Cold Fusion: Still alive & kicking (but perhaps without the fusion)
The history of scientific discovery is littered with examples of "pathological science" - an area of research where experimenters are tricked into accepting false results by a combination of subjective effects, unrecognized experimental errors, and wishful thinking. The term was first used by Nobel-winning chemist Irving Langmuir in 1953. Langmuir described pathological science as an area of research that simply refuses to die long after it was given up on as false by the majority of scientists in the field. He called pathological science "the science of things that aren't so".
Enter Cold Fusion. From the initial spectacular announcement by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons (at a press conference, no less), to its equally spectacular flameout under the weight of irreproducible results, the lack of a theoretical framework, and scathing accusations of "incompetence and delusion" on the part of Fleischmann and Pons, cold fusion appears to have been consigned to the scientific landfill along with perpetual motion, polywater, and the canals on Mars.
Or perhaps not. Although mainstream science has long since turned its attentions elsewhere, Cold Fusion, these days known as Low-Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR), has been kept alive by a small but dedicated band of mostly fringe researchers, publishing in their own set of publications.
It's still infuriatingly difficult to reproduce experimental results, but 25 years of work have started to bear fruit. LENR effects have been observed in numerous experiments using a variety of methods, and theoretical explanations are beginning to take shape.
Based on current thinking, LENR - and not cold fusion - may in fact be the correct name for the phenomenon; the Widom-Larsen theory posits that the observed results aren't due to fusion at all, but low-energy nuclear reactions that involve neutron formation from electrons and protons/deuterons, followed by local neutron beta-decay processes. That theory explains a number of problems with the original explanation, including the Coulomb Barrier, the lack of observed radiation, and so on. Needless to say, that theory itself is widely disputed by the traditional physics community.
Adding fuel to the fire, perhaps, even some intrepid academics are getting in on the action. For the last several years, Peter Hagelstein, a long-time LENR booster and MIT electrical engineering professor, has been conducting a short series of (strictly non-credit) lectures (see a video of a lecture here) entitled "Cold Fusion 101: Introduction to Excess Power in Fleischmann-Pons Experiments". Fittingly, the first slide includes this note: "Working in this field at this time can destroy your career".
All this theory is all well and good, but we're engineers so we want to see something that actually works, right? Well, you might just be in luck.
A recent experiment reported by Russian scientist Alexander Parkhomov uses the sort of setup that an enterprising EDN reader can easily put together at home. The equipment used included a thermocouple amplifier, laptop-based data logger, power supply, voltmeter, dosimeter and Geiger counter (recently available for $70 on Ebay).
The experiment aims to replicate the operation of the infamous “E-Cat” (Energy Catalyzer) device, which was developed by Andrea Rossi, an Italian inventor and entrepreneur with a colorful past, who has so far been coy about releasing definitive details or subjecting his device to independent testing.
Here's the active element in the Parkhomov experiment, called the “reactor”. It uses an Al2O3 ceramic tube 120mm long, 10mm outer diameter and 5mm inner diameter, wound with nichrome heater wire. The tube contains 1g of a powder composed of nickel (10%) and lithium aluminum hydride (90%), both readily available from chemical supply houses.
Here's the electrical block diagram:
The reactor was placed in a metal container as shown above and heated up to between 1150 – 1300o C . The amount of water lost due to boiling served as a measure of energy generated.
At these temperatures, the results indicated that more energy was generated than consumed (an excess of approximately 3MJ) over the 90-minute run time.
A small effect perhaps, but multiple groups are already working to repeat the experiment. Rest assured that your intrepid correspondent will be right on top of this breaking story. Enquiring minds want to know.