So 60 Minutes had a serious piece on cold fusion, which has been long ignored and rightfully so. As a physicist, the story was intriguing because there might be some interesting tabletop nuclear physics going on, although nobody really knows what that might be.
As an energy technologist, however, I didn’t see anything that would suggest we’re going to see some big game changer anytime soon — and the featured scientist/advocate was guilty of some particularly unconvincing and counterproductive hype. I’d say cold fusion may have moved from junk science to the realm of hydrogen or fusion — decades away, at best, but possibly never very useful.
Wikipedia has a good entry if you want some unhyped background on cold fusion, which came to public attention “on March 23, 1989 when Fleischmann and Pons reported producing nuclear fusion in a tabletop experiment involving electrolysis of heavy water on a palladium (Pd) electrode. They reported anomalous heat production (“excess heat”) of a magnitude they asserted would defy explanation except in terms of nuclear processes.” Needless to say, this was a shock, since until then physicists thought you needed multi-million degree temperatures to fuse nuclei and generate energy.
Many major physics laboratories failed to reproduce the results and scientific theories explaining how it might be possible were lacking (as they pretty much are still today).
In 1989, the majority of a review panel organized by the US Department of Energy (DOE) had found that the evidence for the discovery of a new nuclear process was not persuasive. A second DOE review, convened in 2004 to look at new research, reached conclusions that were similar to those of the 1989 panel.
The 2004 DOE report is here. A 2005 Scientific American summary of the findings was titled “Back to Square One.” Some on the panel thought “the evidence for excess power was compelling” but “When it came to whether nuclear reactions took place in the experiments, the report noted that two thirds of reviewers found the evidence unconvincing, one person found it compelling, and the remainder were somewhat convinced.”
It is incredibly tricky to measure all of the energy inputs and outputs, which is why 60 Minutes had an independent expert come in and examine the one company’s claims. He ended up convinced excess heat was being generated. Richard Garwin, one of the country’s foremost authorities on nuclear physics and “the author of the actual design used in the first hydrogen bomb,” remains unconvinced.
I was very unconvinced by the over-the-top hype from the main expert on the show:
“We can yield the power of nuclear physics on a tabletop. The potential is unlimited. That is the most powerful energy source known to man,” researcher Michael McKubre told 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley.
McKubre says he has seen that energy more than 50 times in cold fusion experiments he’s doing at SRI International, a respected California lab that does extensive work for the government.
McKubre is an electro-chemist who imagines, in 20 years, the creation of a clean nuclear battery. “For example, a laptop would come pre-charged with all of the energy that you would ever intend to use. You’re now decoupled from your charger and the wall socket,” he explained.
The same would go for cars. “The potential is for an energy source that would run your car for three, four years, for example. And you’d take it in for service every four years and they’d give you a new power supply,” McKubre told Pelley.
“Power stations?” Pelley asked.
“You can imagine a one for one plug in replacement for nuclear fuel rods. And the difference only would be that at the end of the lifetime of that fuel rod, you didn’t have radioactive waste that needed to be disposed of,” McKubre replied.
First off, where does this lifetime-charged laptop come from? I thought this thing generated excess heat. That is the last thing you want in a laptop. I am no expert on nuclear physics or electrochemistry, but I just don’t see how this operates as a small, incredibly long-lived battery and a huge, heat-generator for a power plant.
Second, the last thing you would do is stick this in a nuke, which is an incredibly expensive power plant, wildly over engineered to deal with neutrons and radioactivity and the possibility of a meltdown.
The goal, I thought, was to boil water and drive a steam turbine. And frankly, they have no idea whatsoever if they can do that, because they don’t even have 100% reproducibility of whatever it is they are doing, and they don’t even have an agreed-upon theory as to why it works (if it does).
Even if they are generating excess heat at a very small scale in an ideal laboratory setting, seemingly in spurts, they don’t know if this would scale up to a very high temperature steady-state real-world situation needed to generate large amounts of electricity.
And needless to say, if this isn’t being done through nuclear reactions, but through good old-fashioned chemical reactions, it is infinitely less interesting and infinitely less likely to be an energy game changer.
Frankly, this guy sounded like dozens of very smart and sincere people I’ve heard over the past 15 years give powerpoint presentations about how their amazing technology breakthrough would solve the energy crisis.
Count me unconvinced.
For more, here’s a nice post by NueroLogica blog with an extended comments discussion that includes at least one knowledgeable cold fusion advocate.