On a quiet Monday in late August -- a time of year when much of the Washington bureaucracy has gone to the beach -- a panel of scientists gathered at a Doubletree Hotel set between the Congressional Plaza strip mall and a drab concrete office building on Rockville Pike. They sat around a U-shaped table decked with laptops, with three government officials at the front, ready to hear about an idea that, if it worked, could change the world.
The panel's charge was simple: to determine whether that idea had even a prayer of a chance at working.
MIT researcher Peter Hagelstein works on new models to describe cold fusion reactions.
(Photograph by Sarah Ross Wauters)
The Department of Energy went to great lengths to cloak the meeting from public view. No announcement, no reporters. None of the names of the people attending that day was disclosed. The DOE made sure to inform the panel's members that they were to provide their conclusions individually rather than as a group, which under a loophole in federal law allowed the agency to close the meeting to the public.
At 9:30 a.m., six presenters were invited in and instructed to sit in a row of chairs along the wall. The group included a prominent MIT physicist, a Navy researcher and four other scientists from Russia, Italy and the United States. They had waited a long time for this opportunity and, one by one, stood up to speak about a scientific idea they had been pursuing for more than a decade.
All the secrecy likely had little to do with national security and more to do with avoiding possible embarrassment to the agency. To some, the meeting would seem no less outrageous than if the DOE honchos had convened for a seance to raise the dead -- and in a way, they had: Fifteen years ago, the DOE held a very similar review of the very same idea.
It was front-page news back in 1989. The subject was cold fusion, the claim that nuclear energy could be released at room temperature, using little more than a high school chemistry set. In one of the most infamous episodes of modern science, two chemists at the University of Utah announced at a news conference that they had harnessed the power of the sun in a test tube. It was, if true, the holy grail of energy: pollution-free, cheap and virtually unlimited.
If it worked, cold fusion could supply the country's energy needs, with no more smog, no more nuclear waste, no more depending on other countries for oil. For a brief moment, an energy revolution seemed on the horizon.
But when many laboratories tried and failed to reproduce the Utah results, scientists began to line up against cold fusion. Less than a year after the announcement, a DOE review found that none of the experiments had demonstrated convincing evidence of cold fusion. Almost as quickly as they had become famous, the scientists involved became the butt of comedians' jokes; they were even lampooned in a Canadian production called "Cold Fusion: The Musical." A Time magazine millennium poll ranked cold fusion among the "worst ideas" of the century.
But now, at the Doubletree in Rockville, it seemed all that could change. For the scientists who had risked ostracism to persist in studying cold fusion, the very fact that the Energy Department was reviewing their work this summer seemed like a breakthrough. True, according to two of the presenters who were there, the meeting began with harsh questions. But at 5 p.m., the presenters were ordered to leave the room, and when they returned, the mood had visibly lifted. At the end, the scientists presenting the idea and those reviewing it all shook hands. The reviewers stayed on to discuss the material. The cold fusionists went to a barbecue, feeling celebratory. No one had told them if the presentation had convinced anyone that cold fusion was real. But it was nice, they said, after so many years, just to be treated with respect.
It was noon and the sun was shining in California's Bay Area. It was the week before the DOE meeting in Rockville, and at SRI International, a nonprofit research center in Menlo Park, chemist Michael McKubre was gearing up for what he hoped would be cold fusion's big break. He believed that after 15 years, the new DOE review could give him and others a chance to build an energy source that had the potential to revolutionize society.
But first he needed to find Peter Hagelstein for a meeting with a reporter. McKubre's secretary poked her head in the office and said she'd ask Jessica, the summer intern. A minute later the secretary was back. No Peter.
"Can you call Peter?" he asked. "Tell him to comb his hair and stuff," he added, shaking his head. McKubre checked the time and settled back in his chair. Peter Hagelstein, his longtime friend and colleague in cold fusion, who was spending the summer with McKubre at SRI, works at night and rarely makes it to the lab before noon. "He works himself into a state where he's physically ill," McKubre said.
McKubre, on the other hand, was a vision of health. A native New Zealander, McKubre has worked on fuel cells and energy sources for 27 years at SRI, and nearly three decades in the lab haven't faded his tan. At 55, he is bronzed and handsome. An engaging speaker, McKubre loves to talk, and most of what he talks about is cold fusion.
March 23, 1989 -- the day Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons announced their miraculous discovery -- was a day that McKubre says changed his life. He knew and respected Fleischmann, then one of the world's leading electrochemists, and shortly after the news conference, one of the funders of McKubre's research approached McKubre about performing a small experiment to test cold fusion. When McKubre's initial work showed promise, he says, he began a more ambitious project. Fifteen years later, he's still hooked.