This day in history

This is Easter, the day Christians everywhere set aside to celebrate the day they were hoaxed by a gang of Middle Eastern charlatans into believing a local mystic rose from the dead. Zeno finds that this year it’s also a day to remember another flop: the cold fusion debacle.

It’s been 19 years since Pons and Fleischmann announced their purported discovery of a mechanism for generating energy from a room-temperature fusion cell. Unlike the resurrection, I was actually there for that one. I was a post-doc at the University of Utah at that time, in the building right next door to where Pons and Fleischmann worked, and I attended the various events associated with the “discovery”.

Even then, there was reason to doubt: I remember being mystified that they’d chosen to announce it via press release rather than a scientific publication (a strategy that you’ll notice the Discovery Institute has expanded upon), and when I attended Pons lecture on the phenomenon, I was bothered by the lack of mechanism and the uncontrollable variability in the experiments — it was basically a laundry list of experiments done, some of which did nothing, some that got a trickle of excess energy output, and others that exploded. It was exciting and interesting, and we all hoped that this was real, but it wasn’t science yet.

And it still isn’t. I guess some people are still puttering away at it, but it’s still an inconsistent phenomenological collection of anecdotes.

If only Pons and Fleischmann had thought to make a religion of it, that wouldn’t be a problem.


  1. #1 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    March 23, 2008

    That area is still cold.

    undeniably have made immense progress

    While it isn’t fair to compare a working technology with a developing one, that is still the very best diagram one could wish for. Go fusion!

    They used to say that practical fusion power was always twenty years away.

    But AFAIU when they started to firm up a realistic plan they found out that a “fast track” (enough investment) for the conventional research track means the first actual power plant is 45 years away from producing energy due to the need for a technological demo plant in between.

    Without a concurrent fast track project, the time needed seems to be roughly double that, i.e. a century away. (Which is why competitive inertial fusion research is, um, hot!)

    Seems to me that yes you momentarily fuse the proton into the Boron, but ultimately you are “splitting” the Boron into 3 Helium nuclei by firing a proton into it

    The dividing line in behavior between fusion or fission goes between the nuclei with the largest binding energies, iron (and nickel). Fusion releases energy for lighter nuclei, fission absorbs energy.

    This is why fusion is used to describe the above reaction, and I note that the link actually explicitly lists it.

  2. #2 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    March 23, 2008

    I would guess they’re refering to the so-called “Galactic Habitable Zone” (GHZ).

    And if it is based on likewise academically cold creationist astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez book they also throw in that Earth is presumably nicely located vs science observations. In that way they can decrease the probability for chance in the religious anthropic argument.

    [The religious anthropic argument misuses a priori probability to make implications for the real interesting a posteriori likelihood of an anthropic principle. I.e. Earth looks unique (religious probability for life) until you realise there are probably (and now verifiably) many other planet systems out there (in principle observable likelihood for life).]

    I suspect that you can throw away most of GG’s probable presumptions.

    Yes, we have a large moon that makes it possible to see solar and lunar eclipses. But marginally so, and a closer moon from capture would have been both better located and more representative than our uniquely dry and comparatively dull moon from impact.

    Yes, we are reasonably far away from the galactic center to see more of the disc, but why not compare with a globular cluster out of the plane instead?

    And so on and so forth.

  3. #3 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    March 24, 2008

    You left out a “generally” in that statement.

    Hmm. I thought those exceptions were breeder reactions in nucleosynthesis. And AFAIU the link implies that as well.

    But sure, I could have qualified this more than just giving a perhaps obscure reference.

    Exactly how does Boron producing Helium qualify as fusion?

    I’m not sure I see the problem; can you point out what specifically doesn’t match the details of the analysis in the link?

  4. #4 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    March 24, 2008

    @ SteveM:

    we have an element “splitting” into 3 lighter elements.

    SteveM, I’m not a nuclear physicist either. I happen to agree with your admirable intention, so I would appreciate all help with our confusions.

    Okay, now I see that you are getting at. But I’m not sure I agree with the term usage as Blake.

    The p of plain old hydrogen is an element with Z=1. So here we have two low Z elements that are combined, where the products are heavier than the lightest of the combined elements. (The Z=0 neutron in fission isn’t an element.) The hydrogen is “fused” when making the heavier product.

    However one likes that, the later used practical definition revolves around energy release vs involved elements, so “It must be exothermic: This may be obvious, but it limits the reactants to the low Z (number of protons) side of the curve of binding energy” seems to be consistent with it. This is also consistent with my old text book on nuclear physics (“Introduction to nuclear physics”, Harald Enge).

    This places p + B and similar reactions firmly within fusion, as well as the CNO and other low Z catalytic reactions. The result is less mess with exceptions during descriptions of nucleosynthesis and technological fusion, so I can be happy with that.

    I can of course also be happy with calling it fission as well. The physics is the same. :-P I’ve just never heard that description before.

    @ Jed:

    A pile of papers on a subject is not a good measure of scientific or technological vitality in a subject. It is the current work that says if it is vital science.

    I actually don’t know much of current work, as it seems to have disappeared under the radar, supporting Blake’s description. Your own description of “revival” and no progress in 15 years seems to concur.

  5. #5 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    March 25, 2008

    @ Jed:

    Essentially you are giving me a conspiracy theory on academic suppression (“enormous opposition”). Sorry, but that is unlikely. As they use to say, if it works against expectations it will be a Nobel, so there is no way global suppression works in science.

    But thanks, now I don’t need to review all those papers myself. :-P

  6. #6 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    March 27, 2008

    @ Jed:

    That is nonsense. There is no conspiracy whatever.

    A conspiracy theory in the form of a deceptive plot in academic politics.

    You have just demonstrated how academic suppression works.

    Not really. It is an important quality to be able to judge papers quickly in research. This is to be expected, and it is also to be expected that sometimes good results slip under the radar.

    What I did was different. On the web it is instead an important quality to be able to judge areas or posts quickly. There are many crackpots respectively kooks out there compared with the competitive environment of research.

  7. #7 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    March 27, 2008

    There is no deceptive plot. The people who oppose cold fusion sincerely believe that it is fraud and lunacy.

    Well then, if you accept that “academic politics” are non-deceptive, your argument isn’t with me but with those science practices which I seemingly adhere to well (but from another agenda entirely). I must point out that in either case it is still an unlikely explanation, see my earlier comments.

    And since we now have covered every angle of this topic, I’m satisfied with giving you any last words.

  8. #8 KitemanSA
    October 14, 2008

    @62: “Fusion power is only 10 years away!!”

    Nonsense! Fusion power is only 8 minutes away! ;)