In part I (over on WhoWhatWhy), I introduced the fact that energy locked in the nucleus of the atom is a million times greater than energy in the electrons. The vast energy of the atom bomb (based on fission) has been tamed in nuclear power plants, but at great cost in terms of meltdown dangers, environmental destruction, and nuclear waste. Fusion has promised the same huge energy potential with the additional advantages of cheap fuel (heavy hydrogen is much cheaper than uranium) and far less nuclear hazard. The problem is that no one knows how to get a fusion reaction going without heating the hydrogen hotter than the center of the sun. Daunting.
In part II (here on ScienceBlog), I described the unexpected experimental result that nuclear fusion has been observed in a tabletop device that is no more complicated than a glorified battery. This was first announced by two University of Utah professors in 1989, but instead of being celebrated as heralds of a new prosperity based on clean and abundant energy, the two were demonized by physicists who had hundreds of millions in grants for research in hot fusion. Not incidentally, cold fusion is a threat to the fossil fuel industry and to banks whose stock in trade is “petrodollars”. Research in cold fusion has been a backwater for 34 years, censored in the literature of mainstream science. But progress has continued nevertheless.
Recipe for a cold fusion cell
Palladium is a precious metal with the unusual property that it is porous to hydrogen. Using chemistry alone, you can’t make a crystal that has interspersed hydrogen and palladium atoms, one-to-one, but with a setup that is like charging a battery, you can use voltage to induce almost this much hydrogen to enter the palladium. The result can be that crystal of palladium with interspersed hydrogen atoms, but it can take weeks for the hydrogen to move in even one millimeter from the surface, and details of shape and composition of the water solution are crucial. Even the provenance of the palladium seems to be important, though different batches are sold as “pure”.
Fusion is a lot easier with heavy hydrogen than with normal hydrogen. Two nuclei of heavy hydrogen can make one helium nucleus in a single step. (Heavy hydrogen is chemically the same as normal hydrogen because chemistry depends on the electron on the outside, not the nucleus on the inside.)
Heavy hydrogen is moderately rare in nature, about one atom in 13,000. Water with heavy hydrogen is called heavy water, and it’s not too hard to make. Heavy water costs about $1,000 a liter. A liter of heavy water could fuel enough fusion energy to power a small city for a month, if we had a power plant based on either hot fusion or cold fusion. So the cost of heavy hydrogen is not a barrier to practical fusion energy. Palladium could be a cost issue. Palladium is not used up in cold fusion, but palladium is far and away the most reliable substrate for cold fusion cells. If every household in the world wanted to power their home with cold fusion, there would not be enough palladium. There has been research using nickel or titanium instead of palladium — not as good, but much cheaper and more abundant, and perhaps it can be made to work.
The big issue is the uncertain wait time before the palladium fills with hydrogen. Once the palladium electrode is fully loaded with heavy hydrogen, nobody knows what makes cold fusion start to happen, or when it will occur. Much of the reason for the variability in reports from one lab to the next derives from this erratic behavior, which we still don’t understand.
My personal experience
In the fall of 2011, I read an article in Wired (since deleted but available at Archive.org) about an Italian businessman who was taking orders for cold fusion generators. Reportedly, the US Army had deposited $1 million.
“The E-Cat is deceptively simple: [heavy] hydrogen is passed over a special catalyst based on nickel in a container about a litre in size, and enough heat is produced to boil water. A demonstration in January appeared to show a several kilowatts of output from a four hundred watt input.”
Since 1989, I had not given a thought to cold fusion. How could it be that someone, even a mountebank, was selling a working device while the entire scientific community had dismissed cold fusion as a mistake?
I began reading and researching. This video convinced me I needed to do more. Mike McKubre of Stanford Research Institute measured heat coming out of his CF cell and at the same time counted the atoms of helium that appeared (with a device called a mass spectrometer that is capable of actually counting atoms). The two readings rose and fell in parallel, and the ratio of energy to helium atoms was exactly 24 million volts. Bingo. I was convinced by this clear and compelling experiment.
Over the next two years, I went to two CF conferences and visited five laboratories. My judgment was that three of the five had credible results. I felt a tangible excitement in the air, a renaissance of interest in this long-abandoned topic. Dozens of contradictory theories about why hydrogen is able to fuse at low temperatures were an embarrassment. But there was no doubt that Pons and Fleischmann had been vindicated hundreds of times over, and the focus of research was how to turn the process on reliably.
And today? Ten years later, I don’t see any sign that the ball has advanced toward the goal post. There are still meetings. Last year’s bi-annual meeting had 150 scientists attending in person and another 150 online. There are still labs reporting positive results. There is still no one who claims to be able to flip a switch and turn on cold fusion.
(References reprinted from part II) For readers who are technically inclined, Steven Krivit wrote a good review of the state of the art a decade ago, and a bibliography is available from New Energy Times. I personally witnessed cold fusion demos and inspected the data at Stanford Research Institute (Mike McKubre), MIT (Peter Hagelstein), and the University of Missouri (Graham Hubler). Focardi et al first reported success using nickel instead of palladium in 1998. Here is a 2004 update on what Fleischmann was able to accomplish. This is a 2009 assessment of the technology from the US Defense Intelligence Agency.
When CF generators are realized, they will not be in billion-dollar power plants, but in shoebox-sized boilers that run on (heavy) water and conveniently power cars and homes on-site. Instead of being connected to the electric grid, you will have a small device in your basement that boils water on demand. The steam will run a generator that supplies electricity on demand, and the leftover heat from the steam engine will keep your house warm and heat your bath water. The term for this is on-site cogeneration.
Somebody knows how to make cold fusion work, and they’re not telling
The following is educated speculation on my part, without direct evidence.
With all the progress in cold fusion research that I’ve seen with my own eyes, with the defense agencies studying the subject out in the open—apart from any secret DARPA programs they have—it is not plausible to me that no one has solved the problem of how to control cold fusion, to turn it on at will so that it is a useful power source.
This is a suppressed technology.
Those who stand to lose if CF becomes viable are far more numerous and more powerful than a handful of scientists collecting billions of dollars in research contracts for hot fusion. There is plenty of money sunk in investments that would be worthless if cheap, dispersed CF cogeneration were a reality. Current value of oil in the ground is in the neighborhood of $100 trillion. The electric grid worldwide likewise is valued at tens of trillions of dollars. And the US dollar itself, since 1972, has been backed by Middle-East oil. So perhaps we don’t have to look far for candidate conspirators who have a stake in making sure that CF never comes to market.
But I want to propose something more radical, more disturbing, and also more legitimate. Pons and Fleischmann never recreated the cell that melted the concrete floor of their laboratory. They figured that they handn’t blown up the building with the first such experiment, and they were not going to press their luck.
I think it plausible that CF technology holds the key to creating a megaton bomb with technology that could be managed by a basement hobbyist. This idea was floated in an August, 2004 cover story in Popular Mechanics, but has since been nearly forgotten. Jason Jorjani is the only author I know who discusses it in the present.
Small nuclear weapons
The world was appropriately horrified by nuclear weapons in 1945. “Never again” was a universal chorus. During the Cold War, the world was protected by MAD, the appropriate acronym for Mutually Assured Destruction, as arsenals on both sides grew to tens of thousands of bombs up to 100 megatons in yield.
Military planners viewed this as a waste. What they wanted was usable nuclear weapons. “Usable” nuclear weapons. This, I maintain, is the most dangerous idea in the world today. As long as there is a sharp line between conventional and nuclear bombs, it is at least possible to hope that a “no first use” policy prevails. But can we draw a clear line if a 5 kiloton bomb on a battlefield is considered acceptable, but a 20 kiloton bomb dropped on a city (think Nagasaki) is not?
Every nation in the world has a “no first use policy” except the United States of America. (Israel has no policy about first use because they have never acknowledged they actually do have nuclear weapons.)
Small nuclear weapons were once thought to be difficult to engineer, because a critical mass of uranium is required to produce an explosion, while smaller quantities will only simmer and melt.
America has had small nuclear weapons since the 1950s, and they have become quite sophisticated. There are “dialable” nuclear weapons with yields from a fraction of a kiloton up to several kilotons. This is all public information, and it is likely there are other capabilities that the Generals don’t talk about.
All these small nuclear weapons are based on fission. This means they emit large doses of radiation, probably more lethal even than the explosion. They could not be used secretly, and they would contaminate the area where they are used, creating a region that is as uninhabitable as Chernobyl or Fukushima.
A hypothetical small weapon based on cold fusion would be a graver temptation for Stragelovian military planners. It might be used deniably, without a significant radiation signature. It could be used near inhabited areas without creating a permanent hazard.
The massive explosion, August, 2020 in Beirut, was reported as a fertilizer accident; but there are several reasons to think this is not a credible account. The flare was white-hot and faster than a single video frame. It would have required a second or more for a fire to spread through several acres of ammonium nitrate. The crater left by the Beirut blast was larger and deeper than could be accounted for by 2,750 tons of fertilizer; the entire port of Beirut was demolished. A Reuters report rated the explosion as the most powerful “non-nuclear” blast in the last 99 years, and estimated its energy to be 0.3 to 0.4 kilotons, well within the range of acknowledged “tactical nukes”. Pepe Escobar noted there was ample motivation for sabotage.
There is some speculation that the bomb that devastated Damascus, Syria in May, 2013 may also have been a small nuclear weapon. The explosion was large enough that conventional bombs would have been too heavy a cargo for a plane to carry. Here’s how it was covered at RT.com.
For imperialist generals, a cheap and simple nuclear weapon that leaves little radiation may be a wet dream, but for the rest of us it is a nightmare of apocalyptic proportions, the gateway for a slide into all-out nuclear holocaust. The Powers that Be have reasons for not wanting cold fusion technology available to home-grown terrorists, but you and I have reasons for not wanting cold fusion bombs available to the Powers that Be — and we may suspect that the world’s high-tech military already have them.
Further thinking about the unthinkable
You don’t have to be paranoid about terrorist threats to imagine the potential devastations if tomorrow’s Ted Kaczynski were empowered with a home-made nuke. Maybe the spooks and underminers of democracy and president-killers at our CIA are justified in running a decades-long program of infiltration and disinformation to keep CF technology out of the public domain.
Maybe the challenge for us, the peace-loving 99.9%, is to create a world of trust, goodwill, and resilient communities where we can safely handle empowerment and abundance that is already available. This seems from our present vantage as something between a Tall Order and a pipe dream.
I don’t have answers for this largest of questions, but I don’t want to leave this article hanging without acknowledging the gravity of this possibility, and offering some comments to open a conversation.
What if there are technologies, known to some Elites but not in the general scientific literature, that have the potential to empower us enormously, to end drudgery and scarcity — but these same technologies would offer every individual human enormous destructive power?
What if the Elites are afraid of these technologies becoming generally known — eventually they will leak out — and so they are trying to avoid global catastrophe in the only way they know how, which is to establish centralized control over a globalized police state, with universal surveillance assuring that there is no individual who could build a bomb in his basement without being detected?
Are the Elites correct about the need for centralized control and universal surveillance? Can we offer an alternative vision of a world where individuals are empowered, but holocaust is avoided? If you haven’t watched the 1956 sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet, now is the time to take a break.
I don’t have an answer, but I’m not willing to accept a choice between the world blowing up and a global dictatorship. I start with three principles:
- Democracy — Can we create governments that are resilient in their respone to popular sentiment and not vulnerable to takeover by a wealthy, manipulative and power-hungry subclass?
- Decentralization — Communities are small enough that everyone has personal experience with their leaders, breeding trust. Each community has its unique character, unique culture and institutions. The diversity of different ways to be human is a strength.
- Inclusion — Everyone must have a place at the table. We have no wiggle room on this one. Every person must feel that s/he belongs and is valued and has a voice that will be heard and a gift that will be treasured.
We had these three virtues in some hunter-gatherer communities in our deep past, and even today there are surviving First People communities from which we might learn how to do this. But none of these has had global interconnection or access to other advanced technologies until now.
Our challenge is to build a million interconnected communities such that 8 billion unique humans will all find some place s/he can call home.
This is a dangerous idea, perhaps a very dangerous idea. Why am I not keeping it to myself? I don’t want the only people thinking about it to be the megalomaniacs and sociopaths at Davos. And Jason Jorjani and the editors of Popular Mechanics.