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November 09, 2010

Oh no! Government dabbles with cold fusion

Last week the government released a new report looking at developments that have the potential over the next 20 years to support economic growth in the UK. Technology and Innovation Futures wasn't focused on a single area as most previous reports from the government's Foresight think tank have been. It covers everything and thus could form an important part of the policy framework used by government to make decisions about where to invest scarce cash. It's therefore alarming that it gives new credence to the fruitcake idea of getting energy from cold fusion.

"Low-energy nuclear reactions – so-called cold fusion – remains a potential ‘wild card’," a fusion power annex to the report states.

In warming to cold fusion as a source of energy, the Foresight unit have gone against the government's own inquiry into cold fusion that included painstaking - and unsuccessful - attempts to replicate the phenomenon claimed in 1989 and the overwhelming consensus of physicists around the world.

The basis for including cold fusion in the options for fusion power is that: "the US DOE 2005 assessment panel left the debate still open, while apparently successful development work continues in the US Navy". References lead on to Scientific American and a more recent paper in Springer's Naturwissenschaften journal.

At the back of my mind, I can remember the conclusion of one of the British physicists who tried to replicate Pons and Fleischmann's work. It was that the experimental work required to detect the tiny effects claimed was extraordinarily difficult and results were easily susceptible to hidden errors. So I'm not surprised that cold fusion continues to have a zombie afterlife in the literature. But I am surprised that the Foresight team have given it credence as a "wild card" source of energy. Wikipedia seems to have done a better job on this. And I wonder whether John Beddington and the chief scientist's GO Science team actually have the resources they need to support the drive for evidence-based policy.

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Your assertions about cold fusion are incorrect. The effect have been replicated thousands of times in over 200 major laboratory. I have a collection of 1,200 peer-reviewed cold fusion papers copied from the library at Los Alamos, and another ~2500 from other sources. I suggest you review some of this literature before commenting on this research. See:

http://lenr-canr.org/

Jed - I'm not really concerned about an effect. I'm concerned about the idea that this may be a viable energy source. That's the bit I think is fruity. Sorry if this wasn't properly clear in the article.

Many experts believes this is a viable energy source. See, for example, U.S. Defense Intelligence, "Technology Forecast: Worldwide Research on Low-Energy Nuclear Reactions Increasing and Gaining Acceptance" DIA-08-0911-003, 13 November 2009

http://lenr-canr.org/acrobat/BarnhartBtechnology.pdf

I think it is reasonable to conclude that it might be viable, because it has achieved power densities and temperatures equivalent to a fission reactor core, albeit on a small scale (20 to 100 W). Cold fusion devices have generated ~10,000 times more energy than chemical devices of the same mass, and it is likely they can produce millions of times more. So I do not think there is anything fruity about the notion that if the reaction can be controlled, it will become a practical source of energy. The agencies funding the research, such as DARPA and the Italian National Agency for New Technologies Energy (ENEA) and the Environment and National Research Council (CNR) do not consider it fruity.

Jed - who are the three most eminent physicists backing the idea that cold fusion is a credible prospect as an energy source?

That is a difficult question, because I do not know how one would measure eminence.

I have met a fairly large fraction of the eminent electrochemists in the world (~500) and every one of them is convinced the effect is real because they replicated it. Also, many leading experts in nuclear engineering confirmed the results, and they believe it. They include people such as the former Chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission (who is chairing the next conference); the reactor safety people at BARC; the French Atomic Energy Commissioner who was the chief designer of their power reactors; the people who designed and operated the Tritium Systems Test Assembly at LANL and the tritium test facility at the PPPL (see the EPRI/NSF proc.); and people at NASA.

Engineers tend to be less concerned with theory than physicists. When they detect 10E18 atoms of tritium, they believe it despite the theory. As one of BARC safety people put it: "if we didn't know how to detect tritium, we'd be dead."

Many of the physicists I have spoken with about cold fusion have not read the literature, so their views do not count.

I suggest you judge whether cold fusion exists by reviewing the experimental data rather than by looking at who believes in it and who does not.

I can see where you're coming from, but I'm not convinced. Any cold fusion is plainly a physics phenomenon, and there are plenty of good experimental physicists. If they don't buy it, then I think the idea of cold fusion as a power source does indeed have a serious problem of credibility.

Also, by the way, you refer to "the tiny effects claimed." Fleischmann and Pons claimed a large effect, not a tiny one.

Some replications have been tiny, but often the effects are large, such as the 10E18 atoms of tritium I mentioned (at BARC), and 10 to 100 W of heat continuing for hours with no input power, from a device that would use up any chemical source of heat at that power level in less than a minute. As McKubre says, the effect is "neither small nor fleeting."

You should be careful not to mischaracterize the claims as "tiny" or -- for that matter -- the failed replications as "painstaking." Twenty major failed attempts are reported in the peer-reviewed literature by 1990. They were not painstaking by the standards of electrochemistry. The authors did not measure critical control parameters or material properties; they did not employ electrochemists; and one of them probably mixed up the anode and cathode. For that matter, the one you probably recall in the UK, at Harwell, was not even a failure. A re-analysis of the data by Hansen and other experts showed significant excess heat. The grad students doing the experiment were not familiar with electrochemistry or calorimetry so they did not realize it worked. This was a small result, so the heat was difficult to detect.

Two of the other 20 peer-reviewed failures were also later reanalyzed and shown to be likely positives (false negatives), albeit close to the noise. They were marginal at best. Much clearer results were achieved elsewhere.

Jed - one small point, one big point and one question.

Small - If there is a large, reliably reproducible generation of energy from cold fusion then it doesn't matter what I or anyone else thinks. You can just build a demonstrator, hook it up to a light bulb and let the world collapse in awe. The fact that that hasn't happened in 20 years is kind of my point.

Big - I take a historical view. Pons and Fleischmann made their claim. Then a lot of the world's most brilliant scientists and most capable scientific institutions tried to replicate it and failed. You don't like the Harwell work that I was indeed remembering. But the people who did it were chosen by the British government because they were considered to be the most capable scientists in the whole of Britain to assess the claim. Similar things happened in other countries.
So what happened was that the scientific community as a whole gave its verdict on cold fusion as an energy source, and that verdict was negative.
What's more, this verdict was not reached merely by reviewing the literature (what you invite me to do, and as far as I can see the basis of the 2004 DoE review and possibly others). It was done by rolling up sleeves in the lab. Even if you think later evidence has changed the picture, to reject this verdict is to retreat into wishful thinking.
Now, Pons and Fleischmann were very good scientists. So we have to ask ourselves, how did they get it wrong? (Again, this stands even if you think later evidence changes the picture). And the answer to that is I think the one I gave originally, that the calorimetry involved is subject to subtle experimental errors.
This makes the subsequent scientific literature an unusually unreliable guide to cold fusion for two reasons. First, because of the ubiquitous preference for not reporting negative results. Second, because the journals don't have the means to flush out the kind of experimental errors that eluded Pons and Fleischmann.
For this reason, what you need for credibility is to have any experiments that claim to generate energy from cold fusion replicated and acclaimed by eminent physicists.

Question - What we seem to have ended up with is a split in the scientific community between enthusiasts and the rest. Do the two sides ever talk to each other?

You wrote:

"You can just build a demonstrator, hook it up to a light bulb and let the world collapse in awe."

The data shows why that is impossible. The reaction is not controllable. It would be dangerous to try to scale it up or produce the effect at high temperatures. See photos of accidents here:

http://lenr-canr.org/Experiments.htm#PhotosAccidents


". . . Then a lot of the world's most brilliant scientists and most capable scientific institutions tried to replicate it and failed."

No, only a handful of the world's most brilliant scientists try to replicate, and I do not think they were brilliant in this instance. As I mentioned 20 groups in the US and Canada failed to replicate. There may have been others but they were not reported in the literature so I do not have any record of them. While these 20 groups fail to replicate, 95 others succeeded.


"You don't like the Harwell work that I was indeed remembering. But the people who did it were chosen by the British government because they were considered to be the most capable scientists in the whole of Britain to assess the claim. Similar things happened in other countries."

These were graduate students with no training in electrochemistry or calorimetry. Harwell later invited Hansen and other experts who reviewed the data carefully. The staff at Harwell was cooperative and very friendly according to Hansen. A reevaluation of the data clearly show that there was excess heat, so this experiment should be counted as a positive replication. Similar things often happen in science.


"So what happened was that the scientific community as a whole gave its verdict on cold fusion as an energy source, and that verdict was negative."

Science is not a popularity contest. Initial evaluations of scientific claims are often incorrect. For example, when Townes was working on the masor, many distinguished scientists such as Bohr tried to stop him because they claimed it was theoretically impossible. Quoting his autobiography:

"One day after we had been at it for about two years, Rabi and Kusch, the former and current chairmen of the department-both of them Nobel laureates for work with atomic and molecular beams, and both with a lot of weight behind their opinions -- came into my office and sat down. They were worried. Their research depended on support from the same source as did mine. 'Look,' they said, 'you should stop the work you are doing. It isn't going to work. You know it's not going to work. We know it's not going to work. You're wasting money. Just stop!'"

Scientists who have published negative evaluations of cold fusion reveal that they are unfamiliar with literature. They claim, for example, that the effect has never been replicated, or that no peer-reviewed papers on the subject have been published.


"What's more, this verdict was not reached merely by reviewing the literature (what you invite me to do, and as far as I can see the basis of the 2004 DoE review and possibly others). It was done by rolling up sleeves in the lab."

An evaluation based on rolling up the sleeves in the labs would be an experiment. The vast majority of published experiments have been positive. The ratio is ~20 to several thousand (roughly 14,000 according to the Institute of High Energy Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences). The failed replications did not work for reasons that are obvious in retrospect, such as mixing up the anode and cathode, or running for a short time when any electrochemist knew that the experiment with bulk palladium takes weeks to load.


"Even if you think later evidence has changed the picture, to reject this verdict is to retreat into wishful thinking."

I think that a scientific question should be settled with reference to widely replicated high signal experimental data, not academic politics. If this is wishful thinking than perhaps I'm living in the wrong century.


"Now, Pons and Fleischmann were very good scientists. So we have to ask ourselves, how did they get it wrong?"

They did not get it wrong. They were widely replicated in hundreds of laboratories. In science, this is the only standard of success and the only way to know whether something is real or not.


"(Again, this stands even if you think later evidence changes the picture). And the answer to that is I think the one I gave originally, that the calorimetry involved is subject to subtle experimental errors."

As Fleishman pointed out, his method of calorimetry was developed in 1840s by J.P. Joule. The only difference is that Joule used a mercury thermometer whereas they used an array of thermocouples. This calorimetry is not subject to subtle experimental errors. It is extremely reliable and has been used in millions of experiments and industrial processes for the last 170 years. Joule himself, or any other competent scientist after 1840, could have measured the heat from many cold fusion experiments with confidence. It is not difficult to measure 10 to 100 W of heat when there is no input power.

There is no possibility this calorimetry is fundamentally mistaken, or that there is some undiscovered error in this method or the other methods used to measure cold fusion heat such as flow calorimetry and Seebeck calorimetry.

It has been suggested that there is an undiscovered error in the calorimetry methods. This assertion cannot be falsified, and it applies equally to all other experiments ever performed.


"This makes the subsequent scientific literature an unusually unreliable guide to cold fusion for two reasons."

If we cannot depend upon the scientific method and high signal replication then there is no means to establish the truth or falsity of any scientific assertion, and the scientific method does not work. I do not believe that. When thousands of experiments in hundreds of laboratories repeatedly reveal heat, tritium, neutrons and other nuclear effects that convinces me beyond any doubt that the effects are real. Perhaps you have some other standard of belief.


"First, because of the ubiquitous preference for not reporting negative results. Second, because the journals don't have the means to flush out the kind of experimental errors that eluded Pons and Fleischmann."

There are no experimental errors. If there were, someone would've discovered them long ago. Hundreds of scientists opposed to cold fusion have made strenuous efforts to find errors yet not a single one has published a credible paper describing an actual error in a major cold fusion experiment. Here's an example of a paper that attempted to find errors. I do not think it has any merit. Judge for yourself:

http://lenr-canr.org/acrobat/Fleischmanreplytothe.pdf

"For this reason, what you need for credibility is to have any experiments that claim to generate energy from cold fusion replicated and acclaimed by eminent physicists."

Most cold fusion researchers are eminent. Only a tenured, senior professor could conduct experiments, because the political opposition is so strong. Even tenure is no guarantee. Several distinguished professors such as Miles, a Fellow of the Institute at China Lake, was fired for publishing positive results.

This kind of political opposition is quite common in science. Many eminent scientists would have fired Townes and prevented the discovery of the maser and laser if they could have. They made strenuous efforts to do that, according to Townes. When he finally proved he was right and won the Nobel, several eminent scientist refused to talk to him, they were so furious at being shown wrong. Other Nobel laureates who support cold fusion such as Schwinger and Josephson told me this sort of thing happens all the time. See:

http://lenr-canr.org/acrobat/SchwingerJcoldfusiona.pdf


"Question - What we seem to have ended up with is a split in the scientific community between enthusiasts and the rest. Do the two sides ever talk to each other?"

Cold fusion researchers communicate by publishing in peer-reviewed journals. People opposed to the research communicate by publishing false information in the mass media, and personal attacks against cold fusion researchers, such as the claim by the Science Policy Administrator and other members of the American Physical Society that all cold fusion researchers are criminals, lunatics and "a cult of fervent halfwits" (in New Scientist, the Washington Post, The New York Times, Scientific American and elsewhere).

You are repeating verbatim much of the nonsense published in the mass media about cold fusion, such as the notion that 170-year-old laboratory techniques are not reliable or well established, or that it is difficult to measure 20 W of heat. I suggest you stop getting your information from the mass media and Wikipedia and turn instead to conventional sources of information such as journals.

That message has some odd errors because I use voice input and I have a stuffed up nose today. I usually get person & number right, but alas, voice input does not.

Jed - You assume quite a lot about me. I'd never heard the "fervent halfwits" quote until you mentioned it. Cold fusion is not something I'm "into".
Obviously we're not going to agree on most of this. But there is one thing we agree on. Internal community politics should not be allowed to get in the way of the search for the truth. It is therefore incumbent on you and your colleagues to resolve your differences with the likes of the American Physical Society. I don't care if you hate each other. You need to find a process that gets cold fusion out of its current zombie status and either cures it or kills it. As scientists and recipients of taxpayers' money, that is your obligation.

You wrote: "You assume quite a lot about me. I'd never heard the "fervent halfwits" quote until you mentioned it. . . .

I don't follow. You are not the Science Policy Administrator of the APS, so I was not assuming anything about you. You asked what opponents say about cold fusion. I told you that they have published mainly ad hominem attacks in the mass media. As far as I know they have not published an evaluation of the tritium results from LANL or BARC, for example.


"Internal community politics should not be allowed to get in the way of the search for the truth."

Unfortunately, any academic scientist will tell they often do.


"It is therefore incumbent on you and your colleagues to resolve your differences with the likes of the American Physical Society."

It is difficult for me to imagine how a professor might "resolve differences" with an organization that accuses him of criminal fraud and lunacy. That is not an accusation one can answer. I suppose if you said "but I'm not a lunatic!" they would say "ah, that proves you are" or something like that.

I think it is incumbent on opponents to stop making such lurid accusations, unless they have evidence of actual criminal behavior or a conspiracy being conducted by ~2,000 distinguished retired professors worldwide. (Knowing those professors as I do, I doubt they could conduct a conspiracy, and most of them are reasonably sane.) It in academic debate it is not usually considered acceptable to accuse opponents of being criminals, or to fire them for publishing positive results, but that is how cold fusion has played out, and continues to be played out, most recently last month.

The late Julian Schwinger, Nobel laureate, was more or less thrown out of the APS because he wished to discuss cold fusion. In the document I linked to above, he described the situation at the APS:

"The pressure for conformity is enormous. I have experienced it in editors’ rejection of submitted papers, based on venomous criticism of anonymous referees. The replacement of impartial reviewing by censorship will be the death of science."

That wasn't his imagination, by the way. An APS official later told me that they blackballed Schwinger because anyone who talks about cold fusion must be crazy or senile. Plus, as I mentioned, they often say that sort of thing in the mass media. As you might imagine this has destroyed many academic careers. When the Washington Post tells the world you are a criminal lunatic, that makes it difficult to get a grant, or even keep your job. Do you really think these professors should try to "resolve their differences" with a group of people who are determined to ruin their lives?


"As scientists and recipients of taxpayers' money, that is your obligation."

Actually, I am a librarian, editor and translator, not a scientist.

Nobody's died. They managed it in South Africa and Northern Ireland. You guys need to do it, too.

You wrote: "Nobody's died. They managed it in South Africa and Northern Ireland. You guys need to do it, too."

That's an interesting analogy. Note that in South Africa, reconciliation could only begin when the white oppressors admitted they were wrong, and began making amends. In the case of cold fusion, all of unethical, unscientific and unfair attacks have been committed by people opposed to the research. That is not because these people are more evil. It is because the cold fusion researchers are powerless.

An opponent at the APS or the DoE can publish an attack in an op-ed column in the Washington Post or Scientific American any time he likes, whereas no cold fusion researcher has ever been allowed to publish a rebuttal or even a letter to the editor. So even if the cold fusion researchers were inclined to forgive and forget -- and begin reconciliation -- they would never be allowed access to the mass media.

Also, you are wrong that no one has died. No scientists have died. At worst they lost their jobs, lost their retirement savings and had their marriages collapse. However, other people outside the Ivory Tower of academia have died. Here's why:

Cold fusion may be a practical source of energy. Research has been held back for 21 years. It has been strangled; most researchers have retired or died. If it had been given a reasonable chance instead, cold fusion might already be a practical source of commercial energy. The technical problems preventing that are well understood and could probably have been solved with proper funding and equipment.

Energy, as I am sure you know, is a gigantic environmental and health problem. Burning coal kills roughly 20,000 people per year in the U.S. alone, and many more in China. The use of fossil fuels may cause catastrophic global warming. Lack of energy in the third world is the major cause of filthy water and food, which kills roughly 50,000 people per week, mostly children under age 5. So, lack of energy plus filthy, obsolete sources of energy together are causing a holocaust worse than WWII. Cold fusion might have fixed these problems 10 years ago.

Millions of people have probably died unnecessarily because academic hacks who oppose this research engage in petty politics driven by jealousy, ignorance, and the peculiar notion that their theory overrules replicated experiments.

In what sense are these "excuses"?

You can read countless attacks against cold fusion in the mass media. Opponents have stated time after time that their goal is to eliminate this research. In his book, Huizuinga proudly describes how he and others quashed the research and cut off all funding.

At the APS, Park and Zimmerman -- a member of the Clinton Administration -- told a cheering crowd of people that they would root out and fire any scientist who talks about cold fusion. They did that, and they brag about it at every opportunity. Ask them!

These people are not hiding their actions, their opinions or their motivations. If you think that cold fusion researchers have some magical ability to influence the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the DoE to make them stop branding the researchers lunatics and criminals, please tell me how that can be done. Until then, you should not blame the victims. Do you tell homosexuals that the "don't ask, don't tell" laws are their fault, and they are "making excuses" for getting fired from the military?

This isn't oppression. Seek a resolution. Good luck.

If this isn't oppression, what would be?

They have fired professors who publish positive data or attend conferences. They have destroyed people's reputations in the newspapers.

What are you holding out for? Would throwing professors in jail be enough? Maybe you would not call it "oppression" until they start beating up elderly professors, or shooting them.

Jed, I notice you show up all over the web with the same tired arguments. I am in the same camp as the skeptics. When you can reliably heat a cup of tea without a cost of $ thousands of dollars to do it, then you have something to talk about. Until then, you are blowing smoke up some people's....

Some of the 'experts' you have cited before that back CF, are such gems as the former assistant director of BARC, disavowed by the 'senior scientists' there, who believes the truth of alchemy conversion of mercury to gold, by scam artist demonstrations in India, lol.

1/2015
Reading S Kean The Disappearing Spoon and he explains (page 264) that the researchers believed palladium fused its protons and neutrons into helium, palladium holding 900x times volume compared to hydrogen. I suspect what was created was a water maser, exactly why they announced prematurely to keep the discovery from being exclusively militarized.

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