By Michael Brooks
SCIENCE has had its share of embarrassing moments. Take Piltdown man, the missing link in human evolution exposed as a fraud after 40 years. Or the Allan Hills meteorite, hailed by US president Bill Clinton in a televised announcement in 1996 because it seemed to contain evidence of life on Mars – only it probably doesn’t.
But few scientific embarrassments raised temperatures quite as much as cold fusion. In 1989, University of Utah chemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced that they had, at room temperature in the lab, tamed the process that powers the sun: nuclear fusion. This would have been an almost unimaginable technological leap. But no one could reproduce the result, at least not provably, reliably, or to general satisfaction. With no convincing theory to back up the observations either, Pons and Fleischmann were ostracised. Cold fusion – and anyone still willing to work on it – was frozen out.
Fast forward 25 years, and thaw is in the air. You won’t hear the words “cold fusion”, but substantial sums of money are quietly pouring into a field now known as low-energy nuclear reactions, or LENRs. Earlier this year, the US House of Representatives Committee on Armed Services declared it was “aware of recent positive developments” in developing LENRs and noted their potential to “produce ultra-clean, low-cost renewable energy” and their “strong national security implications”. Highlighting too the interest of Russia, China, Israel and India, it suggested the US could not afford to be left behind, and requested that the Secretary of Defense provide a briefing on the science by 22 September. Cold fusion …
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