Sunday, December 11, 2011

Cold fusion debunked?

Up until October of this year, I thought the matter of cold fusion was settled.  There had been a big  controversy over it in 1989, and then the whole thing died out.  Martin Fleischmann and Stanely Pons, two electrochemists at the University of Utah, had been precipitate in their announcement at a press conference that they had discovered a type of fusion that took place at room temperature.  Their claims were debunked and science moved on to other things.

So I was surprised to see a tweet go over Twitter not too long ago about a demonstration that took place on October 28, 2011, of an E-Cat, or Energy Catalyzer, a "cold fusion" device built by Andrea Rossi, an inventor from Italy.  There was a link to a video that purported to show a 1 MW version of the device that he had set up to demonstrate the technology to a potential buyer:

I was fascinated that cold fusion would be in the news again.  Rossi was claiming that his E-Cat was delivering more power than was being put into it.  And, irritatingly, he was not cooperating with observers who wanted to take more careful measurements of the device than had been previously carried out in order to verify his claims.  He seemed to be willfully thwarting their efforts.

There was a group of people who were commenting on the demonstration who all appeared to be dilettantes or associated with alternative energy Web sites.  Apparently the demonstration was one of several that had ben carried out during 2011.  Rough calculations by one of those present indicated that the device had put out not 1 MW but 479kW, in terms of power beyond that used to keep the device going.

Initially I assumed that this was all a relatively insular affair.   There was the cagey inventor with his cold fusion device and several fringe Web sites that were pursuing the story with a mixture of hope and skepticism.  I probably would have set the matter aside entirely but for a 2011 Wired article on the E-Cat.  After reading the article I started looking into the subject of cold fusion and found another Wired article, from 1998, that went into some detail on the topic.  The 1998 article described a small group of people who had continued work on cold fusion long after it had been abandoned by mainstream science.  These people were not all on the margins of their professions.  There was an electrochemist at SRI International, a research company associated with Stanford; a professor at MIT who had done ground-breaking work on x-ray lasers; and a professor at the University of Illinois who had been editor of a mainstream academic journal called Fusion Technology, among others.  Then there were the various groups in Japan, Italy, Israel, China and France that were working on cold fusion, or "low energy nuclear reactions" (LENR), as it was now being called, and hints that the US military and NASA might be monitoring developments in the field (which later turned out to be the case, at least with respect to NASA).  What was behind all this interest?  Had cold fusion in fact been debunked, as I had understood up to that point, or was it possible that there might be something to it after all?

Things got weirder when I learned that two of the observers at the October 28, 2011, E-Cat demonstration were with respected sources.  One was Mats Lewin, editor of NyTeknik, a Swedish technology weekly, and another was later said to have been Peter Svensson, a technology reporter with the Associated Press.  While Lewan was reporting frequently on the E-Cat, Svensson has not yet, as of this writing, filed a report.  When the AP article was not forthcoming, I started feeling antsy, perhaps the feeling a journalist gets when he or she is not getting a full account.  There were missing pieces that I was having difficulty filling in.  Why was the AP withholding the story?  Was it not possible to make a minimal statement of fact about what was seen at the demonstration, even to the effect that nothing could be verified? (If the AP connection is true, I now suspect they were reluctant to be associated with the story.)

Around this time I started feeling that the topic warranted further investigation.  The question of the legitimacy of Andrea Rossi's E-Cat is one that remains to be seen.  A related but different question is whether the LENR researchers have been on to something during the last twenty years.  Perhaps they have been mistaken all this time, or perhaps they have been conducting real science.  What seems clear is that either some of them are competent and have been gradually uncovering something new (it's not clear exactly what at this point), or they are not unlike proponents of theories about UFOs and are all engaged in what has been called "pathological science."  Given the fairly stark difference between the two situations, I'm hopeful that the question is one that can be resolved, despite a lack of expertise in the relevant science.

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