WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Cold Fusion is thought to be impossible, but if it isn’t it would change the world, so Google went to try and discover it.
The journal Nature last week revealed the results of a 4-year, $10 million experiment to test Cold Fusion, run by none other than Google. Obviously. The experiments were allegedly kept secret in order to avoid the negative publicity that cold fusion attracted when it burst upon the scene 30 years ago, but even though Google kept the program secret they did recently announce they were using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help them crack the secrets of “regular” fusion.
Since the grand reveal a number of experts in the field have gotten intrigued and been talking to a few non-scientists about their understanding of these historical issues, and it appears that many people don’t know about the cold fusion saga, so here’s a quick recap.
Back in 1989, two chemists at the University of Utah, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, held a press conference to announce a startling discovery – they had generated fusion energy at room temperature.
If true, this would have been a profound, civilisation changing discovery, after all, cold fusion, which is the ability to generate limitless clean fusion energy but without the need to re-create a “Star in a Jar” and the huge temperatures associated with it, which are in the millions of degrees Celsius range, here on Earth, had the potential to provide nearly free energy to the entire world, eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels and promising unheard-of economic and environmental benefits.
Unfortunately for Pons and Fleischmann, whose reputations were forever tarnished, the 1989 experiments were fatally flawed. Many scientists tried to reproduce the results, but they all failed, and the criticism mounted quickly. Pons and Fleischmann never published their findings, and cold fusion later became a meme for flawed or impossible scientific results. Even today, calling something “cold fusion” is form of ridicule.
Despite the dramatic failure 30 years ago, cold fusion isn’t fundamentally impossible, unlike homeopathy, acupuncture, reiki, or other forms of pseudoscience. Fusion is a very real phenomenon, and no one really knows if it might be possible to sustain a fusion reaction at low temperatures, or what those temperature limits might be. This is what led Google and the scientific team they funded to give cold fusion another serious look.
The new Google funded experiments were run by a team of about 30 graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors. The seven leaders of the team, who include scientists from UBC, MIT, the University of Maryland, LBL, and Google, described their findings in a paper just published in Nature. And after four years of careful experiments, they conclude:
“So far, we have found no evidence of anomalous effects claimed by proponents of cold fusion.”
In other words, they couldn’t get cold fusion to work. They tried 3 different experimental setups that have been proposed by others, but despite their best efforts, nothing produced any signs of fusion energy.
The news isn’t all negative though. The scientists emphasized that in the course of trying to produce cold fusion, they had to design new instrumentation and study new types of materials that have received little attention before now, writing:
“… evaluating cold fusion led our programme to study materials and phenomena that we otherwise might not have considered. We set out looking for cold fusion, and instead benefited contemporary research topics in unexpected ways.”
“Finding breakthroughs requires risk taking, and we contend that revisiting cold fusion is a risk worth taking,” they added.
As the scientists themselves pointed out, even though their experiments didn’t produce cold fusion, “this exploration of matter far from equilibrium is likely to have a substantial impact on future energy technologies.”
In other words, if we keep trying, who knows what we might find? So for now at least cold fusion is still just a myth, but who knows one day we might crack the code, just as we’ve cracked the code to create deflector shields, holograms, laser weapons, tractor beams, and other hitherto science fiction like technologies.