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Another kick at the cold fusion dream…

Nearly 20 years ago, some scientists observed something that looked like room temperature fusion, or “cold fusion”. If such a thing actually worked, and generated net positive energy flow (I.E.: you get more energy out than you put in to start and maintain the fusion), the world could be changed in amazing ways. Unfortunately, no one, including the original scientists, has been able to reproduce the observations in the two decades since the original incident.

Until a few days ago, that is. Scientists at Osaka University in Japan have publicly demonstrated what appears to be a working cold fusion design. Better yet, it seems to produce positive energy flow. There is tremendous doubt and disbelief in the scientific community because the previous incident gave the whole concept of cold fusion a bad name. And I personally am doubtful: if cold fusion really works and uses materials that can be produced rather than some arbitrarily limited/rare resource, and if it produces positive energy flow, and if that positive energy is significant… once again, the world could change in amazing ways.

Cold fusion could, if it really works well, mean the elimination of petrochemicals for the generation of electricity. That by itself would, in any reasonable world, fuel a massive shift to electricity for powering our vehicles. And if cold fusion generators can be made small, safe, and simple enough to fit in a home, we could see a truly distributed energy grid. If they can be made even smaller, perhaps we could have a fusion power plant generating electricity in each of our cars. The humourous Mr. Fusion concept in the 80’s movie series, Back to the Future, could become something like reality.

Alternately, this could be another huge mistake, setting back the investigation of the real possibility of cold fusion for several more decades. Or it could actually work, but require such rare or hard to manage materials and produce so little usable energy that the resulting technology is little more than a parlor trick. I fear that one of these possibilities is much more likely than the optimistic alternatives.

5 comments to Another kick at the cold fusion dream…

  • The nice thing about this is that it seems to be a much simpler set up than the one’s based on the first electrolysis rig. That means fewer things to go wrong, fewer sources of spurious signal and clearer results that should be easier to duplicate.

    I do not doubt that the “cold fusion” effect is real. There have been enough results going back to the early 1900’s to convince something is going on there. And now that the knee jerk reaction has worn off, a lot of respectable scientists seem ready to consider that something is at work that we don’t fully understand.

    I also however am increasingly doubtful that it will be something that can turn into commercially viable source of power … for that you need a lot more power out than you put in, and you need, if you are going to run an electric turbine, a pretty high heat differential.

  • Could it be turned commercial? That question is way beyond me. I understand that the energy output is expected to be very small for cold fusion. It isn’t like Mr. Fusion from Back to the future: a can of beer and some water won’t get you 1.5 Gigawatts. But how will cold fusion compare to the net energy output per dollar for wind power, solar…? Could you build a cold fusion generator and use it to charge your battery powered cars overnight? Could a power plant build an array of cold fusion generators and replace a steam turbine? What kinds of nasty waste chemicals or pollution would this produce?

    To be honest, I don’t entirely understand the numbers they throw around regarding potential power output. As an ignorant savage, the basic idea I understand is that all matter has outrageous amounts of energy locked up in it. Direct 100% conversion of a few grams of matter produces energy equivalent to megatons of TNT. Fission, like the Hiroshima bomb, gets perhaps 1/10000th of that energy out. “Hot” fusion (like a hydrogen bomb, or perhaps some mystical future fusion power plant) can get maybe 1/100th of that energy out. So even getting a billionth of that much energy from a simple, safe mechanism would be have staggering implications. But apparently the conversion rates are far lower than that: and if it takes a few thousand dollars of fancy chemicals and hardware to warm a cup of water five degrees, we aren’t going to be charging up our cars with this stuff.

    It could, as I suggest in my post, end up like some sort of parlor trick: the fusion equivalent of plugging a couple of electrodes into a lemon and powering a tiny lightbulb for a few minutes. Interesting, ultimately revealing something about physics that we didn’t entirely understand before, but serving no practical purpose. Sort of like the large hadron collider 🙂

  • We’ve had small scale fusion for years, do a search for “Farnsworth Fusor”. The problem has been the getting more energy out than in.

    Even Pons and Fleischman thought they had only 200 fusions an hour. Even if it had been repeatable, it seems unlikely that anything based on their apparatus would produce industrial quantities of power.

    The problem with commercial applications ( and wind and solar for that matter ) is that modern industrial society needs a lot of power. I’m not talking stereo’s, computers and TV’s … I’m talking boilers and pumps for heat water and sewage, motors for aircompresors, elevators, automatic doors, furnaces, milling equipment … all of these things use a lot of power, need it reliably ( not just sunny / windy days), and can’t be got rid of easily or quickly. We have a very energy wasteful infrastructure, and we can’t change it over night. And there a lot of losses getting the power from point A to point B as well.

    In short all the problems that have kept fuel cells as, at best, a niche product for 40 years would be working against any type of cold fusion home power plant, only more so.

    Doesn’t mean it isn’t worth pursuing, but even if they have a breakthrough, I would be stunned if really made much difference to the way we lived our lives in less than 50 years. Human civilization has a lot of inertia built in to it.

  • I agree, this is good news as there has been a lot of development in the field of fusion since those initial failed experiments two decades ago. We need to keep pursuing this forms of energy technology if we are to solve our current energy crisis.

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