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Cold Fusion as Policy Posterboy

The March Meeting has everything, including a session on cold fusion.

It is almost 20 years since Pons and Fleischmann told the world that they had seen nuclear fusion in what is essentially an electro-chemistry experiment. The idea is that if you packed enough deuterium into a piece of palladium metal, the deuterium nuclei would somehow overcome considerable electrical repulsion (perhaps being screened by palladium electrons) and fuse together, releasing lots of energy.

The announcement set off a furore that pitted chemists against physicists and led to allegations that big-energy interests and the physics “establishment” were trying to cover up a genuine breakthrough. And sadly, as nuclear physicists scrambled to do experiments involving hydrogen and electricity, there was at least one deadly explosion.

However, other researchers were unable to confim cold fusion and today most of the physics community has forgotten it. Except for a small band of researchers who have somehow convinced the APS to give them a session at the March Meeting.

This year’s session included a talk from a non-physicist, Thomas Grimshaw, who teaches public policy at the University of Texas at Austin. Grimshaw has adopted cold fusion as “a posterboy for rational policy making”. He looked at cold fusion research results using “evidence-based policy making” analysis techniques — the sort of thing a government would use to decide if lower speed limits save lives on the roads.

His conclusion is that there is a “preponderance of evidence” that funding cold fusion research is in the public interest. The minimum response, he believes, is that the US government should reinstate its cold fusion programme — and it would be a reasonable response to give cold fusion the same funding status as conventional approaches to fusion such as magnetic and interial confinement.

While I doubt that this public-policy approach will raise the profile of cold-fusion research, there is something admirable in the fact that the people in session A14 have battled against conventional wisdom for nearly two decades. But writing as someone who did a cold fusion experiment in 1990, my personal opinion is that whatever they are seeing — it’s not fusion.

You can read more about Grimshaw’s work here.

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