Cold vs. hot illustration

Curtis Berlingett was a pre-teen when he first heard about cold fusion. The concept involves generating nuclear power at room temperature, rather than heat similar to the burning core of the sun.

“My dad read about it in a magazine and said it was going to change the world,” Berlingett recalled.

That seemed like a reasonable conclusion.

Cold fusion energy

In the spring of 1989, two electrochemists claim to have fused hydrogen atoms in helium under laboratory conditions. If humanity had harnessed this energy source, a powerful and emission-free alternative to fossil fuels, we might not be teetering on the brink of ecological disaster.

But later experiments failed to replicate their findings. Mainstream academia turned its back and the cold fusion hype passed. Nuclear fusionon the other hand, saw a major breakthrough late last year when the US government announced in December that it had achieved fusion ignition for the first time.

Berlingett, now a chemist himself at the University of British Columbia, helped revive research in cold fusionafter Google tapped it to look.

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Is cold fusion possible?

Since 2015 with funding from a tech giantBerlinguette and a team of about 30 colleagues have nurtured a renaissance.

They – like many before them – have not yet proved the existence of the phenomenon of cold fusion. But Berlinguette says it’s too soon to give up, noting that cold fusion research, even in the worst-case scenario, is likely to lead to new information about useful materials.

At best, and more importantly, it could spark an energy revolution.

“To make a fundamentally new discovery,” he says, “one that opens up a whole new field or solves a huge problem requires us to take risks.”

A contradictory statement

Cold fusion became an overnight sensation after Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons of the University of Utah, announced that they had achieved it at the beginning of 1989

The two reported that when they passed electricity through a metal rod immersed in heavy water, it produced much more energy than they could account for through known chemical interactions. What’s more, they found stray neutrons near the apparatus, another telltale sign of fusion.

These anomalies lead them to suspect a nuclear mechanism that no one has ever observed.

Their peers were understandably skeptical. In theory, the statement was strange.

What is cold fusion?

For fusion (hot or cold) to take place, the nuclei must break through the Coulomb barrier: the threshold at which they gain enough energy to overcome the electrical repulsion between them, letting the strong force pull them together and releasing enormous energy in the process. courtesy of E = mc2.

There is no clear reason why this should be possible under such low-energy circumstances. Nuclear fusion as we know it happens in stars, about 30 million degrees Fahrenheit – hardly a matter of a test tube.

After several months of unsuccessful attempts to replicate Fleischmann and Pons’ results, the scientific community quickly shut down its collective mind. Curiosity about cold fusion can raise eyebrows, invite ridicule, and maybe even sabotage a career.

However, the box was opened and a small group of believers it has continued to search for evidence ever since, sometimes renamed under the banner of Low-Energy Nuclear Reactions, or LENR.

The search continues

Michael McCoubre, a prominent believer, argued that the rejection was premature.

in 2015 review of these early cold fusion experiments, he says that “the whole matter was reported and then completely dismissed within 40 days,” and concludes with the scientific adage, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

The Google team has come to sympathize with this view, in part because of how difficult it is to create a suitable environment for cold fusion. They doubt that the first wave of replication attempts achieved this, and they even doubt that subsequent studies have.

Findings from the Google team

In particular, they were struck by one major obstacle in the Fleischmann-Pons experiments. McCoubre and his colleagues at SRI International conducted many of these in the 1990s and discovered the excess heat only when they packed a palladium rod full of hydrogen atoms above a certain threshold.

But, as Berlinguette explains, “this system is unstable. It is a challenge to keep these conditions steady long enough to make reliable and reproducible measurements.

The Google researchers say that without a more consistent method, there can be no definitive answer.

“Continued skepticism about cold fusion is justified,” they write their first publicationin 2019, “but we argue that further investigation of the relevant conditions is needed before the phenomenon can be completely ruled out.”

New insights, new cold fusion technology

For a cold fusion evaluation to appear in the illuminated pages of Nature — one of the most prestigious scientific journals — would have been shocking a decade ago. Many young scientists have never even heard of cold fusion, Berlingett says, given its taboo nature in recent decades.

Although Berlinguette and his colleagues have not found an unequivocal sign of excess heat (that is, no solid evidence for cold fusion), their work is not fruitless, he says.

Cold fusion reactor

Based on the insights they have gained, they have already done so developed a reactorcalled Thor, which is capable of using renewable electrical energy to produce valuable chemicals and fuels.

This, he suggests, is the real merit of cold fusion research: Regardless of what lies at the end of the road, the journey involves exploring materials under extreme conditions. And that, in turn, can lead to all sorts of unexpected innovations.

“This is not an all-or-nothing endeavor,” he and his colleagues write. “Even if we do not find a source of transformative energy, this study of matter far from equilibrium is likely to have a significant impact on future energy technologies.”

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