By Hamish Johnston
In the autumn of 1989 I was doing what many physicists were also doing at the time – I was trying to get deuterium atoms to fuse together in a solid after hearing about the work of Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons. Working at the University of Utah, the pair used electrolysis to “load” metal electrodes with deuterium and claimed to have seen excess heat and particles that could be interpreted as by-products of nuclear fusion. This process was dubbed “cold fusion” and was touted in the popular press as a solution to the world’s energy problems – if only it was…
Fusion normally occurs at extremely high temperatures and therefore it was very difficult to understand how the nuclei could overcome the considerable electrostatic repulsion in order to fuse. A popular explanation at the time was that the positive charges of deuterium nuclei within a solid such as palladium were screened by the negatively charged electrons in the metal, thereby allowing two nuclei to get close enough to fuse.
Like the hundreds of others worldwide, my little experiment found no evidence for cold fusion. With the exception of a few diehard enthusiasts, interest in cold fusion has since withered. Indeed, for physicists of my generation, the cold-fusion saga was a public embarrassment and an example of “bad science” – so much so that even legitimate investigations into its possibility are still viewed by many with scorn.
Fleischmann died on Friday at the age of 85 in England, where he had arrived from his native Czechoslovakia in 1938. I find it sad to think that things could have been so very different for him – and humanity – if he had indeed discovered cold fusion.