Sunday, April 26, 2009

Cold Fusion Redux?

As we all were preparing our podcasts and papers over the past month, I believe an interesting bit of news may have passed by the class undetected. It appears the specter of cold fusion has reared it's head again, twenty years to the day after Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons made their infamous annoucement that they had achieved cold fusion at room temperature.

Navy researchers have appeared to replicated Fleiscmann and Pons results from two decades ago, and announced their results to an American Chemical Society conference in Salt Lake City in March. Their research focused around an electrochemical experiment using palladium chloride and deuterium. When an energized electrode was placed in solution, neutron particles were observed for no explainable reason. The particles appear to have a signature "track" that could only be explained by some sort of nuclear process.

So why is this important? Nuclear fusion is the process by which stars like our sun provide almost limitless energy. Humans have replicated the process here on earth (think of the the Hydrogen Bomb). The problem is that to sustain a controlled nuclear reaction is very difficult with temperatures reaching millions of degrees Fahrenheit. If a room-temperature mechanism could be discovered to fuse heavy water, the world's energy problems would basically cease to exist. Basically this is the holy grail of energy technology.

So is this the real deal? Not exactly. Physicists are still skeptical that this is a low energy nuclear reaction phenomenon. According to Rice University physicist Paul Bradley the study "fails to provide a theoretical rationale to explain how fusion could occur at room temperatures. And in its analysis, the research paper fails to exclude other sources for the production of neutrons." Still, something strange is appears to be going on and futher research could be warranted to explain the presence of neutrons in these experiments.


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