On this day in 1989, two electrochemists announce they have produced energy through a cold fusion reaction, opening the way for almost limitless production of cheap, clean energy. The claim is later found not replicable and cold fusion is given the cold shoulder.
Stanley Pons of the University of Utah in the US and his mentor Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton in Britain had been experimenting with cold fusion since at least 1983. On 23 March 1989, they made their exciting announcement at a news conference in Salt Lake City. They used a simple glass percolator with two electrodes and heavy water (that is water containing deuterium rather than hydrogen) to run the experiment. Using electrochemical techniques, they claimed to have fused the atomic nuclei of deuterium, or heavy hydrogen. Within the percolator, each deuterium nucleus, consisting of one proton and one neutron, would couple with the other deuterium nucleus to create a helium nucleus with two protons, two neutrons, and extra energy, in the form of heat, that could be used for human purposes. Or so they thought.
It was the first time cold fusion had appeared to produce energy–up to 100 percent more energy than was required to run the apparatus. Up until then, only hot fusion reactions produced energy in usable amounts. And hot fusion was so hot and explosive–think hydrogen bombs–it wasn’t stable enough to harness energy. In the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, the anti-nuclear movement, and the impending Exxon Valdez oil spill (which came a day after the announcement), Pons’ and Fleischmann’s experiment held huge promise. The world was eager for abundant cheap, clean energy, and eager to believe in cold fusion.
But doubt quickly arose. Early lab experiments by non-experts seemed to confirm the findings, but when experienced electrochemists tried to replicate the results–with sufficient controls–they were unable to produce energy. An MIT team found problems with the experiment’s gamma-ray spectra and found no signs of nuclear processes, or of neutron activity. In April, the New York Times declared cold fusion dead. And in October, the US Department of Energy concluded that cold fusion could not be demonstrated. Eventually, in 1991 the University of Utah discontinued cold fusion research.
As for Pons and Fleischmann, they escaped to the south of France in 1992, to pursue cold fusion research for a Toyota subsidiary. But even the Japanese government stopped funding in 1997. Today, a small but dedicated network of cold fusionists around the world continue to work on the dream of cheap, clean, abundant energy.