In a new review of cold fusion – the claim that energy can be generated by running electrical current through water – the Department of Energy released a report yesterday that says the evidence remains inconclusive, echoing a similar report 15 years ago.
Over the past several months, 18 scientists reviewed research in cold fusion, and two-thirds of them did not find the evidence for nuclear reactions in the experiments convincing. Almost all of them, however, said that aspects of cold fusion merited consideration for further research.
“I think the new review has shed some light on the status of research that has been done over the last 15 years,” said Dr. James F. Decker, deputy director of the science office in the Energy Department who agreed to the review at the request of several scientists involved with cold fusion research.
Dr. Decker said the department was open to proposals for cold fusion research, but added that was not new. “We have always been open to proposals that have scientific merit as determined by peer review,” he said. “We have never closed the door to cold fusion proposals.”
Cold fusion briefly appeared to promise an unlimited energy source in 1989 when Drs. B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann of the University of Utah announced that they had generated fusion – the same process that powers the sun – in a tabletop experiment using a jar of water containing deuterium, a heavier version of hydrogen.
They claimed that an electrical current running through the water pulled deuterium atoms into two palladium electrodes, generating heat. The speculation was that the heat was coming from the fusion of the deuterium atoms.
Other scientists, however, had trouble reproducing the findings, and at the end of 1989, a review by the Energy Department recommended against a specific cold fusion research program, although it did support further investigation into some aspects.
After that, most scientists regarded cold fusion as a discredited farce, but a small group of scientists continued work in the field. Measurements have become better, but cold fusion experiments still produce heat at best half of the time. At the end of last year, several cold fusion scientists approached Dr. Decker, asking for a review. Dr. Decker agreed.
In the review, nine scientists chosen by the Energy Department considered a paper submitted by the cold fusion scientists. Another nine listened to oral presentations by cold fusion scientists in August.
“This was a very, very scientific, very level-headed, review by everybody,” said Dr. Kirby W. Kemper, vice president for research at Florida State University and one of the reviewers of the oral presentations. But Dr. Kemper said, “I don’t think we’ve made much progress since ’89 in really nailing down the parameters that make it reproducible.”
He said there were interesting scientific questions on the behavior of hydrogen within metals that merited research, and he said his comments tried to offer a future research path.
Dr. Michael McKubre, a scientist at SRI International, one of the scientists who approached Dr. Decker last year, said the conclusions were at least “mildly positive” in endorsing consideration of further research.
“All we set out to demonstrate was there were serious issues of science that had to be developed further,” Dr. McKubre said. “If you look through the materials, the majority, if not the entirety, agree on that point.”