Is cold fusion possible? Myths and facts with Bill Nye

Emphasis on myths, or, even simpler, just plain nonsense. The video.

Bill Nye is asked about cold fusion. What does he come up with? It’s fairly obvious that Nye has no fact checker. The blurb on this video:

In 1989, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons reported that their apparatus could produce anomalous heat by fusing neutrons at room temperature. Essentially, this was a demonstration of cold fusion. Though hyped by the press, the experiment proved faulty because of bad measurement, but to this day cold fusion excites our imagination. In a Big Think production, science communicator Bill Nye explained what’s the deal with ‘cold fusion’ and whether or not it could be possible to reach the same kind of nuclear reactions seen in the core of stars in a device that works at room temperature.

“Neutrons.” No. They did not report fusing neutrons. They actually did not report fusion, but rather anomalous heat, and speculated that it might be an “unknown nuclear reaction.” Fusion was simply a candidate.

“Proved faulty.” No. That never happened as to their heat measurements. Generally, their calorimetry was sound. It should be realized that hundreds of scientists have confirmed the basic finding. In 2004, there was a panel to consider the phenomenon, and the panel was evenly split, half of the 18 experts considering that the evidence for a heat anomaly was was “conclusive,” and the other half, not conclusive. Yet a general and very common opinion is like that of Nye: that this was all a mistake.

With N-rays and polywater, the artifacts were identified through replication in controlled experiment. With cold fusion, replication failure — this was actually a very difficult experiment — combined with speculation, was thought by some to be conclusive, but that was not a scientific conclusion, just a guess. There never was a replication with controls that demonstrated artifact in the original work.

Later work identified the ash, the fusion product, helium, and many experiments, done by many research groups, have correlated the anomalous heat with helium production, see my 2015 paper in Current Science. Cold fusion itself is a mystery. There is no theory of mechanism that can, as yet, claim success. However, the phenomenon is real. Let’s look at Nye’s video.

The Question:

My question to you is on cold fusion. Was it something that actually had merit, or was it something that the scientific community legitimately had reasons for banning it. Your thoughts, please.

Nye responds:

About cold fusion, here was the idea, … the guy that had the first patent on television … Philo Farnsworth. […] That same guy got it in his head that he could make neutrons do whatever he wanted, […] and he created a device which he called a phaser…. This thing was going to enable neutrons to fuse together at room temperature. He was not able to do it.

Where to begin? Fact: Philo Farnsworth did have early patents on television. As to the “phaser,” this would be the Farnsworth-Hirsch Fusor, or just “Fusor.” What’s a Phaser? Phasor? Not a Fusor, that’s for sure!

Neutrons? Neutrons do not fuse, in the ordinary way. Apparently dineutrons do exist, see Neutronium. Basically, nobody is trying to fuse neutrons. They don’t repel each other, but they don’t bind, more than very, very little.

Room temperature? a Fusor may be sitting in some high-school student’s garage. That’s room temperature, right? However, what is the temperature inside the device? Specifically, what is the energy in the fusing material? Apparently, in a Fusor, it is several hundred million degrees Kelvin. Cold? I would not call this cold.

Farnsworth was certainly able to create nuclear fusion in a relatively small device, and this is relatively routine. We haven’t gotten yet to the problem.

Nye is not talking about cold fusion, not yet. This is hot fusion.

In order to do that, as far as we can tell right now, you need the gravity of a star.

No. Nye has not said what “that” is, yet. However, there are two kinds of fusion. Heat creates plasma where ordinary hot fusion may occur, because the nuclei have sufficient kinetic energy to climb the normal nuclear repulsive barrier, and get close enough to fuse at appreciable rates. In a fusor, nuclei are accelerated by electric fields so that they collide at sufficient energies and some of them fuse. Neutrons? If the fusion is deuterium-deuterium fusion, half the reactions will produce an energetic neutron. Fusors do not fuse neutrons, rather they make neutrons. No gravity involved.

People have speculated — [he corrects himself] — people have shown that you can contain fusion in a magnetic field, a very strong magnetic field, but nobody has been able to build a magnetic field powered by the fusion reaction.

He is not talking about fusion, and certainly not about cold fusion, but about containing a hot fusion reaction, which may or may not be necessary, it depends on the approach. He neglects inertial confinement fusion. There is also a glaring hole in his argument. Magnetic fields do not require power to maintain, if permanent magnets or superconducting magnets are used (but permanent magnets can’t be strong enough, apparently). Experimental fusion reactors that use magnetic confinement have generally not used superconducting magnets, so they require enormous power to maintain confinement at the necessary extreme temperatures. Inertial confinement fusion doesn’t need this at all; however, it has other problems. ITER will use superconducting magnets and may reach transient break-even (defined as a self-sustaining plasma generating more power — as heat — than is being used to maintain it through plasma heating), but that is still a long way from “commercial success.”

However, the question here is not actually about commercial success, and something was missed in the question that I’d have considered even more important, this idea of there being some possible scientific legitimacy for banning some idea or theory. Setting it aside, not paying attention to it, those are all personal and social choices, and can easily be reasonable. But banning? And, in fact, sociologists of science have studied the cold fusion affair. A case can be made that it was banned, and this has nothing to do with science, but with human society and how it operates.

In my experience growing up, it’s always forty years from now that this will be done.

Thirty years is what I recall. I do not, in fact, expect hot fusion to ever become commercially practical. It is an extremely difficult engineering problem. However, it’s real, and I wish ITER and other efforts success.

The question was not about hot fusion, nor about commercial practicality. It was about science and “cold fusion,” which means, in this context, fusion at low energies.

Recently an aircraft company, it was McDonnell Douglas, claimed that they’d be able to make cold fusion happen at room temperature.

It was Lockheed Martin. Not “room temperature,” this is a hot fusion project.

So far, cold fusion was a myth.

Muon-catalyzed fusion was called “cold fusion” before the more recent claims. It is not a myth, it is routinely accepted. It is also, because of technical difficulties, probably not practical as a power source, but, again, the question was not about “power source.” It was about scientific reality. Unreal phenomena cannot be practical, but real phenomena might not have specific practical applications. Real phenomena can also be not understood. Yet.

About 25 years ago, 1988, 1990, scientist[s] at a university in the State of Utah here in the U.S. thought they had established cold fusion, that they had established a magnetic field powered by the fusion, that would contain the reaction.

They discovered the effect in about 1984, but announced it — under legal pressure, they were not ready — in 1989. They did not call it cold fusion, that was a newspaper reporter, but they did speculate that the heat they were observing was from an “unknown nuclear reaction,” and they speculated about fusion, but it was completely and immediately obvious: this reaction did not behave like the ordinary, known fusion reaction, or they would have been dead, for, from the heat they were reporting, the radiation would have been fatal. These were unshielded experiments. (Later work has reported radiation, but very low levels, and not correlated with heat, that is all part of the mystery.)

This had nothing to do with magnetic fields, and they did not claim “containment.” Rather, if a low-initiation-energy reaction were happening at low rate in palladium deuteride, and if it were sporadic, there would be no need for containment. Containment is only needed to maintain the very high temperatures necessary for sustained hot fusion.

But they didn’t. They had the thermometer in the wrong place.

This is supposed to be science. In science, we not only know things, we also know how we know. How does Nye know this?

Let me put it this way: the Pons and Fleischmann calorimetry was carefully and thoroughly reviewed. They were doing the best calorimetry in the world, apparently, their precision was unparalleled, and carefully calibrated. There is still one insistently expressed fringe opinion (Shanahan) that they were misled by a systematic artifact, itself an anomaly. (I.e,. the heat is real, but there is an unexpected chemical effect). His work has been reviewed and rejected.

The mainstream — if by that we mean people who do actual research and study actual results — has moved on. Cold fusion research is now being funded again, and funding is adequate for scientific work, work that really should have been done over 25 years ago.

I cite this as an example of journalists who were not scientifically literate enough to question this published result. The journalists let the thing spiral out of control. 

Blaming journalists has become popular lately. Is Bill Nye a journalist? Do we expect him to get facts straight? Journalists often take short-cuts, and state as fact what is in their archives, even if the information is obsolete. Bill Nye is talking, off-the-cuff, more or less about what his impressions were, quite distorted, of events that happened almost thirty years ago.

Bill comes back to the question:

Can we have fusion at room temperature?

If our interest is in science, and if we follow or support the scientific method, how would we answer that question?

As far as we know, no.

It’s obvious that Nye has never studied this, or he would know the obvious counterexample, muon-catalyzed fusion. This actually happens at temperatures close to absolute zero. Very cold. Key is the presence of a catalyst, something that enables close nuclear approach. What Pons and Fleischmann found is obviously not MCF. But are other kinds of catalysis possible? Are other nuclear reactions possible that those that are known?

Pons and Fleischmann were not trying to create a new energy source, that’s a myth about their work. They were actually interested in testing the predictions of standard physics, under solid state conditions, and they suspected that the complex multi-body environment of the solid state might cause some deviation from the 2-body approximations used. They thought it was likely that they would find nothing. Then their experiment melted down, in 1984, releasing more energy than they considered possible from chemistry. They, sensibly, scaled down. The effect turned out to be very sensitive to exact material conditions, but … the discovery of the helium ash in 1991 by Miles, when confirmed as correlated with heat, nailed it.

That’s all published under peer review, in mainstream journals, but who reads these on such topics?

The work I describe in that paper linked above is now under way, coordinated at Texas Tech, funded with a $6 million dollar grant plus an equal amount in State of Texas matching funds. They are measuring, with increased precision, using the latest techniques, and much better knowledge, what has already been done on shoestring budgets under difficult conditions, but still adequately established. So I expect this work to be successful, but … it’s science. We do not actually know results until they become results!

That’s science, Bill!

As far as we know, it is reasonable that you will be alive when people really do figure it out. It’s exciting. It’s a great question.

Thanks, Bill. We agree. Now, what do we already know, i.e., what is the preponderance of the evidence, and what don’t we know, what is there to be “figured out”?

In Nye’s story, fusion is imagined to be about confinement. Confinement is not a necessary element of fusion unless maintaining a high temperature plasma is needed. That’s hot fusion, not cold fusion.

What we know now is that the Fleischmann-Pons Heat Effect is caused by the conversion of deuterium to helium. The mechanism is unknown. That is, there are theories or explanations, but none that are accepted as satisfactory. But it’s happening, it’s real. “Figuring it out” is a job for the next generation of physicists, and it’s not going to be easy, I expect.

It is probably not going to happen until the reputation is demolished that cold fusion was properly and thoroughly rejected “long ago.”, because, until then, becoming involved in cold fusion is career suicide for graduate students, at least it has been in the past. Another paper in that issue of Current Science: Cold fusion: comments on the state of scientific proof.

It is not necessarily easy to find good information on cold fusion. There is a great deal of noise, from fanatic believers to die-hard pseudoskeptics who repeat, over and over, claims of “rejection long ago,” and “impossible.” To find reality behind all this can take work.

Bill, my hope is that you will step back and realize that you have repeated undigested ideas from the past (and even major errors), as if fact. We all do this, from time to time, but science is actually designed to be able to move beyond this. There are still problems with “mass science,” i.e., where billions of dollars of research funds are involved, where individual tests can be difficult, and where there is personal investment in being “expert.”

A serious scientific inquiry would be, I’d think, of high interest.


Author: Abd ulRahman Lomax


7 thoughts on “Is cold fusion possible? Myths and facts with Bill Nye”

    1. Sad. Tucker Carlson is obsessed with his own point of view, raising what is probably a political point, not truly factual, and Bill Nye doesn’t seem to know how to address his question straight on, other than with a declaration of scientific certainty — which isn’t science. Nye is basically correct about climate change, but …. to bring along the rest of the world, he’s going to need to back down on that absolute certainty thing, even if the evidence is very strong. The question that he was asked was quantitative, to “what extent” was the change occurring due to human activity? At first Nye didn’t answer at all, but then he said, “What you want to hear is 100%” which shows that he was not accepting the question. It might be a difficult question to answer, and he might not actually know an answer, but an actual answer might have been 99.9%, or, probably better than that could be done. And he could have explained the basis for concluding that human activity was driving rapid climate change, and if he was knowledgeable enough, he might have been able to give evidence for the estimate. Instead, he was absolutely certain. Nye is not effective with Carlson, but Carlson is hugely uncivil, arrogant, wouldn’t let Nye talk without interruption, etc.

    2. That was interesting, not so much for the content but more to do with the methodology of the argument.
      Bill Nye was using a common arguing technique used by the folk on Planet Rossi to justify their belief in Rossi’s amazing e-cat device.

      When being consistently asked by Carlson for what the climate would look like now if human activity had not modified it, Nye starts off to describe how the coastlands of somewhere are about to be flooded with,.. . . before he got cut off.
      Nye was trying hard to let everyone know how bad he was sure things would be if we didn’t believe him and get on board the bandwagon.
      In other words, the supposed disastrous consequences were being used as some sort of proof that man made climate change was real.
      Now, whether it is or not, that argument is not a valid argument.
      Prediction of dire consequences cannot be taken as a proof of theory.

      Likewise, prediction of amazing benefits cannot be taken as proof of theory.
      This technique has been used for years on Planet Rossi, where so many times arguments over the reality of the e-cat being functional or not ended up in people posting all the great benefits it would bestow on the planet when it was out there in the market place and working. (which it still isn’t of course, predictably)
      I have always agreed on how great it would be if and when we do get something like this working, and that’s why I have maintained an interest in it, but that is in no way any proof, or even an indication that there is presently anything working or that there ever will be.
      Whenever it was pointed out the huge and ever widening gulf between the Rossi dialogue and reality, it resulted in a barrage of insults regarding shills and pathoskeptics etc, without addressing any of the valid points made regarding the present non reality of such a working device.
      Apparently the accusation of being a shill or pathoskeptic was deemed to be a suitable counter argument to anything which disagreed with the company songsheet, without the need for any further explanation.
      And then to make sure they no longer posted such sacrilegious utterances, they were banned from the forum.
      That’s hardly a good basis for establishing the truth in any matter.
      By virtue of it’s methodology, it simply has to result in a pooling of ignorances.

      1. Yes. I agree on the matter of climate change with the science behind what Bill Nye was arguing, but he was making claims without support, and when people become convinced that some idea is essential — the occasion for that interview was his claims of crimes against humanity by deniers — they then create a cult, a kind of religion, with everything contrary to that religion being evil. Example: what is the actual scientific consensus? How would we know? On Wikipedia, the anti-cold fusion faction was also pro-AGW, and was banning people who were “deniers.” I attempted to place, in the Global Warming article, the actual definitions used by the IPCC, when they gave conclusions. Those definitions were technical, and not as “alarmist” as the usage in the article would imply, using ordinary meanings of words. The actual IPCC report was careful and conservative, but the reporting of it was factionally political. Those changes were reverted as “too much detail.” (This was actually before my involvement with Cold Fusion, and the admin involved, the one who first banned me from cold fusion, predicted I’d end up banned because of my activity there. Any challenge to that faction was treated as POV-pushing, because the faction’s Point of View was the so-called “Scientific Point of View.” That was never supported by policy nor by the Arbitration Committee — but the Committee had no clue how to deal with factions including administrators, and only sanctioned the most obvious of policy violations, leaving the faction with major power.

        In other words, the dominant faction could cherry-pick sources, according to the desired impressions, which, to them, were just “the truth.” Bill Nye was highly unskillful in that interview. Carlson was a political attack dog on the other side. He had a point, but he also did not know how to draw out of Bill Nye the real information. I suspect he didn’t want the real information, Bill Nye was a handy straw man. Carlson knows where his bread is buttered.

    3. As a follow-up, here is a page that does it right, as to science. It’s still a bit opinionated (“conclusory”) but with far more fact included.

      What I notice is that Sutter focuses most on agreement and consensus. That’s brilliant! We don’t have to agree on certain questions if we agree on how to move forward! Yet there is divisive political rhetoric, backed by possible political power, that can create and cause major damage, that are not social consensus at all!

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