Data Versus Dogma: The Continuing Battle Over Cold Fusion

Establishment science continues to turn cold shoulder despite mounting scientific evidence.

Physics Today reported that the U.S. Department of Energy has decided to review the research in cold fusion that has been performed over the last fifteen years. Officials at the Department, many of whom are credentialed scientists, apparently concluded that enough evidence has accumulated since 1989 to justify giving the cold fusioneers a second hearing. The article noted a somewhat sarcastic opinion by skeptics that the review was being taken up as a political favor by the Secretary of Energy to some former constituents. Not long ago, Scientific American was asked to reconsider its refusal to publish articles on cold fusion. The magazine's editor responded that, while there were "a large number of publications that ostensibly offered evidence of the phenomenon, even the creationists [could] point to thousands of 'publications' and 'scientists' seemingly supporting their position."

These prestigious publications clearly and unequivocally express the still-prevailing attitude among the majority of physicists that cold fusion is pseudo-science. Although some scientists sympathize with cold fusion's supporters, most do not even entertain the notion that their claims just might have merit. Just after the Tenth International Conference on Cold Fusion, the Wall Street Journal pointed out that cold fusion was "pathological science" not for lack of evidence, but because those scientists who should be reviewing cold fusion claims would not even discuss them. The Wall Street Journal is not exactly a fringe publication.

It has been said many times that, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." Since cold fusion was first announced to the world in 1989, enough experimental evidence has accumulated to satisfy that burden of proof. Charles Beaudette, an MIT-trained engineer, wrote that, by 1996, there were multiple corroborations of excess heat being generated by means of electrochemical stimulation. Twenty researchers from seven countries had successfully replicated the original Fleischmann-Pons experiment. In their recently released report on the state of cold fusion research, New Energy Times investigators Steven Krivit and Nadine Winocur reported that, since 1989, almost 15,000 cold fusion experiments have been performed, and within the last several years, the effects claimed by Fleischmann and Pons have been reproduced at rates ranging between 83 and 100 percent. One well-known website on cold fusion,, features an on-line library of more than 280 original scientific papers that are linked to a bibliography of nearly 3,000 journal papers, news articles and books about cold fusion.

In the spring of 1991, two years after the controversial 1989 announcement, Professor Wilford Hansen of Utah State University showed that several of the cells from the original Fleischmann Pons experiment really did produce excess heat. According to Professor Hansen, one cell had an excess heat output of 45 electron volts per palladium atom, another had an excess heat output of 1,700 electron volts per palladium atom, and a third had an excess heat output of 6,000 electron volts per atom of palladium. Beaudette noted that the amount of energy released from the conventional electrochemical reaction, by contrast, is merely four electron volts. Between August 1990 and February 1991, Michael McKubre of SRI International performed experiments in which they observed anomalous power in three out of four cells. At Osaka University in Japan between 1991 and 1994, Professors Yoshiaki Arata and Yue-Chang Zhang performed successive experiments until they were able to achieve an excess heat output of 250 watts for 125 watts of input, a generation rate of 100 percent. Professor Arata had received numerous awards for scientific achievement over the years, and has had the honor of having a major building on the Osaka University campus named after him.

The United States Navy, through its Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), undertook one of the more comprehensive studies of cold fusion. NRL decided to "investigate the anomalous effects associated with the prolonged charging of the palladium / deuterium system." One of the labs undertook a study of the conditions under which excess heat could be generated. In another lab, scientists demonstrated the connection between excess heat and the production of helium gas, which was an indicator of the nuclear reactions generated by the cold fusion phenomenon. Using refined techniques, the NRL team was able to demonstrate that the cold fusion effect was reproducible. They found that, as the current passed through the cell and the temperature of the electrolyte solution increased, so too did excess heat production, and the heat sources were located close to the electrode/electrolyte contact surface. Melvin H. Miles, one member of the team, described results from experiments conducted in Japan from December 5, 1997 to February 12, 1998 . Dr. Miles reported that excess power had been generated over a period of seventy days. In another experiment that ran from February 17 to February 26, 1998 , excess power was observed in three different cells, particularly during the last two days. Data from this experiment indicate that up to 400 milliwatts of anomalous heat was present in two of the cells.

Some of the world's largest energy companies had also conducted experiments based on Fleischmann's and Pons's work. Krivit and Winocur reported that scientists at Amoco Oil Corporation had found indications of excess heat being generated at rates up to 1,000 times beyond what could be accounted for by normal experimental error. Scientists working on a report for Shell Research indicated that they had confirmed the presence of up to several watts of excess heat in what they termed the "simple Fleischmann-Pons system."

Not only is there a large body of data, generated by numerous replications, there are at least two working models being put forward by which manifestations of anomalous power could be predicted. During a presentation given at the Tenth International Conference on Cold Fusion, McKubre described those hypotheses. The first identified loading as the significant variable. McKubre posited that in deuterium-palladium systems, excess heat will be observed if a sufficient quantity of deuterium is loaded into the palladium lattice through the electrochemical process. This hypothesis finds substantial support in the evidence, according to McKubre, in that in 51 percent of the experiments where maximum loading was achieved, excess heat was present. That percentage drops significantly when loading is reduced, even if the reduction is slight. If between 95 and 99 percent of maximum loading is achieved, excess power was observed only 38 percent of the time. With loading less than 95 percent of maximum, excess heat is observed only 17 percent of the time. The second hypothesis has to do with the observed correlation between excess heat and the presence of nuclear residues. McKubre opined that excess heat originates in a nuclear effect exhibited by crystalline metals heavily loaded with deuterium. He pointed to repeated experiments showing a correlation between heat and the presence of helium 4, a bi-product of nuclear fusion. This hypothesis predicts that where there is a strong output of helium-4, excess heat will be present in amounts up to 24 megavolts per palladium atom. What was actually observed, according to McKubre, was the presence of excess heat in amounts ranging from 19 and 45 megavolts per atom of palladium. Cold fusion has thus the achieved a hallmark of a true science - predictability.

In most scientific investigations, only one successful independent replication is necessary to demonstrate the validity of a phenomenon and satisfy the burden of proof that the phenomenon is real. The thousands of successful replications that have occurred around the world, the mountain of technical papers that precisely document the presence of excess heat and nuclear signatures, and not one but two valid working hypotheses should be enough to constitute "extraordinary" proof of cold fusion. The so-called skeptics, however, will have none of it. According to Scientific American, there is no evidence that cold fusion had "achieved any significantly new level of credibility in the eyes of the general physics community." A Princeton University physicist was quoted in Physics Today as saying that further review of cold fusion is a "waste of time," and that the only reason for putting together a review committee is to "put the issue to bed." None of this surprises Peter Hagelstein, a physics professor at MIT and a supporter of cold fusion research. Professor Hagelstein acknowledged that, despite all of the progress that has been made, the majority of mainstream scientists refuse to go near this subject out of fear that their careers will be irreparably harmed.

Cold fusion's detractors call themselves skeptics. But there is a real difference between skepticism in the true sense and the almost religious belief in scientific orthodoxy that masquerades as impartiality. Marcello Truzzi, the founding co-chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, eloquently described this distinction. According to Truzzi, a skeptic is an agnostic, a doubter rather than a believer. Doubt is not denial, merely a recognition that a claim has not been proven. The burden of proof of anomalous observations rests with the claimant at all times. Once that burden is satisfied, as with cold fusion, the skeptics must either accept the findings or provide another explanation. If they choose the latter course of action, then by definition, they become claimants with respect to that alternative explanation. As such, they can no longer express doubts about the validity of the evidence without first examining the evidence themselves. They must master the literature and become familiar with the experimental methods and metrics common to the field. In the case of cold fusion, this means becoming fluent in calorimetry. They must then perform the experiments according to the protocols that have been established over the last fifteen years. They must identify mistakes in technique and misinterpretations of results. If those mistakes and misinterpretations are material enough, the original hypothesis may be disproved and the alternative hypothesis put forward. Only after all of these steps are taken will the skeptics be in a position to honestly express doubts about the original claims.

To date, however, no refereed technical journal has presented a paper that completely and conclusively rebuts the cold fusion hypotheses or findings. The organizers of the Tenth International Conference on Cold Fusion invited the field's most prominent detractors to come to the conference and disprove cold fusion claims. None showed. Instead, the "skeptics" continue to recite the catechism that there is no evidence for cold fusion, and continue to rely on a priori denunciations, contemptuously referring to supporters of cold fusion as "true believers." A favorable review by the Department of Energy that results in real projects being funded would go a long way toward making the general public aware of the reality of cold fusion.