Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Evolution of Cold Fusion (1989-1999)

The article “Cold Fusion and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge” by Trevor Pinch discusses the controversial Cold Fusion finding of Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons in 1989.  After reading this article I was interested in researching the evolution of cold fusion research from 1989 to 1999 and how it has been perceived by the public and scientific community. 

I began my search with a video of the press conference at the University of Utah where Fleischmann and Pons announced their initial discovery.  The way their discovery was framed by both Fleischmann and Pons and their colleagues was very interesting.  The cold fusion discovery was framed as a major breakthrough in the quest for a sustainable, clean energy source.  At this point Pons says that it would be “reasonable within a few years to build a fully operational device to produce electric power”.  The actual word cold fusion is repeated throughout the presentation and specific energy output values are given.  The mood in the lecture hall is one of hopefulness and anticipation of what lies ahead.

            Next, Fleischmann and Pons were interviewed on MacNeil and Lehrer a few months after the initial announcement.  At this point the public still seemed optimistic about the discovery and applications of cold fusion.  The news story was framed in such a way that you couldn’t help but be reassured by how safe cold fusion technology seemed.  The anchorwoman began the segment by showing clips of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters, discussing the negative environmental impacts of nuclear fission.  She then went on to describe the positive aspects of fusion such as the reduced levels of radioactivity, how it could provide a nearly infinite power supply, and the inexpensive nature of fusion compared to fission.  Pons was not very personable, never actually confirmed that atomic fusion had occurred in recent trial experiments, and focused more on the extreme heat levels of the experiment.

 At the time that Fleischmann and Pons gave this interview other scientific research groups were beginning to release additional findings of cold fusion.  I personally see this as an example of motivated reasoning.  Motivated reasoning is roughly defined as a predisposition to make the results turn out a certain way.  In this case when scientists heard of Pons and Fleischmann’s phenomenal discovery of cold fusion, which had otherwise been thought of as impossible, they were motivated to come up with similar results.  In the first few weeks and months following the announcement there was a flurry of scientific and media activity on the subject of cold fusion.             

Towards the end of that year on December 9th Fleishmann and Pons were interviewed by KSLTV and their science correspondent. ergyFoundation#p/c/0/Tpb7xGbOZJI.  In this interview Pons was evasive, avoided looking at the camera for the majority of the segment, and reluctant to say if they had any new findings.  Both scientists mentioned “calorimetry” and specific heat data that they had acquired but said that there were very few nuclear byproducts. 

            Jumping ahead a few years, MIT hosted a ‘Cold Fusion Day’ in 1995 with distinguished guest lecturer and MIT professor Dr. Peter Hagerstein.  The main focus of this event was to go over the theory behind cold fusion.  Dr. Hagerstein’s conclusions included there was no consensus at the time on what they know or do not know on cold fusion.  The neutron hopping equation had been solved fully at this point but beyond that no tangible progress had been made in the field of cold fusion.  Dr. Hagerstein did mention that the situation was better than it had been in 1989.  Cold fusion was now being framed as a theoretical concept rather than a proved scientific discovery. 

Next moving into 1998, I found an article written by Charles Platt for Wired Magazine.  This article discusses how there is a strong scientific community who still believe Cold Fusion is possible.  “Despite the scandal (Fleischmann and Pons), laboratories in at least eight countries are still spending millions on cold fusion research. During the past nine years this work has yielded a huge body of evidence, while remaining virtually unknown - because most academic journals adamantly refuse to publish papers on it” (Platt 1998).  Despite all of the setbacks that cold fusion had faced over the years, a small part of the scientific community still remained hopeful that they would one day succeed in creating true cold fusion.    

In 1999 Dr. Fleischmann lectured at the Pacific conference of the American Chemical Society on the topic of ‘Cold Fusion: Past, Present, and Future.’  The comments made in the first two minutes were very intriguing.  The gentleman introducing Dr. Fleischmann states that, “It has been ten years since Pons and Fleischmann announced cold fusion…whether you want to call it cold fusion or something else, it’s up to different people.  I like to call it the Fleischmann-Pons Effect.  And you don’t get in trouble with that.”  Fleischmann responds to this by saying, “You know you can’t even file a patent at the US patent office that has the word cold fusion in it.”  Scientists are now afraid to make even the smallest claim in the field of cold fusion due to the harsh media reaction to the scandal of 1989.  The course concept that Science as a social enterprise can be seen in this context.  Science as a social enterprise means that society and the media affect the way science evolves and what scientific topics are provided government funding for research.  We first came across this topic in the Ulser Bug Case Study where the public and other scientists rejected new findings on the acidity of the stomach and didn’t allow for this to be an accepted scientific fact for almost a decade.  In the case of cold fusion the media sparked a gold rush of sorts in the scientific community.  Scientists were rushing to replicate the experiment and publish positive results, sharing in the glory of Pons and Fleischmann’s discovery.  Also when the results were proven wrong the media sprang on this, blowing the results out of proportion.        

Joint European Turus (JET) Project
After researching cold fusion I found that despite the setbacks it has faced there remains a thriving scientific community who aim to produce pure cold fusion energy.  They may not be as vocal of their discoveries as Pons and Fleischmann were but they are equally motivated.  If these scientists were to succeed in the future the societal implications would be enormous.  Having an infinite and renewable energy source with limited environmental impacts would be life altering.  I only researched up until 1999 but would like to continue with the evolution of cold fusion research.  One of the intriguing projects that I would like to look into is the Joint European Torus (JET) Project which is currently the largest fusion power experiment in the world.  The topic of cold fusion research is always evolving.  Could it one day be the energy of the future?                 


ACS Pacific Conference with guest speaker Dr. Martin Fleischmann (October 1999).  “Cold Fusion: Past Present, and Future.”  Retrieved from:

Battalio, T. John , ED (1998).  “Cold Fusion and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.”  Essays in the Study of Scientific Discourse.  Vol 6.  Ablex Publishing Corporation.    

Cold Fusion Day at MIT by Dr. Peter Hageistein 6/6 (1995).  Retrieved from:

Cold Fusion Press Conference at University of Utah (March 23, 1989).  Retrieved from:

New Energy Foundation (January 15, 2010).  Retrieved from:

Platt, Charles (November 1998).  What if Cold Fusion is Real.  Wired Magazine.  Retrieved from:

Pons & Fleischmann KSLTV Interview 1/3. Retrieved From: 

1 comment:

  1. The change in body language between Fleischmann and Pons in the interviews across the years likely speaks volumes as to the critical pressure they found themselves under following their initial address. The focus on heat signatures was interesting as it was noted by Pinch, 1994 that “…if all the heat excess was caused by fusion then the levels of neutrons produced should have been more than enough to kill Pons and Fleischmann…” Although side-stepping the focus from nuclear byproducts, given their crude measurement procedures and heavy water contaminants, was probably wise. I agree that motivated reasoning was a likely drive for much of the initial scientific investigations, both to harness cold fusion for one self, or to prove others wrong. The positive public reception to cold fusion due to the media’s frame of ‘unlimited, clean energy’ was expected, however once the buzz died down the focus shifted to dramatize ‘the cold fusion controversy’ and later ‘the cold fusion scandal’. The affect of the media’s frame of the ‘scandal’ is much more extensive than I previously thought, to the point that scientific journals and the US patent office will not acknowledge documents with the phrase ‘cold fusion’ included. Perhaps this instills an even greater sense of motivated reasoning or research as the case may be in scientists looking to publish and further the investigation of cold fusion. Despite the media’s frame it appears the subject of cold fusion is far from dead. The scientific world, however, in an effort to spread their findings to the general public fights an upward battle to overcome the media’s desire for attractable news. Until this communication barrier can be breached, the likelihood of bi-directional communication is lost in the lofty promises of “infinite and renewable energy, with minimal environmental impact.”