FEATURE ARTICLE

Prof. Sam Ejike OkoyeSunday, March 27, 2005
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samokoye@hotmail.com
London, UK

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COLD FUSION, THE UNLIMITED ENERGY SOURCE: A MYTH OR REALITY?


Introduction

t was the most notorious scientific experiment in recent memory - in 1989, the two men who claimed to have discovered the energy of the future were condemned as impostors and exiled by their peers. Can it possibly make sense to reopen the cold fusion investigation? A surprising number of researchers have already done so.


Almost four stories high, framed in steel beams and tangled in pipes, conduits, cables, and coils, the Joint European Torus (JET) claims to be the largest fusion power experiment in the world. Located in Abingdon, near Oxford, England, JET is a monument to big science, its donut-shaped containment vessel dwarfing maintenance workers who enter it in protective suits. Here in this gleaming nuclear cauldron, deuterium gas is energized with 7 million amperes of electric current and heated to a temperature of 300 million degrees Celsius - more than 10 times hotter than the centre of the sun. Under these extreme conditions atomic nuclei collide and fuse, liberating energy that could provide virtually limitless power.

High-tension lines run directly to the installation, but they don't take electricity out - they bring it in. For a few magic seconds in 1997, JET managed to return 60 percent of the energy it consumed, but that's the best it has ever done, and is typical of fusion experiments worldwide. The US Department of Energy had predicted that we will have to wait another five decades, minimum, before fusion power becomes practical. Meanwhile, the United States continues to depend on fossil fuels for 85 percent of its energy.

Many miles away, in the basement of a new retirement home in the hills overlooking Santa Fe, New Mexico, Edmund Storms, a retired scientist of the US Los Alamos National Laboratory, has built a different kind of fusion reactor. It consists of laboratory glassware, off-the-shelf chemical supplies, two aging Macintosh personal computers for data acquisition, and an insulated wooden box the size of a kitchen cabinet. While JET's 15 European sponsor-nations have paid about US$1 billion for their hardware, and the US government has spent $14.7 billion on fusion research since 1951 (all figures in 1997 dollars), Storms's apparatus and ancillary gear have cost less than $50,000. Moreover, he claims that his equipment works, generating surplus heat for days at a time.

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Storms is not an anti-establishment pseudo scientist pursuing a crackpot theory. For 34 years he was part of the nuclear research establishment himself, employed at Los Alamos on projects such as nuclear motors for space vehicles. Subsequently he testified before a US congressional sub-committee considering the future of fusion. He believes you don't need millions of degrees or billions of dollars to fuse atomic nuclei and yield energy. "You can obtain fusion reactions at room temperature," he says, in his genial, matter-of-fact style. "I am absolutely certain that cold nuclear fusion reaction phenomenon is real. It is quite extraordinary, and if it can be developed, it will have profound effects on society."

That is an understatement. If low-temperature fusion does exist and can be perfected, power generation could be decentralized. Each home could heat or cool itself and produce its own electricity, probably using a form of water as fuel. Even automobiles might be cold fusion powered. Massive generators and ugly power lines could be eliminated, along with now expensive crude oil with its large contribution to the greenhouse effect. Moreover, according to some experimental data, low-temperature fusion doesn't create significant hazardous radiation or radioactive waste.

What is cold fusion and what does it mean to science and society?

Cold fusion is important because it promises to be a new source of pollution-free, inexhaustible energy. In addition, it is important because it reveals the existence of a new way nuclei of atoms can interact that conventional scientific theory predicts is impossible. What then is this phenomenon that offers such promise?

Energy can be obtained from the atomic nucleus in two different ways. On the one hand, a large nucleus can be broken into smaller pieces, such as is experienced by uranium in a conventional nuclear reactor and by the material in an atom bomb. This is called fission. On the other hand, two very small nuclei can be joined together, such as occurs during fusion of two light elements known as deuterium and tritium in a Hot Fusion reactor as well as in a hydrogen thermonuclear bomb. This process, called fusion, also takes place in our Sun and stars to produce much of the light we see.

The fission reaction is caused to happen by adding neutrons (one of the components of an atomic nucleus) to the nucleus of uranium or plutonium to make it unstable. The unstable nucleus splits into two nearly equal pieces, thereby releasing more neutrons, which continue the process. As every one now knows, this process produces considerable dangerous waste that is highly radioactive. The uranium used as fuel also occurs in limited amounts in the earth's crust. As a result, this source of energy is not ideal, although widely used in electricity nuclear generating plants at the present time.

Fusion reactions bring together two atomic nuclei and force them together to combine into one. This takes a large amount of energy to overcome the natural electromagnetic repulsion between the nuclei, but when they combine, the resulting single nucleus has a mass slightly less than the two original ones. This difference in mass (m, say) converts into energy (E, say), as predicted by Einstein and described by his famous equation, E=mc2, c being the speed of light. Lighter nuclei are easier to fuse than heavier ones, so hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, is the best fusion fuel. The normal hot fusion reaction requires the nuclei of two deuterium or tritium atoms to be smashed together with great force or energy. This is accomplished by raising their temperature. However, this temperature is so high that the interacting materials cannot be held in a solid container which would obviously melt at such high temperatures, but must be contained in space by a magnetic field. This process has proven to be very difficult to accomplish for a time sufficient to generate useable energy. In spite of this difficulty, attempts have been under way for the last 40 years and with the expenditure of many billions of dollars. Success continues to be elusive while the effort continues.

For many reasons, fusion power is seen by many as the "natural" long-term universal power source. Some suggested advantages of commercial fusion reactors as power producers are:

Some argue that fusion is the best option for a truly sustainable or long term energy source because the fuel is virtually inexhaustible

Cold fusion, on the other hand, attempts to achieve the same result, but by using solid materials as the container held at normal temperatures. The container consists of various metals, including palladium, with which the deuterium is reacted to form a chemical compound. While in this environment, the electrical barrier between the deuterium nuclei is reduced so that two nuclei can fuse without having to be forced together. Because the process causing this to happen is not well understood, the possibility is rejected by many conventional scientists. Difficulty in producing the process on command has intensified the rejection. While this difficulty is real, it has not, as many sceptics have claimed, prevented the process from being reproduced hundreds of times in laboratories all over the world for the past 13 years. Indeed, the process continues to be reproduced with increasing ease using a variety of methods and materials.

The current status of cold fusion

AS the story goes, on March 23, 1989, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann both of the Chemistry Department of the University of Utah announced their discovery of "cold fusion." It was the most heavily hyped science story of the decade, but the awed excitement quickly evaporated amid accusations of fraud and incompetence when their claims could not be substantiated by their peers. When it was over, Pons and Fleischmann were humiliated by the scientific establishment; their reputations ruined, they fled from their laboratory and dropped out of sight. "Cold fusion" and "hoax" became synonymous in most people's minds, and today, everyone knows that the idea has been discredited.

Or has it? In fact, despite the scandal, laboratories in at least eight countries are still spending millions on cold fusion research. During the past nine years this work has yielded a huge body of evidence, while remaining virtually unknown - because most academic journals adamantly refuse to publish papers on it. At most, the story of cold fusion represents a colossal conspiracy of denial. At least, it is one of the strangest untold stories in 20th-century science.

Since cold fusion is essentially a chemical process similar to what happens in an ordinary electric battery, the real question nagging nuclear physicists is whether a very powerful nuclear process can be triggered by an ordinary chemical process? The answer, based on what is known about nuclear phenomena, is apparently negative. But on the other hand, too many experiments in many laboratories all over the world now seem to indicate the opposite.

Indeed, a variety of nuclear reactions, including fusion, have been demonstrated to occur spontaneously in special chemical environments at very low levels. Some of these reactions produce detectable heat. Occasionally, these reactions can be made to occur at potentially useful rates, but the scientific reasons are not yet understood. Until the necessary environment is identified and can be produced in large quantity, the cold fusion field continues to have only scientific interest to a relatively few people. However, once the novel environment has been identified, normal engineering methods can be applied to make the material in quantity for use in a suitable power plant.

So far, scientists have discovered thirteen different ways to initiate the reactions and have demonstrated different aspects of the effect hundreds of times in many laboratories world-wide. These demonstrations include production of anomalous energy, helium, tritium, and a variety of elements not previously present in the experimental container. Clearly, the phenomenon is not limited to fusion. Because the novel chemical environment is largely produced by chance, many efforts to replicate the effect fail. Such failure frustrates an understanding of the phenomenon and emboldens sceptics.

Explanations for the effect are being provided by dozens of theoreticians, with growing success. The major problem has been that present understanding rests on observing such nuclear reactions only after applying high energy - a brute force method. Naturally, this approach and resulting theory do not apply to the conditions being explored in this work. Subtle forces and processes are overwhelmed by this large energy and made invisible. Indeed, many people noticed that when the applied energy is reduced, more fusion is observed than "theory" would predict. This behaviour has been frequently ignored because the intent of conventional work is to make fusion happen at the highest possible rate. The chemically assisted nuclear reaction (CANR) effect has shown that if the environment is optimised, the required energy can be minimized. Consequently, the phenomenon is just a natural extrapolation of conventional studies, but with the environment no longer being ignored.

The phenomenon demonstrates that within the correct chemical environment, a wide variety of nuclear reactions can be initiated without producing harmful radiation and with few radioactive products. This phenomenon provides a potential way to generate clean, inexhaustible energy as well as to reduce radioactive waste obtained from fission reactors.

Although the effect is now being studied and the results patented in at least six countries, work in the U. S. is minimal and for now cannot be patented, and can rarely be published in conventional US scientific journals. An official bias against the phenomenon exists in the U.S. government that inhibits both public and private financing.

Future Prognosis for cold fusion

Over a 10-year period from 1989, US navy labs ran more than 200 experiments to investigate whether nuclear reactions generating more energy than they consume - supposedly only possible inside stars - can occur at room temperature. Numerous researchers have since pronounced themselves believers.

With controllable cold fusion, many of the world's energy problems would simply melt away: no wonder the US Department of Energy (DoE) is now interested. In December 2004, after a lengthy review of the evidence, it said it was open to receiving proposals for new cold fusion experiments. That is quite a turn around. The DoE's first report on the subject, published 15 years ago, concluded that the original cold fusion results, produced by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and unveiled at a press conference in 1989, were impossible to reproduce, and thus probably false.

The basic claim of Pons and Fleischmann is that dipping palladium electrodes into heavy water - in which oxygen is combined with the hydrogen isotope deuterium - can release a large amount of energy. Placing a voltage across the electrodes supposedly allows deuterium nuclei to move into palladium's molecular structure, enabling them to overcome their natural repulsion and fuse together, releasing a blast of energy. The snag is that fusion at room temperature is deemed impossible by every accepted scientific theory. That doesn't matter, according to David Nagel, an engineer at George Washington University in Washington DC. Superconductors took 40 years to explain, he points out, so there's no reason to dismiss cold fusion. "The experimental case is bullet-proof," he says. "You can't make it go away." In the circumstance everyone should expect to hear a lot more about cold fusion in the next five to ten years.

Epilogue

One might reasonably wonder why, in view of the rising price of energy and global warming, a potential source of cheap, inexhaustible and non-polluting energy would be so completely ignored by governments and scientists alike. Part of the reason is that the majority of main stream scientists are in reality very conservative individuals "scratching" at the coal face of knowledge. Indeed any time there is a revolutionary breakthrough in science it is more often than not initially greeted with scepticism until such a time that the scientific evidence becomes either overwhelming or incontrovertible. It is quite likely that cold fusion will follow the same path of denials that initially greeted the phenomenon of superconductivity (or the disappearance of electrical resistance at very low temperatures). Indeed there have been many technological innovations based on superconductivity. Superconductors are now used to make the most powerful electromagnets known to man, including those used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines used in hospitals, as well as levitating railway trains now operational in China and Japan.

There is however a particular lesson relevant to the world's current overwhelming dependence on fossil fuels that work the polluting engines of the geoeconomy, as well as, for the preservation of the environment. Indeed if the efforts at developing cold fusion power succeed, as they may well do probably within the present decade, energy will no longer be the expensive resource that it is today and the very positive knock-on effects on the global and national economies the world over will be unimaginable. With very cheap and surplus energy available to even the poorest countries of the world, their economies will get a big boost and this may signal the beginning of their emergence from the black hole of abject poverty.

But there is a serious down side for the world's crude oil producers, should this development occur within a decade as seems probable. What will happen next could be likened to the supplanting of analogue telecommunications and broadcasting by the digital versions resulting from the relatively recent emergence of digital electronics. For sure, crude oil will cease to dominate the world's energy demand structure, and crude oil prices will undoubtedly nose-dive to perhaps single digit dollars per barrel as it may then be put into other uses rather than as a prime energy driver of the world economy. The world major oil producers will therefore sooner than later find themselves in dire straits.

As for Nigeria, it will be a great pity if the bulk of her crude oil reserves still lie underground when, rather than if; oil gets displaced as the world's major energy source. It is likely that Nigeria's economic planners, who appear somewhat backward in recognising the growing nexus between science and the economy, may not take this development seriously. The reality though is that the industrialised countries are quietly but heavily investing billions of dollars in hydrogen fuel cell research in full anticipation of the inevitable emergence of a hydrogen economy. Moreover, it all adds up when it is recalled that the Bush Administration has virtually eliminated funds for oil and gas research in this year's US federal budget while funding for hydrogen fuel research has been boosted. Indeed, cold fusion is not just another avenue to limitless energy generation from hydrogen but points to the inevitability of a hydrogen economy in the foreseeable future.

Nigeria should therefore seriously consider pulling out of OPEC and then make the best of the present salad days of crude oil by expanding production even if this would mean selling her oil at lower prices, but she must reinvest most of the proceeds in developing her educational, agricultural, industrial and manufacturing infrastructures.

Sam Okoye, a retired professor of astrophysics, life fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Science and one time Dean of the Faculty of Physical Sciences at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka writes from London.