of energy. The impact on society would have been phenomenal (not to mention the billions of dollars in royalties to the University).
I heard the announcement as I was driving to General Atomics (GA) in San Diego where I was a member of the Applied Physics Group (part of GA’s 400+ person fusion research effort). By the time I got to work, nearly a dozen members of my group were in the hall discussing what this could possibly be.
The first calculation determined that if the mechanism was the traditional deuterium/tritium (DT) reaction, Pons and Fleischmann would have received enough radiation to have killed them within 5 minutes. Since they were still alive, we started looking for another mechanism.
A friend of mine happened to be a faculty member at Utah and an expert in solid-state physics and thermodynamics. I called him up to find out what was going on. His response was that, for patent reasons, the university lawyers wouldn’t allow anyone into the lab to inspect the equipment. So, we were still in the dark as to what was going on.
The roller coaster ride was about to start.
To place this in context, just three years earlier, High-Temperature Superconductivity was discovered by Georg Bednorz and Alex Muller at IBM, Zurich. This raised the transition temperature for superconductivity from above liquid helium and hydrogen (~25 K/-414°F) temperatures (~125 K/-234°F) to well above that of liquid nitrogen (77 K/-320°F).
The possibilities for power transmission, extremely high field superconducting magnets and ultrasensitive magnetic sensors seemed endless. Hundreds of millions of dollars in research funding flowed into superconductivity, and patents were being filed left and right to take financial advantage of what was perceived to be a multi-billion dollar new product area.
Apparently, Utah’s lawyers saw an even larger payoff and immediately clamped down on all information to protect their perceived intellectual property. Later on, they even hired lobbyists to get Congress to pay for additional research.
Since we (GA) had some of the brightest minds in conventional fusion research—and with the enthusiastic blessing of upper management—we got on the roller coaster and decided to duplicate Pons and Fleischmann’s experiment as best we could.
A Gram of Palladium…
For some reason I still can’t explain, I happened to have a gram of palladium at home (proving my wife’s assertion that I am a pack rat). I immediately drove home to get it while other group members were hunting up glassware, pillaging GA’s supply of heavy water and locating where any unused neutron detectors were.
The net result was that we spent (wasted?) two weeks trying to get a reaction without success. That’s not quite true. We did get one experiment where the palladium caught fire, but that was when someone allowed air and hydrogen gas to get onto the bare palladium. Impressive, but no neutrons, no gamma rays and no other fusion products such as helium.
Most other groups met with the same negative results. A few groups reported initial success, but could not repeat them. One interesting observation about the schools that reported initial success was that they also had highly successful football teams. I’m not sure what that means, but it was a source of humor within the physics community. Within a year, hopes fell with the overwhelming number of negative results and the withdrawal of the “positive” duplications.
By the end of the year, most scientists considered Pons and Fleischmann’s claims of cold fusion dead as a doornail. At this point, the roller coaster was at the bottom. One of the hardest things to do is to disprove a negative (i.e., cold fusion doesn’t exist), especially to a non-technical crowd. A few diehards continued to work, but the mainstream efforts stopped.
A few years later, some more positive results were claimed (the roller coaster was at another, albeit lower, peak), but, like earlier, those failed to be duplicated (another bottoming out of the roller coaster). Just a few years ago, cold fusion was back in the news, but as of today, no one has been able to repeatedly demonstrate anything akin to cold fusion.
Like the roller coaster, we’ve gone up and down and up and down. Today, we are back in the same place we started. I must admit it was an exciting (and ultimately disappointing) two weeks. Getting phone calls from the local TV stations multiple times a day wanting to know what we had found soon got boring.
My personal thoughts are that Pons and Fleischmann may have stumbled across some interesting surface chemistry sufficient to generate an exothermic reaction. I don’t think that they ever initiated a fusion reaction.
The other observation is that, when there is a chance of real money being generated, lawyers appear and try to drive the (research) vehicle. At best, they can protect your intellectual property (always a wise idea). At worst, they drive you up (or into) a tree.
Be that as it may, when doing science, you have to be prepared not only for success, but for failure. Not all experiments are successful.
I sometimes wish that there was an actual Journal of Wrong Results (as opposed to the no longer in print, but very humorous Journal of Irreproducible Results) where you could list (anonymously?) things you’ve tried that didn’t work.
If for no other reason, to stop someone else from wasting their time repeating the same dumb experiment you tried and avoiding another roller coaster ride.