Report from the 18 th
Annual International Conference on Cold Fusion (ICCF-18)
Columbia, MO 21-26 July, 2013
Where to begin? Cold Fusion is one of those fields where the reality is different from the reporting. If you read the newspapers or the science magazines, you think that cold fusion is junk science, discredited after a single un-reproducible report in 1989. If you still think this way, please begin with the article I wrote for OEN last yea r.
The effect is real and remarkable on three counts:
As a scientific phenomenon it is completely unexpected. Nuclear energy is a million times bigger than the energy of a chemical bond, and we don't understand how anything you can do with a metal foil and a 2-volt battery could trigger a nuclear reaction.
As a sociological phenomenon, it is striking how the science has been suppressed. Cold fusion results are routinely and categorically rejected by physics and engineering journals. Submissions will not be sent out for peer review. There is no support from NSF. DoE works behind the scenes to nix any funding for CF research, even when it comes from other government departments. The Patent Office files CF applications in the same round file that is used for perpetual motion machines and faster-than-light travel. (Meanwhile, there is a small program in CF research at the Naval Research Lab, and the Army has been an early customer for CF generators that have been (prematurely) offered for pre-order.)
As a possible solution to our energy and environmental woes, CF is potentially a godsend. If only it can be turned on and off reliably, it will be safe, non-polluting, cheap, inexhaustible, and easily scalable to work in a car or a basement without requiring connection to the grid. It is a solution to global warming that requires no government action, only bottom-up capitalism.
The field is a mess. Quality of presentations at the meeting this week ranged from thoroughly professional to completely unworthy. But some of the amateurish presentations had the best documentation. We don't know what's true, or whom to trust. There are dozens of theories, none of them testable. Contradictory experimental results are reported, and undoubtedly much of what is presented is an outright mistake. Professors are working on CF in their spare time, and amateurs are experimenting in their garages. Much of the amateur work is performing at just the level you might expect, but an oncologist in the Western suburbs of Boston has the most reliable, long-lasting, and highest-performance device reported to date. Meanwhile, Toyota is reported to be spending tens of millions of dollars each year on CF research in Japan, but they are rumored to be short on innovation, and in any case they're not publishing their results or coming to meetings.
How much of this is the chaos that's unavoidable at the beginning of a new science? How much is due to the lack of institutional support? There's plenty of each to go around.
There were 200 people for the 6-day conference. The crowd was greyer than any I've ever attended. That's because young people know they can't build a career in cold fusion -- they can't even write a dissertation or publish a paper. The lack of patent protection pushes commercial research labs into secrecy. The disdain of the research community and the lack of government support are deeply harmful to the research in the field. Some young faculty members in physics have figured out that this field is enormously promising, but what can they do? If they can't publish, they can't build a career on CF.
How close are we to a breakthrough? There are a handful of companies that claim to be preparing a commercial product. An Italian company called E-Cat demonstrated a product in 2011, and began taking orders for delivery in 2012. Now they have backed off their claims. A Greek company named Defkalion moved recently to British Columbia, and also claims to be on the verge of offering a commercial product. People at this week's meeting were deeply divided over whether they believe Defkalion's claims. They are announcing results, but with no details or supporting data.
Meanwhile, Federal priorities in supporting energy are a national embarrassment. For all the damage to health and the enviornment that has been done by fossil fuels, oil and gas continue to be heavily subsidized. Fracking is an environmentally devastating technology that has been granted exemption from environmental laws and taxation in my home state of Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. Research in hot fusion has squandered $50 billion over the last 50 years, and we're still no closer to a demonstration, let alone a power plant. But there are so many universities receiving so much money for hot fusion research that their influence in Washington prevents a retreat from this error.
Everyone at Mizzou this week believes that a fraction of that funding could launch us into an era of clean, cheap, abundant energy, slashing pollution and rescuing us from global warming in the process.