Monday was the 20th anniversary of a scientific fiasco. On March 23, 1989, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons — two electrochemists from the University of Utah — announced in a press conference that they had achieved cold fusion.
Fleischmann and Pons claimed to have joined the nuclei of two atoms to produce a single, heavier nucleus. This reaction, they said, releases a great deal of energy and promises a cheap and almost limitless source of clean energy for the modern world.
Fusion takes place naturally at the center of the sun since it requires extreme conditions of temperature and pressure. Creating these conditions on earth usually requires more energy than is gained from the reaction, which may explain why the scientific community was stunned by Fleischmann and Pons’ fabulous claim. The two scientists dug in their heels and delivered reason after reason why any failure in the duplication of the experiment was the fault of the other scientists and not of their original experiment.
Scientists were skeptical of cold fusion — which supposedly does not require the incredibly high temperature needed for regular fusion — because it conflicts with many of the laws of physics. Fusion involves nuclear reactions of deuterium — hydrogen with an extra neutron in its nucleus — and tritium — hydrogen with two extra neutrons in its nucleus. These nuclei fuse to create a helium nucleus and a high-energy neutron.
“These two [nuclei] are positive, and they repel each other. You have to have a minimum energy… just to get the reactions to occur, [of] about ten million Kelvin,” Prof. David Hammer, electrical engineering, said. “The center of the sun is fifteen million Kelvin. That is where fusion reactions occur in the sun.”
Fleischmann and Pons sent electricity through a palladium electrode to break apart deuterium-containing water molecules. They claimed to have recorded a prolonged increase in heat generated by a process that they could not account for. They decided that it could only come from nuclear reactions. “The argument that was given was that in the crystal lattice of palladium… the nuclei were somehow or other vibrating to the point that they came much closer then they would have normally, and as a result of that, there were some fusion reactions,” Hammer explained.
In order for fusion to occur in the manner described by Fleischmann and Pons, the vibrations of palladium would have to bring the deuterium nuclei within 10-11 or 10-12 meters apart so they would be close enough to fuse. Since the atoms are usually at least 10-8 meters apart, this is much closer than the palladium atoms would ever normally be. This would be, as Hammer put it, “a very huge vibration.” Not only that, but Pons and Fleischmann claimed that the reaction was not the fusion of deuterium and tritium, but of deuterium and deuterium, a reaction which requires a temperature a full order of magnitude higher than that of the tritium-deuterium reaction. This may help explain why the scientific community scoffed at Fleischmann and Pons in 1989 — their theory claimed that a fusion reaction can take place without all the energy required to force the atoms together.
Two months after Fleischmann and Pons’ initial announcement, the exuberance of the press began to turn into skepticism. Prof. Bruce Lewenstein, communications, recounted the initial thought process of a researcher who attempted to recreate the experiment, “ ‘I must just not be doing it right. [I’ll] call Pons.’ ” Unfortunately, Pons did not always provide the researchers with answers.
Over time, however, this researcher’s point of view changed. “At some point [the researcher] realized failure to replicate means failure to replicate. There was a subtle shift in his thinking. Not ‘I’m doing the experiment wrong,’ but ‘the experiment is wrong.’ ”
The reason that this claim managed to get so much attention is what makes cold fusion worth remembering. Scientists like to think that science is completely objective and free from the press, politics, patents and competition, but the world’s experience with cold fusion demonstrates otherwise. According to Lewenstein, “Cold fusion made visible lots of things about the complexity of how science operates in ways that most day to day science often hides.”
The press helped create the confusion by covering eager lab teams like Georgia Tech’s, who reported a successful replication of Fleischmann and Pons’ original experiment only to retract it later.
Further confusing matters, Fleischmann and Pons did not reveal the details of their experiment, for patent purposes. In order to replicate the experiments, scientists used press photos as references. “There’s these wonderful examples of somebody saying, ‘Well, Pons is holding the test tube, and I guess my hand is probably about the same size as his, so that must be the size of the test tube,” Lewenstein said.
In fact, it may not have been the thrill of discovery that motivated Fleischmann and Pons to release their findings in such a way, but competition with another scientist — instead of waiting for journal publication, the two made their announcement directly to the press.
Scientists are supposed to be impartial towards their results, but intuition shows they actually care deeply. This may create a competitive spirit — one with both positive and negative consequences. “The easiest example to point to is the Human Genome project,” said Lewenstein. “Where you had the public project and the private project, whatever one thinks of the merits of one or the other, it almost certainly led to getting the genome that sooner [rather] than otherwise.”
The press attention also engendered a mislabeling — one that Professor Hammer is quick to correct — of cold fusion advocates as fusion scientists. Fusion research is still moving forward. Thanks to oil prices, there is a renewed interest in alternate sources of energy and fusion has great potential.
A fusion powered reactor is being built in France. It is sponsored by China, India, Korea, Russia, the U.S., Japan and the European Union. Conversely, cold fusion research has retreated into a small, even defensive cluster of scientists who only publish in particular journals, cite each other’s work and do not take kindly to outside criticism. They still meet once every year — this year in Rome — to gather and share their work.
But one does not need to look far to learn that time can occasionally validate uncommon viewpoints in science. Barbara McClintock ’23, who proposed that genes can move around in a now recognized process known as “crossing over,” was originally ignored by the scientific community. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for this theory in 1983.