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COLD FUSION Thirty Years Later

In March 1989, the claim of a revolutionary discovery in nuclear energy production galvanized the scientific community. It turned into a classic case of pathological science—and a textbook example of the self-correcting nature of science.

The quest for controllable nuclear fusion as a societal energy source has been multigenerational, expensive, and slow. The benefits of fusion—including a near-inexhaustible fuel source, relatively mundane and non-polluting products, and significant amounts of energy produced— are balanced by the technical difficulties and equipment involved. Research into this area is so expensive that support from nation-state entities is typically necessary. It goes without saying, then, that any breakthrough in fusion research, especially one that radically simplifies it and lowers its cost, would be a major breakthrough indeed.

Such was the setting thirty years ago when a major breakthrough was announced. What followed is now considered a classic case of how science works—and how science isn’t supposed to work. Here is what happened, what resulted, and how the entire series of events is viewed today.

Announcement: ‘Cold’ Fusion

On March 23, 1989, officials at the University of Utah announced that two electrochemists, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, “established a sustained nuclear reaction” (Taubes 1993, xix). Leaks to the media the day before guaranteed a large crowd at this press conference, and by the next day, it was front-page news all over the world.

The press conference was prompted by two issues. First, of course, was the news itself: apparently fusion had been achieved, it had occurred in a relatively simple and inexpensive apparatus, and one of the Holy Grails of science (if anything can be considered a “holy grail” in science, surely it is sustainable nuclear fusion) was achieved by a pair of electrochemists, not nuclear physicists. But second, there were also whiffs of competition. A researcher at Brigham Young University, Steven Jones, was not only working on fusion via another process but was apparently beginning to dabble in electrochemistry with his own research group. The two research teams were aware of each other, and each one wanted to be the first to announce success. Glory, money, and prizes were at stake; scientists are first, foremost, and (perhaps unfortunately) human.

During the press conference, university officials, along with Pons and Fleischmann, described in general detail how the experiments worked: Palladium and platinum electrodes (ultimately revealed as pencil-like rods) were immersed in a solution of heavy water1 (D2O, D = deuterium = 2H) and an electrolyte (also ultimately revealed to be lithium deuteroxide; see below regarding concerns about the minimal release of pertinent details). Current was passed through the electrodes, and the palladium electrode apparently absorbed the deuterium atoms and somehow induced them to fuse.2 The press conference and the accompanying press release (University of Utah 1989) claimed the detection of excess heat, gamma rays, and free neutrons that the electrochemists claimed were consistent with a nuclear reaction occurring inside the palladium electrode.

Because news of the press conference’s content had leaked the night before, the place where the meeting was held—the lobby of the Henry B. Eyring Chemistry Building on the university’s campus (Taubes 1993, xvii)—was packed, and the next morning (a Friday) the news of sustained, so-called “cold,” fusion was front-page news. By the end of that weekend, the governor of Utah pledged $5 million for further work in an attempt to break the “Utah effect,” a name given by the university’s then-president Chase Peterson for the perceived negative attitude of others in the country toward all things Utah. Peterson envisioned that Utah would become the country’s, if not the world’s, leader in cold fusion technology, transforming the state into the Great Basin’s version of Silicon Valley. The university had already taken steps to patent this new technology. There was a lot at stake.

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