Scientists’ “Cold Fusion” Claims Cannot Be Verified Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

While working at the University of Utah in 1989, electrochemists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons announced their experimental achievement of cold fusion, a phenomenon believed to be unachievable. Although their announcement was initially received with some acclaim, the inability of other scientists to duplicate their results, standard practice in the sciences, led to the term “cold fusion” being associated with scientific scandal.

Summary of Event

During the 1960’s, electrochemical professor Martin Fleischmann and colleagues at the University of Southampton in England began investigating possible connections between chemical reactions and nuclear processes. In 1979, Stanley Pons earned his doctorate in chemistry at Southampton under the tutelage of Fleischmann. After Pons was appointed chairman of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Utah during the early 1980’s, Fleischmann frequently visited Pons in Utah and collaborated with him about joint research ventures. The two were particularly interested in the possibility that nuclear fusion might occur at or near room temperature, a phenomenon known as cold fusion. [kw]"Cold Fusion" Claims Cannot Be Verified, Scientists’ (Mar. 23, 1989)[Cold Fusion] Cold fusion Fleischmann, Martin Pons, Stanley Experiments;cold fusion Cold fusion Fleischmann, Martin Pons, Stanley Experiments;cold fusion [g]United States;Mar. 23, 1989: Scientists’ “Cold Fusion” Claims Cannot Be Verified[02380] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Mar. 23, 1989: Scientists’ “Cold Fusion” Claims Cannot Be Verified[02380] [c]Education;Mar. 23, 1989: Scientists’ “Cold Fusion” Claims Cannot Be Verified[02380] [c]Science and technology;Mar. 23, 1989: Scientists’ “Cold Fusion” Claims Cannot Be Verified[02380] Jones, Steven E.

Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann testify about their cold fusion experiments before a House committee on April 1, 1989.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Between 1983 and 1988, Fleischmann and Pons invested more than $100,000 of their own money in cold-fusion experimentation. Their resulting experiment was quite simple. It consisted of an insulated glass jar containing a solution of lithium deuteroxide salts and 99.5 percent heavy water (deuterium oxide) into which two electrodes were immersed. One electrode was a coil of platinum wire and the other was a ten-centimeter-long rod of palladium. A small voltage between the electrodes decomposed the deuterium oxide into deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) and oxygen. Some of the deuterium was absorbed into the palladium, a result that was previously discovered by Thomas Graham in the nineteenth century. Fleischmann and Pons reported that their experiment generated excessive amounts of heat energy.

In 1988, Fleischmann and Pons submitted a grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Energy for funding that was needed to support their cold-fusion research. The proposal was reviewed by Steven E. Jones, a physicist at Brigham Young University (BYU), who also was working on cold fusion. Jones and colleagues at BYU were doing experiments very similar to those being conducted by Fleischmann and Pons. In January, 1989, Jones reported some positive results from his team’s cold-fusion research. They were seeing neutrons and a small amount of heat being generated from their electrolytic cell. Jones concluded that their experiment showed no potential as a possible commercial energy source, but that it had considerable scientific interest.

During the same period of time, Fleischmann, Pons, and their graduate student, Marvin Hawkins, identified excess heat energy from their experiment that could not be explained by only chemical reactions. They concluded that the energy must be generated by nuclear processes involving the fusion of tightly packed deuterium nuclei in the palladium. If their results were correct, their experimental device would have considerable commercial value. Evidently, Fleischmann and Pons met with Jones on March 6, 1989, to discuss the publication of their individual results simultaneously in Nature. However, Fleischmann and Pons nixed that apparent agreement by submitting their paper for publication in the Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry on March 11.

By mid-March, 1989, University of Utah president Chase N. Peterson believed it was best to release the results of Pons and Fleischmann’s work due to the possible economic windfall from cold fusion as an inexhaustible source of energy. Peterson scheduled a press conference for March 23, breaking a promise of cooperation with Jones and BYU. At the press conference, Pons and Fleischmann reported that their room-temperature experiment was producing heat energy at a rate more than four times greater than the input power. The initial puzzle to their experiment was their report that neutrons and tritium (an isotope of hydrogen) were being released at rates that were a billion times slower than the fusion rate expected from the heat that was being generated. Pons and Fleischmann knew that their claims were theoretically problematic, but they were convinced that their experimental results were basically correct. As a result of the uncertainties, The New York Times New York Times;and cold fusion[cold fusion] initially refused to print the story. On the other hand, Wall Street Journal reporter Jerry Bishop presented the scientists’ claims as a major breakthrough. Cold fusion soon became a major media event.

Several research groups immediately tried to duplicate Pons and Fleischmann’s results. On April 10, researchers at Texas A&M University published results of excess heat from their experiment. The next day, a group from the Georgia Institute of Technology Georgia Institute of Technology reported the production of neutrons. For a lack of concrete evidence, both groups withdrew their claims within a few days. On May 1, the American Physical Society (APS) conducted a session on cold fusion in which a number of failed experiments were reported. At a second APS session on the following day, eight of nine prominent speakers concluded that the claims of Pons and Fleischmann were irrelevant and should be dropped.

Over the next several weeks, many competing claims, counterclaims, and possible explanations for the cold-fusion experiment ran rampant. By not properly verifying their results prior to divulging them, Pons and Fleischmann had created their own scandal. They would now suffer the consequences. They broke all the rules of the scientific community with their premature announcement of having successfully achieved cold fusion in their laboratory. Instead of first seeking peer review by submitting their findings to a reputable journal, they chose to announce their results at a press conference. They also exaggerated some of their results. In addition, because of pending patent rights, they did not disclose the details of their experiment to other scientists. Amid accusations of fraud, incompetence, and deception, the euphoria about cold fusion eventually began to die down. Many journalists referred to cold fusion as a hoax that only generated “confusion.”

As the fiasco played out, Pons and Fleischmann, humiliated by the scientific community, retreated to France to do further work on cold-fusion experiments in a lab in Provence. Although their reputations were ruined, their continued research was funded by multimillionaire Minoru Toyoda from 1992 until 1996. Because of conflict over the direction of the research and unproductive results, Fleischmann left in 1995 and returned to England. Pons left in 1996 to pursue other research opportunities in Europe.

Impact

The quick, widespread media dissemination of the claims of Pons and Fleischmann, the perceived simplicity of their cold-fusion experiment and the potential scientific, social, and economic significance of cold fusion, led to replication efforts being conducted in hundreds of laboratories worldwide. If the conclusions of Pons and Fleischmann proved to be correct, alterations would have to be made in the basic theoretical understanding of the physics of nuclear fusion. Since most laboratories could not replicate the reported cold-fusion results of Fleischmann and Pons, most scientists concluded that cold fusion was not possible. The few positive results that were reported were dismissed as experimental error or even manipulation of the data to show positive results. For the most part, cold-fusion research was ridiculed and denounced.

Despite the scandal and low level of acceptance by the scientific establishment, laboratories in several countries continued to pursue cold-fusion research. Some positive evidence for cold fusion continued to be reported, but most prominent academic journals did not publish those findings. Even though cold fusion may represent a colossal conspiracy of denial, millions of dollars continue to be spent on the concept because of the potential economic windfalls. Consequently, some researchers continue their hope of explaining and developing cold-fusion technology. As a result, some publications are devoted to publishing papers about cold fusion. A Web-based cold-fusion library has been established, and an international conference on cold fusion is held twice a year.

The cold-fusion debacle also led the scientific community to scrutinize reported scientific breakthroughs much more thoroughly and to make sure that proper protocol is followed prior to the release of any results. Experimental and theoretical work must be reviewed and replicated by peers and deemed publishable before it is released to the media. The bar for ethical standards associated with scientific research and the reporting of the results has been raised to a new level. Cold fusion Fleischmann, Martin Pons, Stanley Experiments;cold fusion

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beaudette, Charles G. Excess Heat: Cold Fusion Research Prevailed. 2d ed. Brampton, Ont.: Oak Grove Press, 2002. Excellent review of the Pons-Fleischmann experiment, the cold-fusion controversy, and what has been done in cold-fusion research from 1989 until 2002. A good overview for general readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kozima, Hideo. The Science of Cold Fusion Phenomenon. Boston: Elsevier, 2006. Scientific examination of the possibility of cold fusion that investigates the work of Fleischmann, Pons, and Jones and proposes possible mechanisms for cold fusion and how it might be experimentally achieved.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simon, Bart. Undead Science: Science Studies and the Afterlife of Cold Fusion. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002. Examines the Fleischmann-Pons debacle and traces some of the experimental and theoretical work involving cold fusion during the 1990’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taubes, Gary. Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion. New York: Random House, 1993. Critical appraisal of the mishandling of science demonstrated by Fleischmann and Pons in prematurely announcing success with cold fusion.

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