Throwback Thursday: The Foolish Fallacy of Cold Fusion (Synopsis)

“Between cold fusion and respectable science there is virtually no communication at all. …because the Cold-Fusioners see themselves as a community under siege, there is little internal criticism. Experiments and theories tend to be accepted at face value, for fear of providing even more fuel for external critics, if anyone outside the group was bothering to listen. In these circumstances, crackpots flourish, making matters worse for those who believe that there is serious science going on here.” -David Goodstein

So, you want to reach the fabled "breakeven" point when it comes to nuclear fusion? If you can get there, you'll have opened up an entire new source of clean, reliable, safe, renewable and abundant energy. You will change the world. At present, fusion is one of those things we can make happen through a variety of methods, but -- unless you're the Sun -- we don't have a way to ignite and sustain that reaction without needing to input more energy than we can extract in a usable fashion from the fusion that occurs.

Image credit: Atmospheric Imaging Assembly of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Image credit: Atmospheric Imaging Assembly of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

One alternative approach to the norm is, rather than try and up the energy released in a sustained, hot fusion reaction, to instead lower the energy inputted, and try to make fusion happen under "cold" conditions. But is this even possible?

Image credit: Phillippe Plailly of Image credit: Phillippe Plailly of

Probably not; come and find out why!


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The case example of the Sun seems like it would diminish enthusiasm for fusion, not enhance. The solar core's energy intensity is pretty low in "energy per meters cubed" terms - it only produces a ton of energy because it's so huge. Fusion here on Earth has to do better than the Sun.

What are those hot fusion things called? Homolhusks? Tomoltuks?

What would be the energy ratio of fusion using an efficient ion accelarator? In principle one could accelerate a Dueterium (or Tritium) Nucleus and have it collide with the same. Not all collisions would fuse, but could you get enough to fuse, given a 100% efficient accelerator that you could reach or beat breakeven?

Presumably we try to use hot fusion, because the failed collisions can donate their energy to the next collision. It might be tough to recycle the collision energy of these failed fusions...

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 17 Oct 2014 #permalink

Isn't a thermonuclear weapon a "more energy out than in" fusion reaction. The fission primary puts a lot less energy into the fusion secondary than the secondary yield.

So perhaps you need to clarify that nobody has done a net power producing fusion reaction that is continuous(ish) and from which you can extract useful energy. (I'm not counting as useful terraforming like Project Plowshare )

As I remember, the "cold fusion" experiments involved shooting stuff into a palladium matrix. I assumed on reading it that the palladium was storing energy - which can happen with a palladium matrix - and releasing it in cascades. It might then appear to be "extra" energy because a burst would exceed what had been put in over some period - and even more if you do it carefully if the palladium is already somewhat "full". That is a largely mechanical process in which a cascade develops in the matrix that pushes out a bunch of stuff. It has nothing to do with fusion. The idea that it could be fusion is idiotic. I mentally compare it to finding some potential energy and converting to kinetic without realizing that you've disturbed the potential and thus thinking you've uncovered "free" energy from nowhere. As in, you push a guy and he falls off a cliff and hits a target with a big bang. If you skip the idea that he's on the cliff, it looks to you like your push just made a big bang.

Note: I haven't bothered doing any work on this. It's dumb.

It's odd this article is released the same week that the E-Cat results have been published.

Nice! I like the style and the only apparently unrelated Hoax story - I use to remember a couple too, in my daily surfing between skeptics (which side I am on) and believers, namely " Keely Motor" and "sniffer airplane" are two of my favorites to explain a scam could last long, involve many (and scientists and power and rich people), make a lot of money move in (and expecially in pocket of the entrepreneur) and... not necessarily the enterpreneur has to be from Italy...
See you, I am following. Keep the flag up.

I thought the binding energy went down after you get heavier than Iron. How could going from Nickel to Copper release fusion energy?

A fact-free logic-free argument as to why nobel laureates and a panel of prominent european physicists are all wrong, and Ethan Siegel is much cleverer than they. Indeed whole academic conferences are held, the collective intellectual strength of which is insufficient to disturb Ethan in his puissant majesty of intrinsic, inherent correctness about all things of which he is ignorant in fact.

By Aubrey Kohn (not verified) on 17 Oct 2014 #permalink

It might interest you that there was once a project to harvest energy from fusion bombs (I don't remember the name of it). But the idea was to detonate them underground, then harvest the heat -kind of create your own geothermal zone. I don't think any "shots" were ever made though. There also had been a project to crush rock to allow trapped natural gas to be harvested. I think that one actually did a "shot", but the resultant gas was deemed too radioactive.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 17 Oct 2014 #permalink

You have to admit that physics doesn't have all the answers. Where is the missing mass of the universe. Why do we have reality television. Maybe fleishman and pons didn't have a clue, but there is something going in terms of excess heat with palladium and hydrogen. pl

Sorry I still believe there is MUCH we don't know about physics and can't put a formula around. we know about magnetism electricity and the electromagnetic interactions. I still am waiting until we put formula around the electro-gravatic and the magneto-gravatic spectrum. The way harmonics interact with sooo much in the electromagnetic spectrum I believe it is too early to count anything out.

Sorry, I still believe there is plenty of gullibles and some fraudster, and a bunch of retired teachers will not change the fact that E Cat is a bullshit exactly as it was (and is) the fabolous Hyperion (or even the Steorn Orb or Keshe stuff).
Hold tight your faith, we are NOT going to join Rossi's believers in any case if not to remember to people there that the whole stuff - included Rossi himself as a phisic genius- is simply unbelievable.

There are multiple tricks, which allow nuclear reactions to work even at room temperature. After all, the electron capture is one of them and it's known for decades already. If the electron capture is possible, then even LENR is possible, because electron capture IS also LENR. But I will remain focused to differences between hot and cold fusion for the sake of simplicity.

1) The hot fusion considers only fusion of tiny nuclei into larger ones, which does require high activation barriers. At the case of larger nuclei this barrier is greatly lowered in the same way, like during coalescing of large mercury droplets.

2) The hot fusion considers only fusion of naked atom nuclei without electrons. Under such a situation the Coulomb barrier applies without any shielding. But the cold fusion always work with atoms covered with electrons. These electrons provide natural shielding of Coulomb forces up to level, the atoms are electrically neutral as a whole.

3) The hot fusion consider the shielding effect of electrons negligible, which is correct for small atom nuclei, which can be ionized easily. But the complete stripping of all electrons from large atom nuclei is virtually impossible without destruction of atom nuclei itself. It means, the electrons at the bottom orbitals of large atom represent the energetic continuum with atom nuclei and their shielding of Coulomb interactions is much more effective.

4) In addition, the electrons at the bottom orbitals of heavy atoms are closely packed each other and compressed mutually. Under this situation the intrinsic mass of electrons doesn't apply, the electrons are forced to move collectively like the particles of much higher effective mass. And they propagate in Bloch waves like the fermion condensate there. It means, the bottom layers of electron undulate in waves, which can be both transverse (like the common valence orbitals) both longitudinal (perpendicular to atom radius) and these waves can resonate mutually.

5) The hot fusion considers, the hydrogen or deuterium atoms fuse in form of positively charge ions (protons, deuteron). But in metal hydrides the hydrogen atoms are of negative charge, so that they're actually attracted to atom nuclei up to certain level. The mutual resonance of atom orbitals enable the submersion of such an atoms deeply bellow surface of valence orbitals with mechanisms or resonance tunneling. This is explained the significant chemical & catalytic activity of transition metal hydrides.

6) The hot fusion theorists consider only collisions of atom pairs inside of fusion plasma. But the cold fusion proceeds in condensed phase only where multiple atoms collide at the single moment. In this case the various lattice effects (Mossbauer resonance, the astroblaster effects) may apply. The larger clusters of atoms collide at the same moment, the higher probability is, the Coulomb barrier will get overcome locally. We cannot create the sparks with shaking of sand grains in the closed box, but the shaking of larger pebbles generates sparks and even photon upconversion routinely (the Colorado Indians did use it for ceremonial illuminations). With increasing amount of atoms colliding at the same moment the activation barrier gets decreased exponentially. The 256 (just the cube of 5x5x5) atoms colliding at the same moment will lower the activation energy in eight orders of magnitude, which well within the reach of cold fusion conditions during electrolysis. We even already have quite intriguing experimental evidence of this mechanism during fusion of deuterons with molten lithium and chemical analogy of it with water clusters - so I'm pretty sure, this mechanism does apply.

7) The multiple collisions of atoms also greatly increase the time interval required with Lawson criterion, i.e. the time which the atoms remain in intimate contact. You can imagine it with Newton cradle - the boundary atoms will bounce fast, but the central atoms remain attached each other. This delay is important thing, which doesn't and cannot apply to hot fusion, which considers binary collisions only.

These tricks of cold fusion are all classical physics based and now we can consider various less or more ad hoced quantum and quantum gravity effects, on which roughly sixty existing theories of cold fusion are based. You can browse them and collect another possible effects, which may or may not increase yield of cold fusion. But if you're lazy to review them one after another, then you simply even cannot know, why the cold fusion can run while the hot one cannot and you're predestined to oppose it for ever....

By Zephir AWT (not verified) on 17 Oct 2014 #permalink

There is a fairly simple experiment I really would like someone to do, who is in a position to do it.

1. Get a small piece of palladium and put it in a pressure chamber.

2. Evacuate the chamber to ensure the palladium out-gasses anything that might be associated with it. Keep the chamber evacuated for an appropriate period of time.

3. Now pressurize the chamber with deuterium gas. The palladium will absorb quite a bit of gas, so a significant quantity of deuterium will be needed for the chamber to stabilize at some particular pressure point (25 atmospheres?).

3.5. In considering the desired pressure point, we want to think in terms of the original cold-fusion electrolysis experiments. The palladium electrode became saturated with deuterium slowly --here we are filling the metal quickly. The maximum amount of deuterium that could get into the electrode is related to atmospheric pressure --extra gas could easily escape the metal. Meanwhile, the cold-fusion theorists seem to think that the more deuterium that can get into the metal, the greater the chance for cold fusion to happen. So, why not 10 or 25 atmospheres of deuterium-gas pressure?

4. Wait to see if something happens. Since we fill the metal with deuterium quickly in the pressure chamber, if something is going to happen, it should happen within hours --maybe less than one single hour-- rather than after weeks (due to slow electrode-saturation rate in an electrolysis experiment). One might reasonably think that if a week goes by with this experiment, and nothing happens, then nothing is ever going to happen that involves deuterium and palladium and cold fusion. On the other hand....well, that's why I want the experiment to get done! To find out!

By VernonNemitz (not verified) on 18 Oct 2014 #permalink

Around the turn of the century, I had a client that was a small private-sector space venture in Silicon Valley. They were headed up by a reputable though somewhat unorthodox scientist, and over time they came and went like so many other startups. But along the way, through one casual meeting and then another, I came into contact with what was then a thriving fringe "industry" of people seeking "over-unity devices."

A fellow engineer and I, he of far better general engineering chops than myself, set out to examine as many of these as we could find. The goal being to see if any of them could stand up to scrutiny and then to an independent test. We would happily sign NDAs and then seek to duplicate whatever-it-was ourselves, and report accordingly.

Over the course of about a year we ran into numerous "characters" of varying character. Most were honestly seeking something or another at the fringes between physics and "new physics" such as it was (or wasn't). A few were clearly charlatans. In between were some truly bizarre characters, who seemed to live in a world of their own making, where the line between reality and science fiction fuzzed into fractalized patterns in psychedelic colors: interesting to contemplate but of no practical value.

In the end we turned up a goose-egg, but the sheer weirdness of it all was worthwhile "for the experience," in the same manner as a wild romp through fantasyland.

That said, a goose-egg is still a goose-egg.

And as far as I'm concerned, the best path to fusion is to make full use of _fission_ right now, moving toward thorium fission as quickly as possible, and giving fusion researchers all the time they may need to get a working Tokamak or Polywell or whatever might turn out to work (yo Ethan, what do you think of the Polywell?). As for "cold fusion," it's reasonable to continue to allow the Office of Naval Research to continue to make small speculative grants, since the amounts of money are small and one never knows when something useful (even if not cold fusion) might pop up.

Realistically, fission + renewables can replace our dangerous addiction to 19th-century energy sources, right now, with no new science or even new technology needed. All we have to accomplish is _that_, and the path to the future is open. And all it takes to make it happen, is political will.


What would be the energy ratio of fusion using an efficient ion accelarator?

I don't know the numbers but its very low. Accelerators have relatively low fluxes of particles, and the cross section of the targets is also pretty low, most of the time leading to sub-nanogram amounts of product (and in the case of new element discoveries, you may be talking an atom or two a day). Unlike what you see in movies or might expect, that entire giant building is producing microscopic amounts of nuclear reactions. The fact that nuclear physicists, engineers, and chemists can see and learn from the products is really a testament to their ability to detect and characterize insignificant quantities of product, not the accelerator's ability to produce a lot of stuff.


1) The hot fusion considers only fusion of tiny nuclei into larger ones, which does require high activation barriers. At the case of larger nuclei this barrier is greatly lowered in the same way, like during coalescing of large mercury droplets.

Incorrect, fusion of higher-z elements actually requires more energy. That's why stars are predominantly hydrogen burners until the H is gone.

2) The hot fusion considers only fusion of naked atom nuclei without electrons. Under such a situation the Coulomb barrier applies without any shielding. But the cold fusion always work with atoms covered with electrons.

This (and #3) makes no sense and ignores physics. For fusion to occur, the nuclei have to be sufficiently close together. Sure, you can get one neutral atom to approach another neutral atom until their electron shells 'touch.' That's what chemistry is. But if you want to squeeze the nuclei closer, you have to overcome the coulomb barrier. To make a very simple analogy, fusion requires we put the postiive end of the magnet next to the positive end of the other magnet; pointing out that it's easy to connect them positive-to-negative is true but irrelevant to what fusion requires.

5) The hot fusion considers, the hydrogen or deuterium atoms fuse in form of positively charge ions (protons, deuteron). But in metal hydrides the hydrogen atoms are of negative charge,

This is the same issue as above. You seem to be confusing atoms with nuclei, attributing to nuclei the properties of atoms.

6) The hot fusion theorists consider only collisions of atom pairs inside of fusion plasma.

Right, because AIUI we know the rates and cross-sections for three-body reactions, and they are so low that their contribution to the overall amount is trivial. AIUI this is confirmed by the observed abundances of elements, which is accurately predicted by a series of two-body chain reactions, while a prediction that three-body reactions are common gets the elemental abunances wrong.

You have to admit that physics doesn’t have all the answers. Where is the missing mass of the universe.

You have to admit, too, that only science leads us to things we don't *yet* know and then leads us to understand them in time.

And admit that nothing else manages to have all the answers. Even if some claim to.

"The worst error you can make is an unexamined assumption." ~Jed Rothwell, Lessons from Cold Fusion

About a year after CBS 60 Minutes aired their episode on Cold Fusion, I followed up with Rob Duncan to explore Richard Garwin's thesis that McKubre was measuring the input electric power incorrectly.

It turns out that McKubre was reckoning only the DC power going into his cells, and assuming (for arcane technical reasons) there could not be any AC power going in, and therefore he didn't need to measure or include any AC power term in his energy budget model.

Together with several other people, I helped work out a model for the omitted AC power term in McKubre's experimental design. Our model showed that there was measurable and significant AC power, arising from the fluctuations in ohmic resistance as bubbles formed and sloughed off the surface of the palladium electrodes. Our model jibed with both the qualitative and quantitative evidence from McKubre's reports:

1) McKubre (and others) noted that the excess heat only appeared after the palladium lattice was fully loaded. And that's precisely when the Faradaic current no longer charges up the lattice, but begins producing gas bubbles on the surfaces of the electrodes.

2) The excess heat in McKubre's cells was only apparent, significant, and sizable when the Faradaic drive current was elevated to dramatically high levels, thereby increasing the rate at which bubbles were forming and sloughing off the electrodes.

3) The effect was enhanced if the surface of the electrodes was rough rather than polished smooth, so that larger bubbles could form and cling to the rough surface before sloughing off, thereby alternately occluding and exposing somewhat larger fractions of surface area for each bubble.

The time-varying resistance arising from the bubbles forming and sloughing off the surface of the electrodes — after the cell was fully loaded, enhanced by elevated Faradaic drive currents and further enhanced by a rough electrode surface — produced measurable and significant AC noise power into the energy budget model that went as the square of the magnitude of the fluctuations in the cell resistance.

To a first approximation, a 17% fluctuation in resistance would nominally produce a 3% increase in power, over and above the baseline DC power term. Garwin and Lewis had found that McKubre's cells were producing about 3% more heat than could be accounted for with his energy measurements, where McKubre was reckoning only the DC power going into his cells, and (incorrectly) assuming there was no AC power that needed to be measured or included in his energy budget model.

I suggest slapping an audio VU meter across McKubre's cell to measure the AC burst noise from the fluctuating resistance. Alternatively use one of McKubre's constant current power supplies to drive an old style desk telephone with a carbon button microphone. I predict the handset will still function: if you blow into the mouthpiece, you'll hear it in the earpiece, thereby proving the reality of an AC audio signal riding on top of the DC current.

More technical details here:

By Barry Kort (not verified) on 24 Oct 2014 #permalink

@bary kort

For you and the readers, I relay the answer of Jed Rothwell who know well the results of McKubre

"McKubre never reported a 3% gain. Even with his calorimeter that would be in the margin of error at the bottom of the scale, although he can detect the difference between, say, 40% and 43%. As I recall, McKubre reported gains ranging from 20% to 300% with input power, and infinity without input power, in heat after death. He once remarked that for the entire run, the gain was ~3%. I wish he had not said that. It is a meaningless number. It is like reporting the average speed of your car including the times it is parked, or waiting at a red light. The only meaningful number for "gain" or "COP" is when excess heat is clearly present.

The effect of bubbles in electrochemical cells is well understood and it has been easy to observe at least since oscilloscopes were invented. It cannot possibly produce an error on this scale. Not even 1%. People who speculate about such things have read nothing and know nothing.

This notion is somewhat similar to the claim that cells might be "storing" chemical energy and releasing it. Ignorant skeptics come up with this several times a year. You need only glance at the data to establish that: 1. Nothing is being stored; there are no endothermic phases, and 2. Continuous, uninterrupted bursts of heat far exceed the limits of chemistry. A calorimeter can detect an endothermic reaction as well as it can detect an exothermic reaction. If this was chemical storage, the endothermic phases would show up as clearly as the exothermic phases that follow them, and the two would balance. This is exactly what you see for the small amount of energy that is stored and release by palladium hydrides."

By AlainCo (@alain_co) (not verified) on 27 Oct 2014 #permalink