Cold Fusion Pioneer Perishes

Please pardon the lapse in blogging. I was attending the Spitz Summer Institute up in Chadds Ford, hosted by Spitz. Spitz makes big, fixed dome planetariums of unsurpassed quality. You won't find a better fixed system anywhere. They'll make a dome for you and give you the best in projection equipment, for truly one stop shopping.

In other news, Martin Fleischmann, one of the original 'cold fusion' pioneers, passed away recently. He was 85 years old, and still somewhat of a pariah in the physics world. I'm not going to get into a detailed description of his life and work, as others have already done so better than I can. Instead, I'll discuss the idea of cold fusion itself.

Cold fusion is the idea that fusion reactions can take place at room temperature. There are two basic schools of thought. One is that the reaction itself occurs at room temperature, which seems unlikely. The other is that the reaction is actually very hot, like a normal fusion event, but the area of effect is so small that the overall apparatus operates at room temperature. This seems more plausible.

Fusion occurs when atoms are forced so close together they join to form a new, larger atom, giving off large amounts of energy. Atomic nuclei naturally repel each other, because they have positive charges. Thus, its hard to get them close enough to fuse. For that, you need very high temperatures and/or pressures. The core of a star has both, which forces that atoms together. A hydrogen bomb has a much lower pressure than the core of a star, but the temperatures are higher, which compensates. Conceivably, it is not outside the realm of possibility that you could build a device that would generate such a high pressure as to operate at lower temperatures. The device, overall, might be able to operate at room temperature. Granted, the area of high pressure would be very hot, as pressure and temperature are closely related. However, the area could be made very small, so that the overall device does not run hot.

The Fleischmann and Pons experiment tried something similar. It is well known that palladium can absorb vast quantities of hydrogen. The thinking was if you could force enough hydrogen into the palladium, the hydrogen atoms might get close enough to fuse. They would be held in place mechanically, by the lattice of the palladium itself. This eliminates the need for very high pressures and temperatures, as the hydrogen atoms are not free floating. They would be physically pushed into place. A novel idea, to be sure.

The experiment did show an odd temperature increase, but it could not be reliably replicated, and thus was meaningless for science. Some consider the experiment a fraud; others, wishful thinking. Cold fusion fanatics have nonetheless seized upon the idea, continuing their research. Often, these individuals operate on the very edge of science, and are widely dismissed as crackpots.

Crackpots they may be, until one of them makes it work. As they say, the line between genius and insanity is measured by success.

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