It was like the cavalry had shown up.
Twenty years ago, newspapers and broadcasters burst with news from the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City delivering what seemed a miracle. Its name was cold fusion. Its lure was simple: inexhaustible, clean and affordable energy.
A news conference is not a very professional way to introduce scientists to a major development in a field they’ve never even heard of. But university officials, spooked by fear that a rival researcher at nearby Brigham Young University might have stolen the idea, unloaded it hurriedly for the TV cameras and reporters scribbling in notebooks. The university didn’t pussyfoot around. The confident opening of the March 23 press release was:
Two scientists have successfully created a sustained nuclear fusion reaction at room temperature in a chemistry laboratory at the University of Utah. The breakthrough means the world may someday rely on fusion for a clean virtually inexhaustible source of energy. Collaborators in the discovery are Dr. Martin Fleischmann, professor of electrochemistry at the University of Southampton, England, and Dr. B. Stanley Pons, professor of chemistry and chairman of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Utah.
The press release lacked technical detail. A hint to why was toward the bottom. It declared that the university was filing for patents. It included the phone number and name of the university official in charge of arranging business deals.
The announcement came at a time ripe for such possibility. As it is today, energy policy then was an exercise in neurosis. Memories of the oil embargoes and shortages of the 1970s were fresh. Global warming was already a big worry among scientists, if not yet among politicians. Nuclear fission reactors were being canceled fast — scorned as expensive and perhaps dangerous. And to underscore fossil fuels’ pitfalls, the very next day after the announcement, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker plowed into a rocky shoal in Prince William Sound, Alaska, dumping 11 million gallons of Prudhoe Bay crude and fouling a teeming ecosystem.
Hordes of reporters covered both events, and dozens of newspaper articles about the promised new energy source appeared in the first few weeks of cold fusion delirium. Scientists pored over grainy TV video to try to mimic the Utah team’s apparatus.
Cold fusion’s balloon began leaking quickly as the great majority of independent groups found nothing to report, and could poke holes in the claims of others who did.
In November that year a Department of Energy review panel reported finding no evidence that Pons and Fleischmann’s claim had much to it. The DOE report cited experimental error, failure to replicate test results, no success at repeating the occasional episode of apparent anomalous heat and a trillionfold shortfall in the radiation that ought to result from true fusion. Some influential scientists labeled the whole thing as voodoo physics and as self-deluded, pathological science. Pons and Fleischmann slowly sunk out of sight. Pons seems to have left science altogether.
In 2004, a follow-up DOE panel reached the same conclusion: that the science was unconvincing.
Voodoo, or bolt from the blue
Hard feelings remain. Some adherents think that a mainstream scientific cabal stifled inquiry into a promising new field. Many others — some skeptical from the start — think the adventure wasted their time. A few refuse to even talk about it in public to this day. Said one, “It’s dead. It’s over. Leave it alone, and leave me out of it.”
But cold fusion briefly struck such a powerful chord in society that — one is tempted to think 20 years on and with the energy predicament in many ways even worse — the cold fusion story provides some perspective for viewing things now. To start: Is there any reason to believe that the world might get another chance, another cold fusion, another bolt from the blue — with the bonus of being real?
Some researchers in fact say, given the history of surprise in science, that unsuspected things can be expected in any field, including energy. Just because cold fusion has not worked out and most probably never will does not mean the world could not get lucky with something just as good. “Do I think there are things out there that are game changing? I think that absolutely will be the case,” says one such optimist, Keith Matzen of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M.
He oversees work on a dark horse in conventional fusion research, a machine that uses a violent electronic squeeze machine called the Z-pinch. It already can, for one hundred-billionth of a second, jam 200 trillion watts of electrical power — 200 times what the entire United States uses in that same tiny flash of time — through a drum-shaped skein of slender tungsten wires. The strands blow up and push a converging wave of plasma onto a tiny pellet of deuterium and tritium fuel. Maybe, Matzen hopes, a bigger version — which won’t be cheap — will unleash more energy from such slam-banged pellets of fusion than it soaks up. And that’s just by applying standard physics.
“We are investing in things we know. But will some breakthrough technology come along and change things? I think so. I think there may be a breakthrough approach,” Matzen says.
But let’s say that we don’t get lucky, don’t get a redo on cold fusion or its ilk. Science may nonetheless have the tools to achieve a sustainable industrial society without sending climate and the carrying capacity of Earth into an unpredictable but probably bad hothouse future. For as badly as humans still depend on fossil energy, there are more options now. Twenty years ago solar power was just a stunt, best left for satellite self-power in orbit; the idea of getting substantial energy from wind was grist for jokes; and the only batteries suited for cars were lead-acid anchors.
Miraculously cheap energy
Richard A. Muller, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, leads (according to a 2008 student poll) the most popular course on campus: “Physics for Future Presidents.” The MacArthur Fellow has published a popular book of the same title (SN: 10/11/08, p. 30). As his course and book suggest, Muller follows the nexus of science and policy — including energy — keenly.
During the early, heady days of cold fusion, he publicly offered a 100-to-1 bet that cold fusion is bogus. That seems like a risky offer. “Not to me. I read the paper,” Muller said at the time.
He explained recently what he meant. “Most serious, big new things in science, even those that are rejected eventually, start off with a high-quality paper.” This one? “Terrible. No grad student in any accredited university could get away with a paper that bad.” The Utah pair didn’t document procedures, run control experiments (such as, without heavy water or deuterium), and failed to discuss alternative explanations for their numbers. There were just too many opportunities for serious mistakes to believe the experimenters had stumbled across a revolution in science, Muller says.
But does the world need such a revolution now?
“We actually have it already,” Muller says. “And we’ve done it more than once. I teach classes in a room with no windows, right in the middle of the day. We use electricity to keep it light. That tells you something. We pay 10 cents a kilowatt-hour for electricity. When electricity first came into use, it was delivered from batteries. That costs about $1,000 per kilowatt-hour even today. Our energy is so cheap it would astonish our ancestors.”
It’s a regular cycle, Muller figures. “Nuclear power was another revolution, and it worked, and then we got used to it and demanded more. Coal did the same thing. Rocks that burn! And enough to last forever! That was the cold fusion of its day. We’ll get more, we always have.”
The next round, he adds, better be clean — with solar energy his favorite overall bet.
Another question worth pondering: Can one imagine energy that is too cheap? One benefit of low-cost energy is obvious. The poor throughout the world could get electricity; they could stop burning dung, felling forests for fuel or using smoke-spewing motorbikes. And if a new source were cheap enough, market forces would lead to abandonment of cheap coal for that source, without carbon taxes or other enforced regulation.
But industrial and governmental ambition would similarly gain new avenues. Many people could travel anywhere and at any time, build cities and buildings and ships and aircraft and probably even spaceships and hotels on the moon. The leveling of mountains for coal might end, but the leveling of mountains for almost any purpose people in charge desired would be just a matter of aiming automated, smokeless bulldozers at them.
“I am not afraid of mildly expensive energy,” says Jay Keasling, a synthetic biology chemist who is CEO of the DOE Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, Calif. “When gas hit $4 per gallon, we did wonders with efficiency.” We could get by just as well, he says, on less energy. “Efficiency will be the key.”
At the Joint BioEnergy Institute, researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and partners in other government labs and in industry are trying, among other things, to coax microbes into transforming cellulose and other plant sugars directly into the equivalent of gasoline and diesel fuel. “It won’t be as cheap as [fossil] gasoline today,” Keasling says. “But we can make transportation fuels, bulk chemicals and a lot more this way.”
Real promise in the sun
The sun, nature’s decidedly hot fusion machine 150 million kilometers away, has been called the champion of all energy sources.
Studies estimate that even aggressive efficiency improvement and such oft-mentioned fossil fuel alternatives as wind, geothermal, biofuels and even nuclear power cannot — given today’s technologies and in some cases given basic physical principles — replace what fossil fuels provide today: 85 percent of all the energy we use. And that amount does not even include the additional energy needed to handle population growth and developing world modernization by mid-century.
But one source, by all calculation, can do so in principle: solar power. The sun constantly delivers 120,000 trillion watts to Earth’s surface — offering enough energy in one hour to provide all that civilization uses in an entire year. A grid of solar cells working at a perfectly feasible 10 percent efficiency and placed on a piece of land 400 kilometers on a side would provide all the power the United States needs. Not that anybody knows how to do it yet. How to store such energy for use in the dark, how to drastically lower the costs of solar energy devices and how to turn that energy into liquid fuels for aircraft and other vehicles are nowhere near known today. But in big, round numbers, solar energy appears to offer the only power with the muscle to bear most of the burden in a low-carbon, sustainable civilization. And, of course, all the other renewable sources scientists know about, and perhaps some they don’t yet, could carry part of the load.
Finally, if one despairs that the amalgamation of strategies now pursued won’t wean mankind from burning fossil fuels and discarding its CO2 waste into the common air supply, and if one regards science like a state lottery where any ticket just might come through, there are shreds of reason to hope that cold fusion will somehow yet ride to the rescue.
Pons reportedly lives quietly in the south of France and, say acquaintances, dislikes discussing cold fusion. Fleischmann is retired in England and, despite ill health, follows the field closely.
But even without these men, hopeful research putters along after all this time. In the past year teams in Japan and in India report encouraging evidence of heat from small test cells, heat they cannot explain. Obscure journals and regular meetings bring a steady stream of new analyses and proclamations of hope that if one gets conditions just so, a fusion reactor fed isotopes found abundantly in seawater will light our cities, perhaps propel our cars. Even mainstream science meetings have the occasional session devoted to such so-called low-energy nuclear reactions. The 2008 American Chemical Society convention in Philadelphia included more than a dozen papers reporting evidence and theories for how simple tabletop reactions might mimic the reactions that power stars.
Like playing one ticket or even a lot of tickets for the Mega Millions lotto jackpot, cold fusion is a terribly long shot. “I’m still waiting for them to so much as boil water for a cup of tea with cold fusion,” says Richard Garwin, a retired IBM Research physicist, longtime government adviser, winner of the National Medal of Science and prominent member of the 1989 DOE review of Pons and Fleischmann’s work. Garwin likely never will get that tea. But as the state lottery promoters say: Hey, you never know.
Charles Petit is a freelance science writer based in Berkeley, Calif. He covered the original cold fusion announcement as a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle.