Suppose a discovery were made that would eliminate many serious problems of modern times. Global warming could be reduced, air pollution in major cities could be eliminated, and energy for heating and transportation would become cheap and readily available. Cutting of the rain forest and lack of water in desert regions would become problems of the past. Food would become plentiful as cheap water became available from the sea. Even if these claims turn out to be exaggerated, I'm sure you would welcome such information and breathe a sigh of relief with us all. This would seem like a gift from God designed to protect us from our present lack of restraint in destroying our planet.
Now suppose such a discovery has been made, but is rejected by the general scientific profession because it does not fit present understanding; by major governments because of their typical lack of imagination; and by major industries because of feared competition. So many examples exist of new ideas being rejected for these reasons that this story would seem to be rather common place and unimportant.
Let us further suppose that a few governments did recognize the importance of the discovery and began supporting work to understand and develop its potential. No one would be surprised if such countries were Japan, China and India. Each, unlike the West, has a great need to solve such problems by finding sources of cheap energy. In the process of developing this discovery, these countries would discover some very interesting consequences. They would find that cars could be powered using water rather than gasoline. Immediately, all present car designs would become obsolete and car production in the West would plummet. Engines of such high power and efficiency could be created to make international travel cheap and fast. Consequently, present airplane design would become obsolete. Each new technological application would have to be purchased from one of these inventive countries. As a result, the West would go into economic decline. Now the story is beginning to sound like a B rated science-fiction movie.
Unfortunately, most of what I have described is real and is now happening. Like all great discoveries of the past, this one also is hidden from all but a few people. However, because of the overwhelming importance of this discovery and the short time we have to solve some of the serious world-problems, a few knowledgeable people are trying to make the information more available to the general public. If the consequences were not so important, we would wait until reality forced recognition by even the most slow-witted bureaucrat and the most self-righteous scientist. In this case, we do not have the time to wait.
This discovery is described in a popular, short-handed way as "Cold Fusion", first demonstrated by Profs. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann (University of Utah) in 1989. Your first reaction is probably, "Oh sure, this was hyped-up and then shown to be nonsense when other people took a better look". In spite of several popular books to the contrary, this view is not correct. The effect has now been duplicated hundreds of times in dozens of laboratories throughout the world. The Japanese government created a special bureau to channel millions of Yen to universities and industry as part of a unified effort to develop the new field. Although this focused support has stopped, many small studied are ongoing at universities and companies. (1) In addition, a Japanese company (Technova) supported the work of Pons and Fleischmann in France where they worked for awhile after being hounded out of the U.S. This work has also stopped. (2) Several companies have been created in the U.S. to capture the intellectual property and to manufacture equipment. One such company (ENECO) was selling stock, buying patent rights, and sponsoring research. Unfortunately, because the Patent Office would not grant patents in the field, this effort has stopped. (3) Research first funded by EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute) continues at SRI (Stanford Research International) which is one of the few places in the U.S. now during research. This work continues and is producing very interesting results. (4) Small efforts are underway at several government laboratories in the US and in other countries. A magazine called "Infinite Energy" is available by subscription in which much of the scientific information is published. Eight international conferences, several attended by nearly 300 people, have been held and the proceedings are available for study. The next conference will be held in Beijing, China in May 2002. The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology of the U.S. House of Representatives held hearings (May 5, 1993) and, on the basis of testimony, recommended in The Hydrogen and Fusion Research Authorization Act of 1994 that the National Academy of Sciences reexamine the status and promise of the field. This effort has had no effect on the current attitude toward the field. If these mixed results were not enough, the situation gets worse.
The DOE (Department of Energy) still maintains that the effect deserves no special support. Therefore, no government money is being spent directly on such research. The few efforts being supported at government laboratories result from discretionary internal money given by open minded and courageous local administrators. The patent office will not issue patents in the field. As a result, an intellectual property log-jam is being created that is hindering private development. Private investors in the U.S. see these limitations and are reluctant to invest money until changes are made. Consequently, normal methods for technology development in the U.S. are restricted. These problems do not exist in Japan and China. Fueling all of these problems is a refusal by the general scientific community, particularly physics, to acknowledge the possibility of a real but novel phenomenon. This attitude is even carried to the extreme of preventing positive results, no matter how well researched, from being published in major scientific journals. As a result, information needed to change the prevailing attitude is not generally available. With few exceptions, even the media has refused to treat the field with objectivity, instead promoting the myth that the claims have not been duplicated. As other writers have observed, we have become a country in which science is treated like a religion, with little room for major change. One unintended consequence of the "cold fusion" discovery is to make this loss of inventive spirit clear to everyone who eximines the reality. Another consequence is to produce another potential economic threat to the U.S. Several wake-up calls about this danger have already sounded within the automobile and electronic industries. These have been only partially acknowledged. This next call can not be ignored much longer without finding all escape routes blocked.
Consider the implications of ignoring this discovery too long. All advanced technology requires trained people. Such training is obtained on the job and in schools. Schools generally emphasize theory and general applications while on-the-job-training concentrates on how a particular device can be built. Unfortunately, very little theory is yet available to explain this phenomenon. Therefore, training must be based on practical experience on trial and error. Such experience is slow to develop, particularly when only a few people are studying the field. At the present time, only a few dozen people in the U.S. have sufficient practical knowledge of the field to train anyone. Meanwhile in Japan, a growing number of technicians are being trained. While the Japanese go on to create useful devices, we will be slowly rediscovering this information and gradually educating the people needed to start down a path already taken by the Japanese. The situation is not unlike the threat faced by the U.S. when the idea of an atomic bomb was proposed. To prevent Germany from gaining this device first, we undertook a crash program- the Manhattan Project. This effort was successful because total support was given by the government. Later, when Russia showed how inferior our rocket delivery was, a similar approach was taken. In the present situation, the threat is economic deterioration rather than physical destruction. The result is no less deadly. In addition to changes in our own economy, we need to consider world-wide implications. For example, what would happen to political stability in the Middle East if demand for oil should suddenly drop? None of the required planning is possible until the potential of this novel phenomenon is better understood. The Genie is already out of the bottle. We had better start thinking of our three wishes before someone else asks first.
What exactly is the discovery? "Cold fusion" is one part of a larger phenomenon. This general phenomenon permits various nuclear reactions to occur in solid matter with much greater ease than previously thought possible. One of these reactions is fusion between two deuterium nuclei. This reaction can be made to produce energy at a rate greater than that achieved in a conventional nuclear reactor. Unlike a conventional reactor, very little radiation and few radioactive by-products are created. The effect is nearly pollution-free! In addition, power generation apparently will be much simpler and safer than that from conventional fission reactors or the proposed high-temperature fusion reactor. On the other hand, because only laboratory sized devices have been built, problems of scaling the effect to industrial-sized power levels have not been encountered or solved. This uncertainty is one of the major mysteries requiring solution before the consequences can be fully evaluated.
Besides making power, the phenomenon also has been found to convert one element into another. As yet, only a few such conversions have been verified. Nevertheless, the potential of this Alchemists Dream is enormous. Ways may be available to reduce the danger of radioactive materials produced as by-products in conventional nuclear reactors. Unfortunately, this possibility is less well understood than is the energy producing process. Given the present desperation being engendered by the need to contain these radioactive by-products, you might wonder why this possibility is not being explored with enthusiasm.
The broader scientific implications are just beginning to be explored. Past experience required the application of enormous energy in order to bring two nuclei close enough together to cause a reaction. Such energy was required because all nuclei have a positive charge that keeps other nuclei from getting close enough to react. Conventional nuclear reactors use neutrons-- particles having no charge--to interact with uranium to initiate nuclear reactions. We now realize that a special condition can be created in certain materials, perhaps similar to the superconducting state, in which the nuclear charge can be shielded. When shielded in this way, certain nuclei such as hydrogen and its isotopes (deuterium and tritium) can react with other nuclei without the need for high temperatures or extreme energy. The condition that produces this shielding also has the ability to transport the resulting released energy directly into the surrounding atoms. Both the shielding effect and this energy transport process can not be understood using current theory. Nevertheless, several imaginative explanations are being developed that may soon eliminate this confusion. In the process, these explanations will point the way to even deeper understanding of nuclear reactions and conditions existing in solid matter. This understanding may have consequences of greater importance than the original discovery.
A brand new field of science has been discovered which has the possibility to challenge our view of nature and our economic institutions. Only a fool would ignore the possibilities even if only a fraction of the claims can be accepted at the present time. Evidence is accumulating and the clock is ticking. Must we again wait until another nation demonstrates our inadequacies before we react?
Written Sept. 2000, revised March 2002
(1) Positive results continue to be reported by the newly formed Japanese Cold Fusion Society
(2) The laboratory in France has been closed and Dr. Pons is no longer working in the field.
(3) ENECO is no longer doing work in cold fusion, but instead is investigating a novel method of energy conversion.
(4) Work at SRI has duplicated claims made by Japanese workers and has shown helium production well above any possible error. Anomalous tritium production has also detected.