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Warming Up to Cold Fusion

McKubre and Hagelstein met in 1990 at the first international cold fusion conference and quickly hit it off. While hundreds of scientists still plow away at cold fusion worldwide, the two of them have emerged as perhaps the most prominent, particularly in the United States. Hagelstein, an applied physicist at MIT, works on theory, while McKubre is a practiced experimentalist.

McKubre's staff is well below its all-time high of 12 people -- today, it's just he and a part-time assistant -- but the lab is still well equipped. For years the experiments took place behind bulletproof glass, the result of a 1992 accident that killed one of his colleagues. McKubre still has bits of glass embedded in his side from the cold fusion experiment that exploded that day in his lab (the blast had nothing to do with fusion; hydrogen mixed with oxygen, creating the equivalent of rocket fuel).

MIT researcher Peter Hagelstein works on new models to describe cold fusion reactions. (Photograph by Sarah Ross Wauters)

Normally, nuclear fusion occurs in the sun or in thermonuclear weapons, where intense heat and pressure allow the nuclei of atoms to overcome their natural repulsion and fuse, producing an astounding amount of energy. But fusion takes place at temperatures equivalent to those of the sun -- millions of degrees. So imagine the staggering advance cold fusion would represent, if real. It would mean that fusion could occur at room temperature, potentially making energy production cheap and easy. But even among cold fusion proponents, there is no accepted theory of how this could happen -- one reason why mainstream science has never taken cold fusion seriously.

The experiments McKubre ran for 15 years consisted of immersing a metal, palladium, in a bath of heavy water (water where heavier deuterium atoms have replaced lighter hydrogen). Running an electric current through the setup causes the metal to soak up the deuterium, and eventually the deuterium nuclei fuse -- at least according to cold fusionists. McKubre claims that when an experiment works, scientists can measure fleeting bursts of excess heat released in the process -- at times, up to 30 percent more energy comes out than went in. In some experiments, McKubre has detected byproducts, such as helium and tritium, that often accompany nuclear reactions. He says both phenomena are clear proof that fusion has occurred.

Since 1989, hundreds of scientists working in dozens of labs around the world have claimed similar results. Supporters point to the written literature -- more than 3,000 papers -- as proof of the effect. But the most credible cold fusion advocates concede that the vast majority of those papers are of poor quality; one supporter called the collection "mixed toxic waste."

And even the best research is plagued by cold fusion's most nagging problem: a long history of failing to reproduce experimental results. McKubre is one of the more respected people in the field, and in more than 50,000 hours of experiments, he says, he has recorded 50 times when the setup "unmistakably" produced excess heat. That is a far cry from the scientific standard for reproducibility. Erratic results such as those, coupled with the theoretical unlikelihood of the whole idea, long ago drove most mainstream scientists to dismiss cold fusion; they say that any indication of heat or nuclear byproducts is the result of an error in the experiment. Now few of them take the trouble to review the new results or attend the annual cold fusion conferences.

Research money has dried up. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has refused to grant a patent on any invention claiming cold fusion. According to Esther Kepplinger, the deputy commissioner of patents, this is for the same reason it wouldn't give one for a perpetual motion machine: It doesn't work.

These problems, Hagelstein and McKubre argue, are all tied to the 1989 DOE review. While the report's language was measured, pointing out the lack of experimental evidence, "it was absolutely the intention of most of the framers of that document to kill cold fusion," McKubre says.

Pons, who gave up his U.S. citizenship, now lives in France and no longer works on cold fusion, and Fleischmann is retired. Scientists still looking at cold fusion work in a kind of underground. Edmund Storms, a former scientist at the renowned Los Alamos National Laboratory, has set up a cold fusion lab next to his home in Santa Fe, N.M. John Dash, a physicist at Portland State University in Oregon, conducts cold fusion research, but among his academic colleagues, he says, "I'm an outcast, a pariah."

According to McKubre, the reason cold fusion experiments can't be reproduced on demand is a materials issue: It's a matter of developing a form of palladium, or another metal, with the right mix of impurities. With help on that issue and more funding, he suggests, a small cold-fusion-powered heater or generator could be ready in as little as two years. If it proved reliable and affordable (a big if: McKubre acknowledges that palladium is too expensive to be used commercially), the applications could expand. He's not afraid to make big claims. "Cold fusion," he writes in an e-mail, "has the potential to replace all sources of energy and power, indefinitely."

Yet some cold fusionists have been making the same claims since 1989. The new DOE review could help answer the question of whether they're really any closer now -- and, once again, if there's any validity at all to the idea of cold fusion.

PETER HAGELSTEIN FINALLY SHOWED UP AT MCKUBRE'S OFFICE A LITTLE BEFORE 1 P.M., hovering wordless at the back of the room. When he does speak, it's so softly that his Southern California accent is barely audible. With a boyish grin and oversized glasses, he looks like the grownup version of a high school valedictorian.

"Brilliant," "genius" and "reclusive" were words used to describe Hagelstein 20 years ago, when he rose to prominence as one of the young scientists behind President Ronald Reagan's plans to build a missile shield in outer space. He made his mark designing the X-ray laser that was to be the centerpiece of Reagan's "Star Wars" anti-ballistic missile system.

A protege of Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, Hagelstein by 1989, at age 35, had a prestigious position at MIT and had been selected as a member of the Jasons, an elite group of scientific advisers to the Defense Department. He was on his way to great things.

He was flying out to visit the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California when the news of cold fusion hit in 1989, and he met with Teller and Lowell Wood, another prominent Livermore scientist, the next day. Both men encouraged him to work on cold fusion. (Teller died last year, but Wood continues to support cold fusion and attends the conferences.) Hagelstein did what his mentors suggested, and his career has suffered.

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