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A chilly reception for cold fusion
By Patrick Granfield
The National (United Arab Emirates)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

On the third floor of a building named after him at Osaka University, in front of 60 scientists and reporters from half a dozen newspapers and two television stations, Prof Yoshiaki Arata demonstrated nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun – and did so at room temperature.

Or so he says.

It is a fantastic claim and one that has been made before by others and proven false. Yet Prof Arata is not a mad scientist attempting to harness the sun’s energy from a lab in his basement. He is a member of Japan’s Order of Cultural Merit, an emeritus faculty member at one of the country’s most prestigious universities and a trailblazer in the field of nuclear physics.

Prof Arata’s recent announcement might not have received such a chilly reception from the scientific community if so many had not been burnt before by reports of so-called “cold fusion”.

Even before America’s Manhattan Project of the 1940s, scientists had developed theories on how hydrogen isotopes could be joined, or fused, to produce helium atoms and enormous energy outputs. Instead of splitting atoms to release energy, as performed in the nuclear-fission reactions that power most atomic weapons and all nuclear-energy reactors, fusion works in reverse, creating similarly massive amounts of energy, but without the difficulty of having to dispose of nuclear wastes.

It has worked before, most notably in hydrogen bombs, but most scientists consider fusion to be impossible without also producing enormous and uncontrollable levels of heat.

Put another way, according to conventional physics, the fusion that Prof Arata claims to have produced could not have been performed in a science building without incinerating Prof Arata, the viewing scientists, the press and the entire university campus with them.

Since hydrogen atoms have such a strong positive charge, their force of repulsion is incredibly difficult to break. Fusing hydrogen atoms requires either extreme temperature or pressure. The sheer mass of the sun creates the pressure necessary for the fusion reactions that fuel it and other stars. To compensate for the lack of such mass and pressure on earth, scientists have experimented with temperatures many times greater than those found in the sun to create fusion reactions.

The extreme conditions in which fusion has been observed in nature are not the only reasons to doubt Prof Arata’s recent announcement. “Cold fusion” has been linked with bad science since Drs Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann of the University of Utah announced at a press conference in 1989 that they had observed fusion in a laboratory jar.

The pair reported that they had fused ions of deuterium, also known as heavy water, and observed an energy-emitting gamma ray as a by-product. The press jumped on the story, but so too did scientists eager to replicate the feat.

None was successful, with researchers at the venerable Massachusetts Institute of Technology leading the charge to dispute the findings. Dr Steven E Koonin of the California Institute of Technology, a leading researcher into nuclear physics, called the report a result of “incompetence and delusion”.

Nevertheless, the vitriol directed at Drs Fleischmann and Pons has not deterred other scientists from attempting fusion reactions.

At the National Ignition Facility in California, researchers hope to create a laser that can focus twice the power of the US electrical grid onto a one-millimetre space, creating the energy necessary to fuse hydrogen ions. Sound waves have already been reported to create a similar effect. At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2002, and again in 2005, scientists shot ultrasonic waves through heavy water and acetone, a chemical used more commonly in nail-polish remover.

The waves caused the solution to bubble up and then violently collapse, creating temperatures of about 100 million degrees kelvin – 10 times those found in the sun. The scientists at Oak Ridge observed the emission of new neutrons and a tritium gas, evidence that fusion had indeed occurred.

So without sonic waves or high-powered laser beams featuring in Dr Arata’s recent show-and-tell experiment at Osaka University, how did he do it?

Prof Arata claims that by injecting deuterium gas into an evacuated cell containing a palladium and zirconium oxide mix, deuterium ions were able to fuse, creating a low-energy nuclear reaction that warmed the cell to 70°C for two days.

Researchers at Stanford and Texas A&M Universities have also measured low outputs of heat energy in experiments similar to Prof Arata’s. None of these researchers have proven, however, that these energy outputs came from the fusing of atoms. Most nuclear physicists maintain that the anomalous production of heat found in these experiments occurs independently of fusion. Yet, they do not offer an alternative explanation for how this excess heat and energy is produced.

In 2004, the US Department of Energy was sufficiently encouraged by experiments in cold fusion – or low-level nuclear reactions, as they labelled them – to recommend research into exactly what was occurring. A department memo suggested that more research be performed on “evaluating the experimental evidence presented for the occurrences of nuclear reactions in condensed matter at low energies”.

While not exactly a wholehearted endorsement of “cold fusion”, it was an acknowledgement that an unknown energy-producing phenomenon had occurred in experiments similar to Prof Arata’s.

The department’s position was also a departure from its stance after the Drs Pons and Fleischmann experiment in 1989, when a panel recommended against the establishment of special programmes or research centres to develop cold fusion.

Conspiracy theories abound on why cold fusion has not received more money for research. Perhaps there is no conspiracy, but merely the same resistance to the unknown and innovative that has occurred throughout the history of scientific inquiry.

“There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now,” Lord Kelvin, for whom the absolute temperature scale is named, told the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1900. “All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”

Niels Bohr, Ernest Rutherford and Albert Einstein were not listening and over the next four decades went on to change the way physics described the universe and lay the foundations of nuclear physics.

Prof Arata may be encountering his own “Lord Kelvins” who, with good reason, are sceptical of his experimental outcomes, but with plenty of laurels for his life and work already in the bag, he does not seem to be bothered by his critics. As he told New Energy Times: “Some people say we have reached the end of science, that there are no more great discoveries that remain. In my view, nature always has more secrets to reveal.

“I always stay on guard not to be too possessed by my own current knowledge.”

pgranfield@thenational.ae

 

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