Cold Fusion Confusion


Too Hot to Handle: The Race for Cold Fusion, by Frank Close, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 376 pages, $24.95

Fire from Ice: Searching for the Truth Behind the Cold Fusion Furor, by Eugene F. Mallove, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 334 pages, $22.95

More than two and a half years after B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann at the University of Utah stunned the world by announcing that they had achieved nuclear fusion in an electrochemical cell—a modest, room-temperature apparatus involving little more than a glass jar filled with heavy water, platinum and palladium electrodes, and a low-voltage battery—the truth about cold fusion remains elusive.

The scientific community is split on the matter. The skeptical majority holds that cold fusion died a well-deserved death within months of the March 23, 1989, press conference where it was revealed to the world. Pons, Fleischmann, and their colleagues couldn't provide the data needed to substantiate their claims, it is said, and several prominent laboratories that had jumped into the fray could not replicate their results, despite the apparent simplicity of the experimental setup required. According to this view, the only real question remaining about cold fusion is why two respectable chemists went off the deep end in pursuit of a delusion.

Yet beyond the public eye, a small group of experimentalists and theorists continues to pursue this elusive goal. Few, if any, of them believe that they fully understand just what accounts for the strange observations that continue to be reported from laboratories around the world. But most are convinced that cold fusion is real—at the very least, a previously unappreciated physical phenomenon, possibly of profound theoretical importance. And some go further, envisioning astonishing new technologies that will be made possible by the taming of nuclear fusion.

So cold fusion still lives—and if its more-enthusiastic proponents are correct, it may yet have a revolutionary impact on our lives. Now two recent books offer the nonspecialist reader an inside view of the cold-fusion controversy. Frank Close's Too Hot to Handle and Eugene Mallove's Fire from Ice provide reportage of the convoluted events surrounding the cold fusion announcement, its prelude and its aftermath.

Both authors are well qualified to interpret the cold-fusion controversy for the public. Close, a theoretical physicist affiliated with the Oak Ridge national Laboratory in Tennessee and with Britain's Rutherford Laboratory, has written previously about science for a general audience. Mallove is a veteran science writer with a background in engineering and the physical sciences; he served as chief science writer in the MIT News Office during the unfolding of the cold-fusion story. The authors come to radically different conclusions that reflect the schism within the scientific community about cold fusion.

For more than 40 years, scientists have been tantalized by the prospect of harnessing nuclear fusion. The potential reward is immense: a virtually unlimited source of energy. The challenges are equally immense, for as yet scientists have come up with only one basic way to approach the problem, by mimicking the only working fusion reactor in the neighborhood—the sun. The concept is straightforward, but the engineering difficulties have to date been insuperable.

The "hot fusion" community has spent billions of dollars and countless scientist-years laboriously refining complex reactor prototypes of two basic types. The first, and more popular, type is designed to confine a multimillion-degree plasma for an extended period of continuous fusion. The second, closely linked to weapons research, uses powerful laser beams to vaporize pellets of fusion fuel for a rapid-fire stream of minibursts of energy production.

Despite considerable scientific progress on both fronts, practical energy production from either method remains at best billions of dollars and decades in the future. Against this background, Pons and Fleischmann—chemists respected in their field but unknown to the fusion community—professed to have found the secret of practical fusion in a primitive contraption that could have been constructed in a high-school science lab.

When nuclear and plasma physicists examined the data reported by Pons and Fleischmann, and by colleagues who claimed early on to have obtained similar results, their astonishment at the initial claims only grew. The cold-fusion proponents argued that they had achieved a nuclear reaction because the sheer quantity of excess heat generated by some of their electrochemical cells was inexplicable by any chemical mechanism. But to the physicists, this made no sense.

Nuclear physics holds that the reaction in question, the fusion of two nuclei of deuterium (a heavy form, or isotope, of hydrogen), should generate any of three possible outcomes: a helium-3 isotope plus a neutron, a tritium nucleus (another hydrogen isotope) plus a proton, or a helium-4 isotope and a gamma ray. Each alternative is associated with a particular release of energy, some of which would be captured as heat in a working fusion reactor. In high-temperature plasma fusion theory and practice, the first two alternatives predominate, while the third occurs only rarely.

All of the key reaction products were reported from cold-fusion experiments, but always in the wrong proportions—and in particular, in amounts grossly inadequate to explain the magnitude of the claimed energy production.

The measurement of nuclear products such as tritium, helium, and neutrons involves plenty of subtleties that can trap the inexperienced or unwary. Had the chemists, inexperienced in such techniques, simply been fooled by erroneous data? When a number of respected nuclear-physics groups were unable to replicate the Utah results, the suspicions of the skeptics grew.

And when closer examination of preliminary data from cold-fusion experiments revealed numerous gaps and inconsistencies, many reached the obvious conclusion: There was nothing to get excited about in those electrochemical cells. Sloppy technique, yes; mildly interesting quirks of electrochemistry, maybe; wishful thinking, certainly; a dash of petty fraud, perhaps—but no nuclear fusion.

Frank Close appoints himself spokesman for the nuclear and plasma physics community and uses Too Hot to Handle to sort out the mess and to explain just how and why Pons and Fleischmann went wrong. To that end, he goes to great lengths to demolish the early experimental results on cold fusion, arguing that they were unreliable at best.

Close takes special interest in a disputed gamma-ray measurement that Pons and Fleischmann offered as evidence for the release of neutrons. Tapping every conceivable source, down to a glimpse of an instrument display captured in the Utah lab by a TV news crew, Close explores that particular mess in forensic detail. He is similarly skeptical of reports of helium and tritium production.

And he takes considerable offense at the behavior of Pons and Fleischmann and the University of Utah—their use of a press conference, rather than more-established scientific channels, to communicate important findings; their rush to file patent applications, with their consequent unwillingness to reveal possibly critical technical details; their appeal for federal funding, outside of the usual channels of peer review.

Such breaches of scientific decorum, though not directly relevant to the scientific merits of cold fusion, deepened the suspicions of the skeptics. Without saying so explicitly, Close seems to draw much satisfaction from the task of demolishing Pons and Fleischmann's case, as though he were delivering their just reward.

Yet skepticism and experienced judgment can cut both ways. Perhaps the chemists could not be trusted to measure nuclear products accurately or to judge when a new phenomenon could be accommodated within the bounds of nuclear theory. But the physicists were equally unqualified to dismiss so casually the results of the calorimetric techniques used to measure the heat output of electrochemical cells.

And Fleischmann, at least, was known as one of the most distinguished practitioners of the subtle art of electrochemistry. To him, the heat output from some of the cells was as incompatible with known electrochemistry as physicists thought it to be with known physics. Call it nothing more than gut feel, but he and Pons, along with a handful of other groups that obtained anomalous results early on, were convinced that they were seeing something new and profoundly important.

So they carried on, in the face of establishment scorn, after the early fuss died down. And though some lost faith when they couldn't replicate early results, others joined as word of remarkable findings percolated through the scientific grapevine.

Their work continues, and in Fire from Ice, Eugene Mallove explains why. Where skeptics saw messy and nonreproducible data and concluded that findings were unreliable, believers saw a subtle phenomenon that was exquisitely sensitive to poorly understood details of the experimental design, and they set out to refine their experimental methods.

Mallove argues that, for all of the very real problems with cold-fusion reports, the sheer mass of provocative results from laboratories around the world now reflects a degree of consistency and reproducibility that skeptics, blinded by their preconceptions, have failed to recognize.

By his comprehensive account, these results include the production of large amounts of excess energy by electrochemical cells of various designs, erratic but sometimes long-lasting power bursts from such cells, more-solid findings of the various nuclear-reaction products, contrasting results from more-careful control experiments, and the extension of intriguing findings to more-varied experimental setups, including some that are not electrochemical cells at all.

Mallove acknowledges legitimate criticisms of Pons and Fleischmann's behavior but considers them largely irrelevant to what he sees as the real news about cold fusion: Provocative experimental results have steadily accumulated to such an extent that their significance cannot be denied.

Unfortunately, the reader who approaches these two volumes seeking a debate on the scientific case for cold fusion will be disappointed: It takes two to tango, and one of the authors—Close—doesn't want to join the dance.

Close knows that cold fusion is a delusion, so he concentrates on the prosecution of Pons and Fleischmann for their transgressions, wasting little ink on irrelevant facts that might undermine his forensic purposes. So far as he's concerned, the ongoing work in the field essentially doesn't exist. Writing in an authoritative voice, Close will sound convincing to the uninformed. Yet he does the reader a grave disservice by ignoring the bulk of the relevant data.

Mallove, by contrast, knows that he has a difficult case to make in the face of the common wisdom. He states his biases clearly at the outset and then lays out in detail the evolution of cold-fusion research, with its ups and downs, in the hope of convincing the reader that the field has been unfairly neglected.

For those readers who want to see for themselves, Mallove includes an excellent bibliography and resource guide. Thus, Fire from Ice is a much more useful volume for the reader who wishes to understand the scientific issues at stake and their potential implications.

Mallove finds the argument for cold fusion "compelling." He makes a strong case that the mass of evidence is too large and provocative to ignore. But he can't prove any more than that: Conclusive evidence just isn't in yet.

 And in judging the evidence, it's important to bear in mind that the sharp dichotomy between skeptics and believers obscures the fact that there are more than two possible verdicts. Cold fusion may be nothing more than experimental artifact, as Close asserts. It may indeed be a previously unappreciated form of nuclear fusion which can be harnessed in the form of revolutionary new technologies, as its most-visionary proponents contend. But it's also possible that "cold fusion" may be real, in the sense of being a previously undiscovered physical phenomenon, but not nuclear fusion. Or it may indeed be nuclear fusion, but the technological applications envisioned may prove just as elusive as those of hot fusion.

The common use of radically polarized alternatives to characterize the cold-fusion debate reflects the sorry extra-scientific side of the story. Federal support for traditional fusion research has been under siege for some years now, and the potential success of cold fusion poses an even greater threat: Taxpayers may be unwilling to spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year for something as elusive and potentially dangerous as traditional fusion if a cheap and benign new energy source seems within reach.

From day one, disputes about the validity of the cold-fusion experiments have been bitter. Each side has freely accused the other of fraud and of suppressing scientific evidence. My own limited contacts with people on both sides of the debate suggest that these two books, tendentious as they are, don't come close to capturing the full intensity of the feud.

It may be this intensity that accounts for the efforts by both authors to draw on the cold-fusion affair for didactic purposes beyond cold fusion itself. For Close, cold fusion is a morality tale: "This is not the way that science should proceed," he writes. "It is important that the public see that the test-tube fusion story is not typical of normal science and that there is a received body of opinion in the scientific community that the episode was unacceptable." If the public came to see the "farce of test-tube fusion" as typical of science, he muses, the young might give up on science as a worthy career; nay, public confidence more broadly might dissolve, and with it, government funding.

Close's attitude betrays a curious mix of vanity and insecurity. It also suggests that he's more than a little bit out of touch with the real world. Were the public's faith in and expectations of science as fragile as Close seems to imagine, he and his colleagues would have been out of a job long ago.

Again, Mallove's treatment is simultaneously more comprehensive and more nuanced. Acknowledging that a certain amount of inertia is critical—science would degenerate into chaos if all theories were discarded at the slightest hint of contradiction—he nevertheless argues that there are times when traditional rules of thumb can become dysfunctional.

In this connection Mallove is especially interested in the balance between theory and experimental data in science. Even under normal circumstances this is a subtle matter. It's not uncommon for theory to lag far behind experiment. A spectacular recent example is the discovery of ceramic materials that become superconductive at relatively high temperatures, a development immediately acclaimed by scientists despite their inability to explain it.

Yet as Mallove documents clearly, one criticism serves as the rallying cry of cold-fusion skeptics: Since the purported reactions did not yield nuclear products of the type and quantity required by existing theory, the experiments must be faulty. The other possibility, that the theory itself might sometimes require modification to account for new experimental data, has generally been dismissed out of hand.

Mallove describes the rabid anti-cold-fusion stance maintained by the prestigious scientific journal Nature, and he is concerned more generally about the stifling effect that the scientific peer-review process can have on unconventional ideas. He argues plausibly that leading scientific journals ought to publish a wider range of provocative new ideas, perhaps accompanied by critical reviews, to facilitate scientific debate.

But as Mallove himself points out, plenty of alternative mechanisms grew up for the distribution of "subversive" cold-fusion information, including computer networks, fax machines, and the telephone. Indeed, were it not for the existence of such channels, cold fusion might indeed be dead, and Fire from Ice would never have been written.

For all of their differences, I suppose that Mallove might agree with Close about one thing: On its face, cold fusion is a crazy idea. But only time, and more research, will tell for sure whether it's crazy enough to be real. Stay tuned: This story is not over just yet.

Oren Grad is a consultant on science and technology policy who is currently a visiting scholar at the MIT Center for International Studies.