By Richard Bleil
Although it’s an outdated topic, I think cold fusion is a fascinating topic. So, let’s talk about cold fusion.
First, let’s describe fission and fusion reactions. In a fission reaction, a heavy and unstable element will break down to form lighter more stable ones, releasing energy in the process. For example, Uranium-236 (where “236” is the isotope number and can be used to ascertain the number of neutrons in the atom) will break down to form Krypton-89, Barium-144, three neutrons and gamma radiation. Krypton and Barium are fragments of the fission reaction, and therefore lighter than the original Uranium.
These reactions invariably release radiation. There are three types of radiation; alpha radiation is basically fast moving helium, and the weakest and safest form of radiation. Beta radiation is basically fish flung very quickly. Sorry; that’s a pun. Beta radiation is fast moving electrons. Alpha radiation can be stopped by a sheet of paper; beta can be stopped by a brick wall. The highest energy, and most dangerous, is gamma radiation, which required lead to block.
Fusion reactions, on the other hand, are when light elements are forced to combine to form heavier elements, releasing energy in the process. Deuterium, for example, is a heavier form of hydrogen, which forms helium, a heavier element, and one neutron. This is the same reaction that occurs in the sun and stars.
The astute reader may realize that, above, I suggested that both fusion and fission releases energy, and may wonder how it is possible that both reactions, since they are opposite one another, can both be exothermic (releasing energy). The secret is Iron. See, Iron has the most stable nucleus on the periodic table. Elements lighter than iron (Hydrogen, for example), release energy as they fuse to form larger elements (fusion), while elements larger than iron release energy when they fall apart to form lighter elements (fission).
As far as energy is concerned, a chemical reaction can release maybe a few hundred kilojoules of energy. A fission reaction releases about 200 billion times more energy than your typical chemical reaction. A fusion reaction releases roughly 8 million times more energy than a fission reaction, or 1.6 million trillion more energy than a chemical reaction. This is beyond human comprehension. Simple (and safe) fusion reactors would provide an enormous amount of safe energy go far in solving our energy problem.
To cause fusion to occur, however, requires enormous amounts of energy to overcome the energy barrier required to smash together two nucleii. In a fusion bomb, in fact, a fission reaction is required to provide this much energy. The amount of energy required for a sustained fusion reaction, and the temperatures reached in these reactions is the reason that, to date, no commercial sustained fusion reactor has been built.
In 1989, when I was in graduate school, actually, two electrochemists, Pons and Fleischmann, claimed to have successfully produced a sustained fusion reaction at room temperature.
At room temperature.
Can you imagine? The power of the sun, made so small, so safe that we can put a fusion reactor inside each car, thereby completely eliminating the need of fossil fuels ever again? There would be no need for central energy plants. We could simply scale these reactors for the application, be it cars, households, cell phones, manufacturing plants…it would be an energy utopia. Heck, light bulbs would produce their own energy!
But, Pons and Fleischmann made a critical blunder. They leaked the news to the press before publishing their findings in a peer reviewed paper. I guess it’s human nature; we want to tell the world when something so monumental, so huge is about to be released. It’s like discovering a dragon and keeping it a secret. But peer reviewed publications allows other scientists to look at the work privately to determine its validity, and publications in these journals gives other scientists the opportunity to try the experiment to verify the results.
Pons and Fleischmann were highly respected chemists, and really should have known better. They claimed to have recorded low levels of radiation from their apparatus (providing what they called proof of fusion), but had failed to account for background radiation in their lab which turned out to be the source of these readings. Other labs had trouble reproducing the results, making them suspect, and cold fusion was filed away as a fable.
The question is, was it truly a fable? The research into cold fusion continued, in earnest, in Japan for many years after the seminal work had been dismissed. Some of the researchers who attempted to reproduce the results did end up with tragic results, including an unexplained explosion that never should have happened, taking the lives of two graduate students. So, who knows? Maybe something did happen. Perhaps not fusion, but maybe some other form of heretofore unknown nuclear interaction, or chemical reaction. We may never know.