The notion of the Holy Grail is one that has captivated both Christian and mainstream audiences for centuries, whether it be via the Arthurian Legends or by more modern works such as the Da Vinci Code. Legend of its association with Christ and its mystical properties has sparked a vast raft of ‘Grail quests’, all of which have been in vain. It thus is believed that the Grail is just a legend and nothing more.
However, within the realm of Nuclear Physics, a very different Grail quest is being undertaken; the successful implementation of ‘Cold Fusion’. Like the Grail, its discovery would have a monumental impact on the world and yet also said to be nothing more than a myth.
Nuclear Fusion is the process where Tritium and Deuterium nuclei, both Hydrogen isotopes, fuse together, and in the process, release energy. It’s the very same process that drives the stars, and it is hoped that in the future the process can be harnessed to produce electricity. It’s often described to be the ultimate power source, as the ‘fuels’ (hydrogen and lithium) are abundant in nature and produce very little radioactive waste in comparison to nuclear fission. However, despite the best part of 50 years work, nuclear fusion as a power source has yet to be realised.
It at this point where the distinction between ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ fusion must be made. Much institutional effort is allocated towards developing ‘hot fusion’, where the conditions for the process are similar to that seen in the sun. These projects attract the vast majority of the funding and interest in fusion. The JET, ITER and Inertial confinement reactors (all huge international projects) both rely on recreating the temperatures found in the sun, which can be up to 10 million degrees Celsius. This provides the conditions via which fusion can occur. Whilst this can be recreated on earth (with great difficulty!) and fusion occurring, much greater amounts of energy has to be put into the process than is released from it (This arises from having to heat up and contain the fuel). As a result, there is a net energy loss from the process. And a problem which still stumps the most adept scientists today.
This is where ‘cold fusion’ enters the story. Essentially, it’s a fusion reaction that occurs at lower temperatures, much closer to that of room temperature. The tale of cold fusion though has not been as clear cut as that of ‘hot fusion’ and is riddled with controversy.
The first and also most infamous experiment concerning cold fusion was carried out in 1989 by Stanley Fleischmann and Stanley Pons. Here, a constant current was applied to ‘heavy water’ using Palladium electrodes. Over the course of the experiment Fleischmann and Pons noted sudden increases in temperature of the set-up (from 30OC to 50OC), and calculated more energy was leaving the setup than being put into it. It was stated that ‘cold-fusion’ of the deuterium in the heavy water must have been taking place on the palladium electrodes.
However, very few labs could replicate their findings and shortly after, their entire work was almost completely panned in the scientific realm. Indeed, both Pons and Fleischmann were labelled as frauds and had their reputations ruined as a result. ‘Cold fusion’ has a huge stigma attached to it by the scientific community. Publishers are still unwilling to publish journals regarding the subject, and there are very few academics who would take the topic seriously. Yet despite this, some individuals and institutions still pursue the ‘cold fusion’ pipe dream, albeit with limited success and ridicule at the hands of mainstream science.
The latest claim is from the Italian physicists Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi, from the University of Bologna (January 2011). They claim to have successfully produced a fully-functioning cold fusion reactor. Whilst they haven’t specified how the reactor works, nickel and hydrogen are passed into the reactor, and copper and energy produced as a by-product. They even go on to say they’ve set up a production line for the reactors! However, they haven’t really given any solid proof that it works, nor how the mechanism behind it. The wolves that are the critics and debunkers are already beginning to circle this story. Soon Rossi and Forcardi’s credibility as scientists will probably be under immense scrutiny. Whether or not their claims are true remains to be seen.
Mainstream science says no to cold fusion, it just seems go against mainstream understanding of how nuclear fusion occurs. But there will always be those who are attracted to the prospect of an unlimited electricity source, and the instant fame associated with it.
It does make one wonder whether the chalice that is ‘cold fusion’ can ever be attained. And how many are prepared to pursue and fall in the quest to attain it?