No other scientific endeavour has consumed so much talent, so much cash and so many years of sustained effort as the race to harness the power that makes the Sun shine. Billions of pounds, (and dollars, roubles and yen), more than four decades of research and the careers of thousands of physicists have been expended on the search for a nuclear reactor that will generate limitless power from the fusion of hydrogen atoms. There are grey-haired professors with lined faces still poring intently over the equations they first looked at eagerly with bright young eyes in the 1940s and 1950s. They will go into retirement with their dreams of cheap, safe power from fusion still years in the future. For the obstacles in their paths are as formidable now as ever.
Fusion is the process taking place in the Sun's core where, at temperatures of millions of degrees, hydrogen atoms are compressed together by elemental forces to form helium and a massive outpouring of energy in the thermonuclear reaction of the hydrogen bomb. It is not difficult, then, to imagine how people who have invested their talent and their lives in the quest to tame such forces are likely to react when told that fusion is possible at room temperature, and in a jam jar.
The scientific world was astounded when, in March 1989, Professor Martin Fleischmann of Southampton University and his former student, Professor Stanley Pons of the University of Utah, held a press conference at which they jointly announced the discovery of 'cold fusion' -- the production of usable amounts of energy by what seemed to be a nuclear process occurring in a jar of water at room temperature.
Fleischmann and Pons told an incredulous press conference that they had passed an electric current through a pair of electrodes made of precious metals -- one platinum, the other palladium -- immersed in a glass jar of heavy water in which was dissolved some lithium salts. This very simple set-up was claimed to produce heat energy between four and ten times greater than the electrical energy they were putting in. No purely chemical reaction could produce a result of such magnitude so, said the scientists, it must be nuclear fusion.
Both scientists are distinguished in their field, that of electro-chemistry. But in making their press announcement they were breaking with the usual tradition of announcing major scientific discoveries of this sort. The usual process is one of submitting an article to Nature magazine which in turn would submit it to qualified referees. If the two chemists' scientific peers found the paper acceptable, Nature would publish it, they would be recognised as having priority in the discovery and -- all being well -- research cash would be forthcoming both to replicate their results and conduct further research.
But the two scientists perceived some difficulties. First, their paper would not be scrutinised by their exact peers because the discovery was unknown territory to electrochemists and indeed everyone else. It would probably be examined mainly by nuclear physicists -- the men who had grown grey in the service of 'hot' fusion. This would be like asking Swift's 'Big Endians' to comment objectively on the work of 'Little Endians'.
It is not that 'hot' fusion physicists could not be trusted to be impartial, or were incapable of accepting experimental facts, but rather that they would be coming from a research background that would naturally give them a quite different perspective.
Despite the experimental difficulties it was not long before confirmations were reported. First to report in were Texas A & M University, who reported excess energy and Brigham Young University who found both excess heat and measurable neutron flow. Professor Steve Jones of BYU said his team had actually been producing similar results since 1985, but that the power outputs obtained has been microscopically small, too small in fact to be useful as a power source. One month after the announcement the first support from a major research institute came with the announcement by professor Robert Huggins of California's Stanford University that he had duplicated the Fleischmann-Pons cell against a control cell containing ordinary water, and had obtained 50 per cent more energy as heat from the fusion cell than was put in as electricity. Huggins gained extra column inches because he had placed his two reaction vessels in a red plastic picnic cool-box to keep their temperature constant. This kitchen-table flavour to the experiment added even further to the growing discomfort of hot fusion experts, with their billion-dollar research machines.
By the time the American Chemical Association held its annual meeting in Dallas in April 1989, Pons was able to present considerable detail of the experiment to his fellow chemists. The power output from the cell was more than 60 watts per cubic centimetre in the palladium. This is approaching the sort of power output of the fuel rods in a conventional nuclear fission reactor. After the cell had operated from batteries for 10 hours producing several watts of power, Pons detected gamma rays with the sort of energy one would expect from gamma radiation produced by fusion. When he turned off the power, the gamma rays stopped too. Pons also told delegates that he had found tritium in the cell, another important sign of fusion taking place.
Pons estimated that the cell gave off 10,000 neutrons per second. This is many times greater than the rate of background level of natural radioactivity, but is still millions or billions of times less than the rate of neutron emission that one would expect from a fusion reaction -- a puzzle which Fleischmann and Pons acknowledge as a stumbling block to acceptance of their phenomenon as fusion by any conventional process.
This was perhaps the high water mark of cold fusion. Scores of organisations over the world were actively working to replicate cold fusion in their laboratories, and although many reported difficulties a decent number reported success. And by the end of April, Fleischmann and Pons were standing before the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology committee asking for a cool million to fund a centre for cold fusion research at Utah University.
Then things began to go wrong. An unnamed spokesman for the Harwell research laboratory -- the home of institutional nuclear research in Britain -- spoke to the Daily Telegraph saying that 'we have not yet had the slightest repetition of the results claimed by professors Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons. Of the other laboratories around the world who have tried to replicate the Pons-Fleischmann result, all but one have recanted, admitting that either their equipment or their measurements were faulty.'
'We believe our experiments are much more careful than those conducted by others. Perhaps for that reason we have been unable to observe any more energy coming out of the experiment than was put in.'
By late May, the headlines in both the popular press and the scientific press were beginning to carry words like 'flawed idea' when the biggest blow of all hit supporters of the cold fusion idea. Dr Richard Petrasso of the Plasma Fusion Centre of the ultra prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology presented the results of a series of intensive investigations into the Fleischmann-Pons experiment. The fundamental data put forward by the two men, said Petrasso, was probably a 'glitch'. The entire gamma ray signal in the Fleischmann-Pons experiment, he said, might not have occurred at all.
'We can offer no plausible explanation for the feature other than it is possibly an instrumental artefact with no relation to gamma-ray interaction,' he told the same reporters who had clustered around Fleischmann and Pons only two months earlier. Dr Ronald Parker, director of MIT's Plasma Fusion Centre, said; 'We're asserting that their neutron emission was below what they thought it was, including the possibility that it could have been none at all.'
Thus within two months of its original announcement, cold fusion had been dealt a fatal blow by two of the world's most prestigious nuclear research centres, each receiving millions of pounds a year to fund research in hot fusion.
The measure of MIT's success in killing off cold fusion is that still today, the U.S. Department of Energy refuses to fund any research into it while the U.S. Patent Office relies on the MIT report to refuse any patents based on or relating to cold fusion processes even though hundreds have been submitted.
If Dr Parker had left his statement there, it is likely that the world would never have heard of cold fusion again -- or not until a new generation of scientists came along. But flushed with success at killing off MIT's embryonic rival, he decided to go all the way and openly accuse Fleischmann and Pons of possible scientific fraud.
According to Dr Eugene Mallove, who worked as chief science writer in MIT's press office, Parker arranged to plant a story with the Boston Herald attacking Pons and Fleischmann. The story contained accusations of possible fraud and 'scientific schlock' and caused a considerable fuss in the East-coast city. When Parker saw his accusations in cold print and the stir they had caused he backtracked and instructed MIT's press office to issue a press release accusing the journalist who wrote the story, Nick Tate, of misreporting him and denying that he had ever suggested fraud. Unfortunately for Parker, Tate was able to produce the tape of his interview which showed that Parker had used the word 'fraud' on a number of occasions.
It then began to become apparent to those inside MIT that the research report that Parker and Petrasso had disclosed to the press in such detail was not quite what it seemed. That some of those in charge at MIT's Plasma Fusion Centre had embarked on a deliberate policy of ridiculing cold fusion and that to do so they had -- almost incredibly -- fudged the results of their own research.
The MIT study announced by Parker and Petrasso contained two sets of graphs. The first showed the result of a duplicate of the Fleischmann-Pons cell and did, indeed, show inexplicable amounts of heat greater than the electrical energy input. The second set were of a control experiment that used exactly the same type of electrodes, but placed in ordinary 'light' water -- essentially no different than tap water. The results for the control cell should have been zero -- if cold fusion is possible at all, it is conceivable in a jar full of deuterium, but not in a jar of tap water. Any activity here, according to current theory, would simply indicate some kind of chemical, not nuclear, process.
But the MIT results for the control showed exactly the same curve as that of the fusion cell. It was the identical nature of the two sets of results that depicted so graphically to the press and scientific community the baseless nature of the Fleischmann-Pons claim and that justified MIT's statement that it had 'failed to reproduce' those claims. It was these figures that were subsequently used by the Department of Energy to refuse funding for cold fusion and by the U.S. Patent Office to refuse patent applications. It is these figures that are used around the world to silence supporters of cold fusion.
But MIT insiders, like Dr Gene Mallove, knew that the figures had actually been fudged. It is usual for experimental data to be manipulated, usually by computer, to compensate for known factors. No-one would have been surprised to learn that MIT had carried out legitimate 'data reduction'. But what they had done was selectively to shift the data obtained from the control experiment, the tap water cell, so that it appeared identical to the output from the fusion cell.
When this blatant fudging of the figures became public, MIT came under fire from many directions, including members of its own staff. Gene Mallove announced his resignation at a public meeting and submitted a letter to MIT accusing them of publishing fudged experimental findings simply to condemn cold fusion. A number of scientific papers were published in scientific journals culminating in the paper published by Fusion Facts in August 1992 by Dr Mitchell Swartz in which he concluded, "What constitutes 'data reduction' is sometimes but not always open to scientific debate. The application of a low pass filter to an electrical signal or the cutting in half of a hologram properly constitute 'data reduction', but the asymmetric shifting of one curve of a paired set is probably not. The removal of the entire steady state signal is also not classical 'data reduction'."
In the restrained and diplomatic language of scientific publications this is as close an anyone ever gets to accusing a colleague of outright fiddling of the figures to make them prove the desired conclusion.
Beleaguered and under fire from every quarter (except the other big hot fusion laboratories who simply became invisible and inaudible) MIT backed down. It added a carefully worded technical appendix to the original study discussing the finer points of error analysis in calorimetry. It also amended its earlier finding of 'unable to reproduce Fleischmann-Pons' to 'too insensitive to confirm' -- a rather different kettle of fish.
Although MIT was caught red handed, it was its original conclusion that stuck both in the public memory and as far as public policy was concerned. The coup de grace was delivered to cold fusion when the U.S. House committee formed to examine the claims for cold fusion, came down on the side of the skeptics.
'Evidence for the discovery of a new nuclear process termed cold fusion is not persuasive,' said its report. 'No special programmes to establish cold fusion research centres or to support new efforts to find cold fusion are justified.'
Just where does cold fusion stand ten years after the original announcement? The position today is that cold fusion has been experimentally reproduced and measured by more than 100 universities and commercial laboratories in 10 countries around the world. Dr Michael McKubre and his team at Stanford Research Institute say they have confirmed Fleischmann-Pons and indeed say they can now produce excess heat experimentally at will. Many other major universities and commercial organisations have also confirmed the reality of cold fusion. U.S. Laboratories reporting positive results include the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, (these were the two U.S. research establishments most closely involved in developing the atomic bomb) Naval Research Laboratory, Naval Weapons Centre at China Lake, Naval Ocean Systems Centre and Texas A & M University. Dr Robert Bush and his colleagues at California Polytechnic Institute have recorded the highest levels of power density for cold fusion, with almost three kilowatts per cubic centimetre. This is 30 times greater than the power density of fuel rods in a typical nuclear fission reactor.
Equally illuminating were the remarks of professor John Huizenga who was co-chairman of the U.S. Department of Energy's panel on cold fusion and who came down against the reality of the process. In a recent book on the subject, professor Huizenga observed that 'The world's scientific institutions have probably now squandered between and 0 million on an idea that was absurd to begin with.'
The question is, what were his principal reasons for rejecting cold fusion. Professor Huizenga tells us; 'It is seldom, if ever, true that it is advantageous in science to move into a new discipline without a thorough foundation in the basics of that field.'
When you consider that his committee's sole function was to advise whether or not research funds should be spent to investigate an entirely new area of physics and electrochemistry, and that this statement is one of his principal reasons for deciding not to invest such research funds, his statement takes on an almost Kafkaesque quality. It is unwise to invest research funds in any new area, unless we already have a thorough foundation in the basics of that new area? How could anyone ever get any money for research out of professor Huizenga's committee? By proving that they already know everything there is to know?
A more rational approach is that of Dr. Edmund Storms, formerly with the Los Alamos nuclear research laboratory who said, 'Science grows by competition between two possibilities. One is based on a very imperfect imagination for new possibilities. The other is based on a tested understanding of our world which we all agree to enjoy without conflict. Each has its role in intellectual evolution and its strengths. However, to function properly, the relationship needs to be based on mutual respect, as is the case with all relationships. This respect leads to questions not declarations, to discussion not conflict, and to seeking a mutually satisfying goal, not an arbitrary conclusion. In the cold fusion partnership, these requirements are not being followed and, as a result, the marriage is on the rocks.'
You can read the full story of the Cold Fusion affair and its aftermath in Alternative Science. Cold Fusion is the perfect exemplar of "Alternative Science". It runs entirely counter to intuitive expectation produced by the received wisdom of physics; it is a discovery by 'outsiders' with no experience or credentials in fusion research; its very existence is vehemently denied even though Fleischmann and Pons have demonstrated a jar of water at boiling point to the world's press and television; and it is inexplicable by present theory: it means tearing up part of the road-map of science and starting again.