Cold Fusion

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His longish hair and beard are gray at the edges, but he seems energized and confident, like a woodsman setting out on a hike. He leads me across a courtyard rimmed with eucalyptus trees, into a building of chemistry labs. Although born in New Zealand, McKubre has an almost English accent, and his voice is well modulated, as if he once took acting lessons.

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He's relaxed, witty, and charming. When I ask to see one of the laboratories, he opens a door for me, then pauses. He's referring to a cold fusion cell that exploded after building up excess gas pressure. I still have pieces of glass in me that work their way up to the surface. Otherwise, the work would have ended. If we're right, and there's a nuclear-based heat production mechanism, I believe the implications for humanity and science are too great for any individual to say, 'I don't want to do this anymore.

He gives me safety goggles before opening another heavy steel door, then introduces me to Francis Tanzella, who is energetic, enthusiastic, but has difficulty talking nontechnically. He's going to be my guide. This lab is big - perhaps 50 feet long, divided into small cubicles with panels of steel-framed half-inch Lexan providing protection in case another explosion occurs.

Inside the cubicles are glass containers, pressure gauges, valves, and tubes where liquids surge and bubble. Watching cold fusion is like watching water boil in slow motion. First, sufficient deuterium has to penetrate the palladium electrode. This can take a few weeks. Then, if excess heat is generated during the next month or two, accurate temperature readings require extreme precautions to exclude environmental effects.

After nine years of this work, he doesn't just live for it, he seems to live in it. He pauses thoughtfully. But - look, if you commit yourself in any direction, you always sacrifice the other things you've learned. McKubre was summoned by Edward Teller.

The Navy's Patent for a Compact Nuclear Fusion Reactor Is Wild

McKubre rejoins us and recounts his own background. He did postdoctoral research at Britain's Southampton University because, like Stanley Pons, he was impressed by Fleischmann's reputation. When cold fusion was announced, he was program manager in electrochemistry at SRI, funded by EPRI to develop sensors for nuclear reactors. By pure coincidence he was working routinely with deuterium and palladium, so - why not give it a try?

McKubre underestimated the complexities of heat measurement. Lo and behold, they both generated heat, and the bigger one generated more heat than the smaller one. This was enough to convince us that the effect probably was real. Subsequently one cell at SRI generated times the heat that could be explained by any conceivable chemical reaction.

Overall, according to McKubre, "the ratio of power out to power in ranged from 1. Our new calorimeter was accurate to better than half a percent, so, without a doubt, the results were statistically significant. Significant, and ignored - though some mainstream scientists maintained a discreet interest in the field. Around , McKubre says, he was summoned for an audience with legendary physicist Edward Teller.

You could see what a giant intellect he must have been in his time. I was subjected to this interrogation for four hours. At the end of it Teller said that he did not think that cold fusion was a reality, but if it were, he could account for it with a very small change in the laws of physics as he understood them, and it would prove to be an example of nuclear catalysis at an interface. I still don't understand what he meant by that, but I'm quite willing to believe that it's correct. Currently, McKubre is overseeing a radically different experiment.

Cold fusion | End of story?

We walk down an echoing hallway, into a smaller room crammed with equipment. Amid the steady hum and whine of cooling fans, a large, bearded guy wearing khaki shorts and a short-sleeved shirt is sitting in front of a video screen. He introduces himself as Russ George, 48, a former ecologist for the Canadian government who switched to cold fusion more than five years ago. He says he acquired his initial interest in science from his father, a nuclear physicist.

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George has done some contract work on cold fusion for EPRI and the Navy, but much of his research is unpaid. It's been a proud and lonely struggle. Beside him is a softball-sized steel sphere, submitted to the lab by a lone-wolf experimenter in New Hampshire named Les Case. Inside the sphere are carbon granules coated with palladium, plus some deuterium gas under pressure. Case believes that if a moderate amount of heat is applied to these everyday, off-the-shelf items for a couple of weeks, nuclear fusion occurs - just as in a Pons-Fleischmann cell.

Intrigued, SRI put the same ingredients into a sealed cc stainless-steel flask and wrapped it in a heating element. A tube from this flask is connected, now, to a mass-spectrometer - an enigmatic steel cabinet standing behind the video screen. Any production of helium would be stunning proof that fusion is occurring, because helium only results from nuclear reactions.

No known chemical interaction can create it. So, any time it's been detected in other cold fusion experiments, people have said it must be getting in from ambient air, which contains about 5 parts per million. We do sets of five analyses: First we check for helium in the instrument, then the helium background in ambient air, then the helium being generated by the apparatus. Then we check the air again, and then we check the instrument again. I take a closer look at the ultrasimple experiment. The problem is that even if they're very able people, they are not surrounded by a peer group that can challenge them and question them.

So, this is why SRI is running its own version of Case's experiment. They won't believe it till they see it themselves. The road is narrow, twisting under a canopy of green. Quaint old houses hide among the trees, along with some quaint newer businesses such as Lumber Liquidators and Used Auto Parts.

A yellow diamond sign warns, "Horse Crossing.

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  5. The car tires spin in the sandy soil as I emerge in a clearing where a large, modern home has been built recently. Les Case is a tall, well-rounded figure in a plain white T-shirt, linen pants, and suspenders. At 68 he still has much of his hair, plus some truly amazing black eyebrows, like wild herbs scorched by some industrial accident.

    He leads me down to his basement, lit by fluorescent lights and crammed to the ceiling with cardboard boxes. An old Remington typewriter stands on a '60s-style metal-legged formica table. A workbench fashioned from massive chunks of lumber is cluttered with tools and hardware. An antique laboratory beam-balance stands in a glass cabinet.

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    I live in a slightly disorganized fashion. See, my wife died in She was a PhD chemist, her hobby was investing. I inherited her money, and have used a portion to fund my research. I ask him how he ended up doing this. He explains that he grew up in Tulsa, obtained a substantial scholarship, and spent five and a half years at MIT, obtaining a doctorate in chemical engineering. His childhood fantasy had been to get rich as a corporate executive, but he found he was better suited to lab work. He spent some years at DuPont, but wasn't a company man.

    I got irritated, and left. He taught classes at colleges such as Purdue and Tufts. Along the way, he acquired 30 patents. Finally, he read about Pons and Fleischmann. I'm a chemical engineer, a practical person, so I wanted to scale it up.

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    6. In he embarked on a courageous international odyssey that began in Japan, where a scientist named Yamaguchi had done interesting work with palladium. Case found him, inspected a palladium disc from the experiment, and saw gold fused into it. Since this must have happened at around degrees Celsius, a huge amount of heat had been produced, perhaps by a burst of neutrons. Back in the United States, Case looked for a lab where he could rent time with a neutron detector.

      There were no takers, so he obtained a list of colleges in Eastern Europe, and went there.

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      In Prague, he walked into an office unannounced and found himself facing the university's director, who fortunately happened to speak English. When Case explained what he wanted to do, the man agreed. Then I thought, maybe a catalyst is needed. So I started making my own, and all of a sudden I got 1. I don't believe in magic, so it had to be catalytic. He was still looking for neutrons, which would confirm a certain type of fusion reaction.

      Any time anyone in Prague turned on a big machine, the counter counted it.