While chemistry is the science that explains matter’s transformation; on occasion, chemists puzzle and misinterpret their own results. It is an understanding of transformations that allows chemists to attempt to improve our lives. While the topic of cold fusion is one that elucidates incredulity among those who heard it, the story of cold fusion is one that opened opportunities in different areas of research.
While the reaction is one that is still being studied – albeit it is a process that elucidates how heavy water produces hydrogen gas. The reaction, seemingly simple, reveals misunderstandings that researchers fall into when their personal biases interfere with their research. The physical chemists who discovered cold-fusion never saw their efforts become golden –instead the reaction now bears their name. Cold fusion goes by the name– the Pons-Fleischmann effect.
What is Nuclear Fusion?
Nuclear fusion is known as a hot, energetic process that powers the Sun and creates the chemical elements. Paraphrasing and expanding the entry from Encyclopedia Britannica–
(fusion is a) process by which nuclear reactions between light elements form heavier elements (up to iron) – The vast energy potential of nuclear fusion was first exploited in thermonuclear weapons, or hydrogen bombs, which were developed in the decade immediately following WWII
The process of hot, nuclear fusion is yet to be harnessed as a true energy source.
What is Cold Fusion?
While hot fusion takes place at millions of degrees Fahrenheit, cold fusion took place at room temperature. Moreover, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica–
In 1989 two chemists, Martin Fleishmann of the University of Utah and Stanley Pons of the University of Southampton in England, announced that they had produced fusion reactions at essentially room temperature. Their system consisted of electrolytic cells containing heavy water (deuterium oxide, D2O) and palladium rods that absorbed the deuterium from the heavy water. Efforts to give a theoretical explanation of the results failed, as did worldwide efforts to reproduce the claimed cold fusion.
What is Immediately True from the Event?
We have chemical reactivity that needed further investigation with no publicizing. It was an instance of poor professionalism.
- Fusion energy – the energy that powers the Sun, takes place at thousands of degrees Fahrenheit. Cold fusion took place at room temperature. While the two processes seem disparate in terms of temperature, both processes formed hydrogen gas. However, neither process has been successfully replaced fossil fuels.
- Another issue dealt with the scale of the experiment – the cold fusion could fit on top of a lab bench. Present attempts to produce hot fusion energy take place in specialized nuclear reactors. The fusion reactors are housed in buildings that can fit tens of dozens (if not hundreds) of “lab bench sized” cold fusion reactors.
Some have labeled cold fusion as bad science. It has also been labeled as completely irreproducible. However, the result is not evidence of no reaction–just poorly investigated science.
What Exactly Happened?
When Pons and Fleischmann passed an electric current through radioactive water, they produced an excess of hydrogen gas and a seemingly anomalous rise of temperature. Fleischmann and Pons also believed they had observed gamma ray production from their reaction vessel. Gamma rays are a by-product of hot nuclear fusion.
They elected to report the reaction results via News Conference; this turned an anomalous but interesting result into a ‘public relations disaster’ for them and their home university. They believed they found a ‘holy grail’ – result that could replace fossil fuels and other ways to produce energy.
However, researchers from around the world could not repeat their results. In fact, Fleischmann and Pons could not reproduce their own results in many instances.
An Incorrect Interpretation of Fusion leads to LENR- (Low Energy Nuclear Reactions).
It took nearly twenty years until researchers understood that Fleischmann and Pons made an interesting discovery. It was a real chemical reaction that took place. It ultimately became known as the Fleischmann-Pons effect. It produced hydrogen gas and small amount of Helium. The production of helium lent some credence to original being one of fusion:
H +H –> He (helium)
However, the reaction is not the same as occurs in sun to produce He and other elements.
Scientists discovered the Fleischmann-Pons effect to be one in which -the passage of electric current along with the mechanical agitation of the reaction vessel disrupted the deuterium-oxygen bonds in radioactive water.
However, they were not producing fusion reactions like the sun; rather, they produced low energy bond rearrangements with a small but anomalous temperature rise.
Further experimentation showed the anomalous temperature rise to be the production of helium from heavy water– also lending credence to a fusion interpretation.
The helium production results from deuterium (from heavy water) embedded in the palladium electrode (thus converting to helium). While the helium production is proven as accurate, its exact mechanism is not certain.
However, the reaction for cold fusion became:
D2O + electricity –> D2 + He + heat (in the presence of palladium metal).
While the reaction is not suitable for producing great amounts of hydrogen gas nor helium, it may lead to hydrogen fuel cell technology in the distant future.
Will LENR lead to Energy Self-Sufficiency?
This purported Holy Grail is one of illusion – not an immediate discovery that could alleviate fossil fuel dependence. Presently, cold fusion is a research topic that is pursued by various research groups. Its chemistry is not hot fusion— but it is re-termed. It is known as the Pons-Fleischmann effect. The production of helium is still under investigation–however, it is a low energy and a low temperature fusion product, nonetheless. Thus, the possibility for energy self-sufficiency from this reaction is many years in the future.
ADDITIONAL READING & REFERENCES
MARK DAVIDSON. Journal of Physics Conferences Series. 2015, Variable Mass theories in Relativistic Quantum Mechanics as an Explanation for Anomalous Low Energy Nuclear Phenomena.
MELVIN H. MILES. Chemical and Chemical Engineering News. 2017, More on Cold Fusion.
S. SPVZK. ICCF-14 International Conference on Condensed Matter Nuclear Science. 2008, SPAWAR Systems Center-Pacific Pd:D Co-Deposition Research:Overview of Refereed LENR Publications.
MARTIN FLEISCHMANN and STANLEY PONS. Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry. 1989, Electrochemically induced nuclear fusion of deuterium.
P. L. HAGELSTEIN. et. al. Proceedings of the 11th international conference on cold fusion. 2006, Physical Effects in Metal Deuterides, in Condensed matter Nuclear Science.