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: