Monday, March 24, 2008

The Other Cold Fusion's 19 Anniversary

Nineteen years ago today, an article appeared in the New York Times reporting on a press conference in Utah. That press conference, and the excited hyperbolic claims of Pons and Fleischmann in the local media that they would have a commercial hot water heater available for testing within six months, proved to be the scientific highlight of their research ... since later work by that pair got to the point where they did not even cite their initial paper as the genesis of the ideas they were working on.

In many ways the self-politicization of their work (choosing to ignore an invited talk at a national American Physical Society meeting in Baltimore despite the fact that they were less than an hour away in Washington DC with plenty of time to drive there after their Congressional testimony asking for funding) hurt the study of low energy nuclear reactions that had been taking place for years with DOE funding. Some of the controversy even obscured the normal way that new discoveries get announced. But nothing can excuse their ignorance of experimental nuclear physics techniques.

For example, extremely low energy nuclear fusion reactions, termed "cold fusion" by Steve Jones, are well documented in reproducible experiments that demonstrated scientific breakeven. There is no question that the physical effect is real and offers interesting atomic/nuclear physics effects to study. It got relatively little attention from both theoretical and experimental physicists, however, because it had also been demonstrated that the process was highly unlikely to achieve engineering breakeven (the efficient production of energy such that a power plant could be run profitably).

For another example, they were routinely attacked for doing "physics by press conference", which was nonsense. What they did, which was hold a press conference after a paper had been accepted for publication, was not that unusual even at that time. It was, however, unusual that the paper involved had not yet gone to press and would (according to documentation published by Frank Close) be changed between the press conference and actual publication. Most press conferences, such as the one held a year or so earlier concerning high temperature superconductivity or ones that are routine today for major discoveries in physics or biology, take place after the paper is in final form and actually in press. IMHO, most of those comments were actually directed at two related circumstances: the paper itself did not contain enough information to replicate its specific results (particularly the claim they observed neutrons) or to document its claim of "ignition", and the failure to acknowledge the collaboration with Steve Jones, who had documented his own ideas regarding fusion in a chemical environment several years earlier and shared them with the group at Utah. The highlight, however, remains that they didn't even notice that they had left the name of a co-author off of the paper itself!

The first of these was the most damning from the standpoint of publishing your experimental work. When the discovery of YBCO materials was first reported (again, in the New York Times) before the article in Physical Review Letters had arrived in anyone's mailbox (actually before the issue had even gone from printing press to mailroom), rumors of the recipe allowed many research groups to replicate the experiment. Once the paper appeared, it proved elementary to carry out exactly the same steps given in the paper and get the results that had been reported. In contrast, even Pons and Fleischmann seemed unable to get their own results by repeating their own experiment. Apologists would argue that it was more subtle than they had thought, but that is not an excuse for not saying exactly what they did in each experiment.

One other difference also stands out: Two decades later the YBCO-type materials can be produced in bulk and are finding application despite challenges posed by their brittle nature. Almost two decades later, scaling the Pons and Fleishmann experiment up to "water heater" scale has proved far more difficult, perhaps even impossible. The people still working in the area are following somewhat different paths without any progress towards the commercial product that was promised before the end of 1989. Will we have it on the 20th anniversary? Don't hold your breath.

Finally got the time to update this and pull it out of the Draft folder, but it still needs one addition.

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