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Cold Fusion 2: Cold Reminiscences

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

Stephen E. Kellogg

15 July 2011

My big project at the Kellogg Radiation Lab was the design and assembly of the 4-pi neutron polycube, specifically intended to measure the sub-Coulomb-barrier reaction rate of 13C(alpha,n)16O – thought to be the source of s-process neutrons in Red Giant stars. We borrowed an existing set of a dozen 3He proportional counters from the six-foot graphite cube on the older Van-de-Graaf machine. My innovation was to install the tubes inside a much smaller moderator cube of polyethylene – decreasing the background rate while increasing the overall detection efficiency – and use it in conjunction with the newer Pelletron accelerator. On top of this, I added plastic scintillation paddles to detect cosmic-ray spawned muons passing through the cube and cancel (veto) the unwanted neutrons associated with the cosmic rays. This in turn required that I incorporate a sophisticated bank of coincidence circuitry and computer software which allowed monitoring and adjustment of energy and timing cuts. Numerous calibration tests and background runs totaling hundreds of hours gave me confidence that I understood the sensitivity, capability and limitations of this new detector, which, with a background rate of <100 counts/hour and a detection efficiency of 20%, was probably among the top three in the world. By that fateful second day of spring, 1989, my barbershop quartet role in “Bye-bye Birdie” behind me, the 4-pi neutron detector was fully tested, primed, and operational. And later, when the proffered mechanism behind “Cold Fusion” shifted to conveniently explain away why big-name labs such as ours couldn’t reproduce the so-called positive results observed elsewhere, I could refute many of them. The neutrons were only emitted in rare bursts? My timing scheme allowed me to monitor the temporal distribution, in exquisite detail, on time scales ranging from microseconds to hours. (And yes, there were rare multiple neutron events – in the background!) The normal 50% branch of D(d,n)3He was somehow highly suppressed in favor of the D(d,p)3H branch? But the recoiling Tritium would still have produced neutrons via the D(3H,n)4He reaction roughly one time in ten thousand which left my detector more sensitive to this branch than most measures of tritium activity. Presaged by Steven Jones’ earlier work, Cold Fusion was actually catalyzed by muon capture inside the cells? But I simultaneously monitored neutron rates both in anti-coincidence and in coincidence with the scintillation paddles.

The electrochemists (a posse of grad students and postdocs from Nate Lewis’ lab) first showed up at our lab within 24 hours of the Pons/Fleischmann press conference to check out the nuclear detectors we had available. (For exact details, consult Doug Smith’s E&S article.) They were especially intrigued by my 4-pi neutron detector and began sizing their cells to fit in the 10-cm square bore hole through it. It was clear to both parties that they were going to have to transport cells from their lab to ours for the more sensitive measurements. Daily, they rolled food carts across campus, laden with batteries, electronic instrumentation, cabling and bubbling concoctions of electrolytic solutions. On one visit, Mike Heben, as I recall, burned his finger while adjusting the tangle of wiring at the top of a candidate cell to get it to fit in the inner-sanctum of the n detector. He had inadvertently pulled the thin Pd cathode (roughly 8 gauge wire) out of the solution and it was glowing orange hot, at least for the few seconds that we observed it with some astonishment. In that moment, I had an epiphany. The mysterious “melt down” that had made true believers out of Pons and Fleischmann had a perfectly conventional explanation. The whole process of electrolysis and “charging” of the Pd cathode (loading its crystal lattice with H or D) is an endothermic one, rolling a ball slowly uphill, storing substantial energy in an unstable configuration. Pull the cathode out of the solution (or lower the solution level) and the hydrogen, heavy or not, near the surface of the metal recombines with the oxygen in the air, releasing heat. Remember that Pd is a specific catalyst for this recombination. The heated Pd drives more hydrogen out of the interior to the metal’s surface, more recombination, more heat that boils away more solution, exposing more of the cathode. A runaway reaction results, yes, but it is purely chemical in nature. Quantitatively, I estimate that the heat suddenly recovered from a fully-charged 1 cubic cm of Palladium is more than sufficient to melt the cube and boil away some of the beaker’s water. But even larger loomed my new-found appreciation that this whole business of “excess heat” relies on subtracting one large number from another large number. To paraphrase: “It’s easy to measure excess heat in open calorimetry due to Cold Fusion; it’s difficult to account for spurious measures of excess heat from all other sources of systematic error.”

Seminars and Colloquia are standard forums for exchanging ideas, allowing constructive critiques of ongoing research and the high-bandwidth give and take essential to the scientific enterprise. While my memory of particulars (names, dates) is fuzzy, I do remember the director of research at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center in India giving a talk at Caltech in the autumn of 1989 concerning their efforts to reproduce the Frascati brand of Cold Fusion. (Sometimes referred to as “dry fusion”, Steven Jones was instrumental in investigating/pushing this frontier, in part because it was not covered in the U-of-U patent application. It involved simply exposing Ti shavings or powder to high-pressure D2 gas. Apply a little heat and the D2 absorbs into the metal. Bursts of neutrons were claimed after temperature cycling these closed cells.) During a candid moment after his presentation, the BARC director told us that his lab’s group had worked hard but fruitlessly for several months, trying to reproduce the effects claimed by Jones and others, when the director told them that he would have to cut off funds in the next few days if they failed in their efforts. Working through the night, the young researchers were able to procure positive evidence for Cold Fusion by the next morning, which the director likened to a miracle. Appalled, I saw this miracle in a very different light. It brought to mind questions about the independence of scientific research and whether some cultures (societies?), in which the teacher or administrator is revered, are less able to innovate. Of course the argument goes both ways. There were plenty of labs in the U.S. and abroad whose directors dismissed Cold Fusion from the start and discouraged work by their researchers. American universities still attract foreign students, in part, because of their academic and research freedom and opportunities.

With its David-vs.-Goliath aspect (the role of David played at first by the lowly U-of-U researchers with their shoestring chemistry budgets able to accomplish what the big-shot nuclear physicists and their billions of subsidies could not), it’s no wonder that Cold Fusion caught the imagination of the public. “They said it couldn’t be done, but ha, ha; see what wonders the American entrepreneurial spirit can do in spite of government-funded bureaucracy, staid conventional wisdom and smug defenders of the status quo.” During the Electrochemical Society Meeting May 8 in Los Angeles, members of Nate’s group were befriended by members of Frank Zappa’s Road Crew, camp followers to the traveling show of conferences (American Chemical Society in Dallas April 12, American Physical Society in Baltimore May 1) where the early drama of Cold Fusion was being played out. Battle lines were being drawn: Chemist vs. Physicist, Proponent vs. “Null Resulter”. At the two Chemistry meetings, the advantage was enjoyed by Pons/Fleischmann and those early groups reporting “confirmation” of Cold Fusion. Now, Nate Lewis was the underdog, or worse, traitor to his tribe. The Roadies had forged press credentials to gain access to the LA meeting, and each came with his own unique back story of high-school/college aspirations, acquired technical skills (lighting, acoustics, power amps, assorted back-stage chutzpah and know how). On learning of Cold Fusion, they had gone to their garages and built rudimentary electrolysis cells. Caltech became the local team that they rooted for. The upshot was that they invited us to a party – a backyard affair at one of their middle-class Studio City homes. (At the time, I was not being invited to parties.) I do remember the extroverted chemists performing parlor-trick chemistry, including a mock “Cold-Fusion demonstration reactor” that involved burning Mg (I think) encased inside blocks of dry ice. It was cool, but the Z man didn’t show.

Sunrise, sunset. The earth wheeled its way around the sun from Equinox to Equinox while 19 quadrillion metric tons of hydrogen fused/transmuted to Helium unseen in its core. And we, masters of our destiny, continued to fail in our attempts at generating neutrons – let alone commercial-grade heat – from a test tube. I danced with my wife-to-be Ann and wore her kilt as the Scottish Knight in “Camelot.” (Todd Brun joined the troupe as Mordred, and later Ann and I would play Ophelia and Polonius under Todd’s direction in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”) I was elected/volunteered to represent Caltech’s interest and keep an eye on the opposition at The First Annual Conference on Cold Fusion, held March 29-31, 1990, in Salt Lake City. Nate Lewis would not go because of threats against his person; Charlie Barnes cautioned me to be careful. Of course we were not invited to present. Only groups with positive things to say were chosen for that honor, both experimenters (Pons, Jones, Bockris, McKubre, Scaramuzzi, Srinivasen, Menlove, Huggins) and theoreticians (Preparata, Hagelstein, Julian Schwinger). Like Feynman’s “Cargo Cult Science”, it had all the trappings of a scientific meeting: a packed hall, speakers, session chairs, glossy proceedings, panel discussions and a tour of the National Cold Fusion Institute lab with its long line of electrolytic calorimetric cells in various stages of charging. In the lab also, courtesy of seed money from the Utah state legislature, were shiny new NaI gamma-ray detectors and Geiger counters. Our tour guide, I believe, was Marvin Hawkins who seemed a reasonable chap, more resigned to his fate than enthusiastic. The self-selected audience in the conference hall, including venture-capitalist types, ate it all up, applauded and buzzed with excitement. After two days of meekly seeking minor points of clarification, I saw the bigger picture. There was no coherent phenomenology being described by the disparate groups. Uncharacteristically, I girded myself for confrontation and spoke up during the third-day Panel Discussion on Nuclear Phenomena, introducing myself in unabbreviated form for full effect: “Stephen E. Kellogg, Kellogg Radiation Laboratory, California Institute of Technology….” Hearkening back to my high-school senior English critique paper, I quoted Lewis Carroll, reminded them of the many researchers not present who had failed to reproduce Cold Fusion, and then pointed out that the panel’s own various positive measurements and theories were at odds with each other: heat without concomitant nuclear radiation, neutrons without heat or tritium, tritium without neutrons, etc. “You can’t possibly all be right.” My challenge was met with silence. They had lost the ability for self criticism.

It’s a surprise, but a tribute to the ingenuity of the human mind, Brophy said. “Today I’ve heard six explanations of how cold fusion could work. Compare that to a year ago when no theories were being offered for the phenomena.” -- THE DAILY UTAH CHRONICLE (Friday, March 30, 1990)

“I can’t believe that!” said Alice. Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath and shut your eyes.” Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “One can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” -- Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass” (1872)

For me, the tragedy of Cold Fusion was that it sucked time and energy that could have been spent on more productive scientific endeavors. Nate Lewis returned within a few months to his lifelong interest in finding real solutions to powering the planet. His work may be the world’s best hope for attenuating carbon emissions. Steve Koonin would do the same with a term as Chief Scientist at BP, and then a move to Undersecretary for Science at the Department of Energy, just after the science-unfriendly administration of George W. Bush left office. With the expiration of my postdoctoral-ship, I went on to a career at XonTech doing a little of this and a little of that, researching and writing papers for a limited audience. I never completed a paper – half-drafted for the journal Nuclear Instruments and Methods – that would have described the 4-pi neutron polycube and formally presented the null results from hundreds of hours of “dry fusion” experiments. By late 1990, the journals were already saturated with such reports and uninterested in publishing new ones. Nor did I return to the 13C(alpha,n) experiment, even though most of the data – some of the best in the world – had already been accumulated. Today, the detector and its associated electronics have been abandoned, scavenged for other uses.

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