Just as Japan’s earthquake raises fears of catastrophe from a nuclear meltdown and Mideast turmoil jeopardizes the world’s supply of conventional energy, along comes word of a possible scientific breakthrough that holds out the hope of cheap, abundant power. Cold fusion - discredited and vilified in the past - is back in the news. The potential benefits are great enough that, despite past failures, the technology deserves a fair hearing from the scientific community this time.
In January, two Italian scientists announced they had invented a reactor that fuses nickel and hydrogen nuclei at room temperature, producing copper and throwing off massive amounts of energy in the process. Sergio Focardi and Andrea Rossi demonstrated their tabletop device before a standing-room-only crowd in Bologna, purportedly using 400 watts of power to generate 12,400 watts with no hazardous waste. They told observers that their reactors, small enough to fit in a household closet are able to produce electricity for less than 1 cent per kilowatt hour.
Nuclear reactors like those at Japan’s damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi plant produce power by employing fission, splitting atoms to release huge amounts of energy. But they require large containment structures to prevent the escape of dangerous radiation. If the shield is breached, either by internal explosion as in the case of the Chernobyl leak in 1986 or natural disaster such as Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, the health threat from radiation is great. In contrast, extracting energy from fusion entails the bonding of atomic material - and normally requires extremely high temperatures and pressure. But cold fusion, the label given to a theoretical process occurring at room temperatures, would be more practical and safe.
The Italians’ reported 31-fold increase in energy from cheap and commonplace ingredients - if genuine - would rank as one of the greatest scientific achievements of all time, deposing oil as king of energy resources. Petroleum-producing regimes in the Middle East now using petro-dollars from the United States and other power-needy nations to fund Islamic extremism across the globe would be put out of business.
Alternatives to oil all have their drawbacks. Conventional nuclear power has been recently generating renewed interest - until now - because as a carbon-free product, it produces no “greenhouse” gases. But fear of radiation contamination in Japan is likely to undermine the industry in the near-term. Coal is always the black sheep of the energy industry because of environmentalists’ concerns over coal plant emissions. Expensive, renewable energy projects involving solar and wind power gobble up fortunes in taxpayer funds only to produce high-priced electricity.
A nuclear physicist associated with the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics, Giuseppe Levi, told reporters at the January demonstration that he was convinced the results were accurate. But peer-reviewed journals, exhibiting an abundance of caution, have so far refused to publish the findings.
It is easy to understand why. In 1989, University of Utah chemist Stanley Pons and University of Southampton chemist Martin Fleischmann announced a similar breakthrough in cold fusion. When their results were largely unexplainable and irreproducible, they were shunned by the scientific community. That episode has resulted in scientists looking askance at any claims of success in cold fusion research, complicating the task the Italians face in proving their results are genuine.
If this new technology is real, it should be easy to prove and past failures - and outside agendas - shouldn’t stand in the way. Still, scientific discovery is expensive and money is often the X factor. Fortunes and reputations are made and lost based on results. Orthodoxies develop that discredit ideas posing a threat to the money flow, whether from government sources or from private investment. In the debate over “global warming,” scientists and politicians alike have resorted to repeating the mantra “the science is settled” as a means of freezing out researchers whose climate findings undermine public acceptance of the warming-planet credo and jeopardize billions in research funds.
Cold fusion is the holy grail of energy generation. Achieving it would constitute a breakthrough of epic proportions, but wishing it won’t make it so. In light of Japan’s nuclear woes, the scientific community should approach the Focardi-Rossi enterprise with both healthy skepticism and a wary eye toward naysayers who would suppress rational inquiry. Let science be science and the chips fall where they will.
Frank Perley is senior editor of opinion for The Washington Times.