Cold fusion was first brought to the public's attention to incredible effect back in March 1989, when Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann excitedly announced their experimental discovery of “N-fusion” to a press conference. The media quickly latched on to the potential of the chance to create energy almost for free but without the need to build vast plasma-bearing reactors. Of course, as with any big scientific claim, scientists across the globe redirected their electrochemical efforts to try and reproduce the claims that were not at the time peer-reviewed.

History has shown that Pons and Fleischmann both suffered from a case of misplaced enthusiasm as research teams poured cold water on N-fusion, one after the other. The claims were never corroborated and are variously described as incomplete, unreproducible, and inaccurate. The reputations of Pons and Fleischmann were, ironically, torn apart by the cold fusion debacle. Bizarrely, there are still advocates, those who claim an oil industry conspiracy, and those convinced that distilled water and slivers of precious metals will solve our energy needs.

Finding a way to extract the energy of the strong nuclear force without resorting to solar temperatures and pressures would make the discoverer perhaps the most famous, rich, and revered scientist ever. But… Cold fusion in any form that has been worked on so far does not produce excess energy. Even with the name change from N-fusion to cold fusion, and then the not so subtle sidestepping to Low Energy Nuclear Reactions, it still does not work. Euphemistic name changes, whether cold fusion to LENR or global warming to climate change, do not solve scientific problems: interesting hypotheses backed up by repeated scientific experiments and the development of a truly testable theory do.

Earlier this year LENR emerged from behind the laboratory bench again, avoiding peer-review and garnering media attention. This time two physicists in Italy, Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi of the University of Bologna, reported that they have successfully released excess energy from the fusion of hydrogen and nickel at 1000 Kelvin. They claim to be close to commercializing the system which the team claims generates 14?000 Watts from an input of just 400 Watts, although there are apparently no patents yet granted nor production facilities in place.

The proof will be in the heating. If the Rossi-Focardi system works as they say it does it will not be too long before industry latches on to its potential and begins solving the energy and climate crises. I suspect we may have a long wait.

The notion of cold fusion goes against the grain of conventional scientific thinking. Paradigm shifts in science do take place, but they are generally presaged by validated scientific work that has required a new theory to explain surprising results. In the case of cold fusion there has been neither surprising evidence nor any theory to support it!

If cold fusion had the potential to cause a paradigm shift in physics then it would have to overturn the Standard Model of particle physics, which correctly accounts for so many natural phenomena and which has been successfully exploited again and again.

For instance, the Standard Model explains that the nuclei of atoms are stable because the residual nuclear force caused by the strong interaction between the nucleons within it is stronger but shorter in range than the electromagnetic force that would otherwise cause similarly charged protons to repel each other. The Standard Model also then explains why bringing an additional positive nucleon into an atomic nucleus requires a vast quantity of energy, because the process must overcome the repulsion due to the electromagnetic force before the strong force can dominate the interaction and the incoming nucleon can fuse with the nucleus.

Nuclear fusion works under the intense, crushing gravitational field and the high temperatures and pressures found at the heart of a star and in vast magnetically confined plasmas, however fleetingly, but generally not in a beaker sat on a laboratory bench. For cold fusion to work, physicists would have to discard the Standard Model and replace it with an entirely new theory to explain so many aspects of reality.

Cold fusion researchers have devised all kinds of theories to explain how it is that their setup might overcome the barrier of the Standard Model. Rossi and Focardi allude to a mythical species known as a “hydrino” which lies at the heart of another incredible energy source much discussed on the internet. Hydrinos are theoretically a lower ground state energy hydrogen atom, one that is much smaller than a normal hydrogen atom and whose nucleus has no charge, hence its ability to tunnel into an atomic nucleus with little effort. However, no solid evidence of a lower ground state hydrogen has emerged in the 13.75 billion years since the Big Bang.

Theories do come and go, that's how science works. For a theoretical usurper to succeed in overturning an old theory requires strong, reproducible evidence. N-fusion, cold fusion, low energy nuclear reactions, call it what you will, is yet to provide that evidence, regardless of how noble are the intentions of the scientists involved.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(11)70304-2