Jeremy and I scored press passes to the recent Cold Fusion Press Conference at the ACS 2009 Spring Meeting. Unfortunately for them I’m a nuclear chemistry PhD student. Jeremy did a quick wrap-up of the press conference,[CB] but I thought it would be useful to have a critical chemist perspective of their recent announcement. The press conference did nothing to address the violation of the most elementary of chemistry and physics that I painstakingly explained in this old post titled “The difference between cold fusion and cold fusion“, but I’ll move on to address their statements.
As this was a press conference and not a scientific talk there wasn’t any data that I can point to as evidence for a cold fusion claim. However, we can tear some sanity from their own words. I asked why they haven’t observed any gamma rays from their cold fusion experiments. Pamela Mosier-Boss was quick to reply that they indeed did measure gamma rays, but they “came in bursts… and are averaged away [over the duration of the experiment]“. Dissect that statement and reflect on it as a scientist. Think to yourself: “Hmmm… clusters of peaks coming all of a sudden but randomly”, “Hmmm… as they run the experiment they see these peaks average out?”, “What does this mean?”. You don’t have to be a spectroscopy expert to figure this one out. The answer is simple, they measured background. Background is a random process, it will come in bursts, they may even cluster to make a peak for a short time, but when you run it over the course of the whole experiment it is “averaged out”; that my friend is background you measured.
At an other point of the conference Mahadeva Srinivasan claims to be able to measure tritium, neutrons, and other ionizing radiation not by actually measuring them, but indirectly from looking at his electrodes and observing craters and holes and trying to ascribe the radiation that caused it. Sounds sort of reasonable unless you’ve ever done any electrodeposition, which is what the process he described would yield if running current through a wire. Here is a picture of an electrodeposited layer of europium oxide my fellow colleagues made in the lab.
You can see craters and valleys in the image. I hope their electrodes didn’t look anything as awful as this, but you can see for yourself that electrodeposition can create ugly surfaces. Which was a major reason for the Thin Film community’s move away from electrodeposition and embrace of Sol-Gel techniques, because it causes less cratering and produces homogeneous and uniform films.
So should I believe the claims of a scientist who does not understand the difference between background and peaks? Should I believe a scientist who doesn’t understand the basic consequences of his own technique? You don’t even have to be a nuclear chemist to call bull-shit on this one.
I want to end this on a positive note, because I’ve spent a lot of time hammering these cold fusion people over the years. Honestly, if they are measuring more energy out of their systems than the energy they are putting in, then this is fantastic news. If they see excess heat, then they need to chase this line of inquiry down. But nuclear fusion is not the right path. I truly want to believe these people are capable of measuring the amount of energy in their system versus the energy out correctly. But the electrochemistry they are performing is non-reversible and that makes energy accounting, in their dynamic system, a very difficult mess. The simple act of having gas bubbles float from your electrodes will deposit more energy into your solution, due to friction, then you would expect. And frankly, after listening to these people talk for 45 minutes I don’t believe they are capable of correctly accounting for energy in a dynamic system.
P.S. Make up your own mind, a link to the press conference is here, Cold Fusion Press Conference. I ask my question around the 28 minute mark. Aaron Rowe from wired science blog is now my favorite science journalist, his question is asked at 34:50 minute mark.