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Warming up to the idea of cold fusion

Is it possible that an affordable energy source, light-years ahead of any that mankind has yet known, might lie on the horizon just waiting to be harnessed? Proponents of cold fusion (AKA Nuclear Effect) – an energy-producing atomic reaction that promises the best of nuclear fission without its off-putting side-effects – genuinely believe so. They’re doing their best to convince others that the concept is real and that it offers genuine promise to Americans desperate to find our newest Holy Grail; an infinitely renewable energy source that won’t break our personal piggy-banks.

But it won’t be easy. To say that cold fusion’s backers have their work cut out for them is akin to saying that Edison once struggled to find a durable filament for his light bulb. Scientists who believe in this high-tech possibility are facing a stiff, uphill climb in their quest to convince naysayers that cold fusion is not a “junk science” but rather the silver bullet that will ultimately vanquish America’s dependence on oil. The main hurdle in their mission? Trying to convince a group of stubbornly-entrenched scientists that the idea has validity and that it deserves further experimentation and funding.

Austrian scientists Friedrich Paneth and Kurt Peters first hypothesized this controversial form of energy production in the 1920s. In the 1980s, chemist Martin Fleischmann and his associate Stanley Pons claimed to produce such a reaction during experimentation, but ultimately couldn’t explain the underlying mechanism that brought about the results. But skepticism isn’t the only thing holding cold fusion back. An inherent problem also dogs the technology. Cold fusion involves a “nuclear” reaction, a word that’s verboten in present-day America. Yet the process doesn’t produce excessive heat as a by-product, and it doesn’t emit harmful radiation – exceedingly bold claims to say the least.

With the “No Nukes” movement in America shooting down virtually any idea that has to do with the fission process, the concept has courted detractors from the start. Concerns about the riskiness of nuclear energy were only bolstered by the 2011 Fukushima Nuclear Plant disaster in Japan that came as a result of that country’s devastating tsunami. But what if cold fusion’s backers are right? What if creating energy in such a fashion is really possible? And what if the technology doesn’t carry any dangerous baggage along with it? Doesn’t it at least deserve a closer look?

The concept may not be as far-fetched as the antinuclear gang portrays it. CBS News, an organization generally not known for its eagerness to examine something as flimsy as “junk science,” took an in-depth look at the theory in the 2009 “60 Minutes” piece, “Cold Fusion is Hot Again”. After correspondent Scott Pelley grilled subjects with a battery of probing questions, the show’s takeaway was that the theory is indeed “more than junk science.”

But the real show-stopper was yet to come. In October of 2011, Italian physicist Andrea Rossi publicly demonstrated a device dubbed the E-Cat at the University of Bologna. Rossi showed how a small amount of input energy could produce an unexplained reaction between hydrogen and nickel that would produce outgoing energy more than tenfold. Rossi’s experiments have radiated new life into the once dormant concept. Only time will tell if his efforts were impactful enough to keep the quest alive.

In practical terms, this potentially safe, clean, and endlessly renewable form of energy could have limitless uses. Battery-powered devices like IPods and laptop computers would arrive from factories pre-charged, with enough energy onboard to supply the unit for its entire service life. Nuclear power plants would still churn out electricity but with two remarkable differences: In the absence of heat a meltdown would be virtually impossible, and there would be no dangerous radioactive materials to dispose of down the road.

In a country that loves its automobiles, perhaps the best offshoot of this technology would be cars that can go for roughly four years at a clip without refueling. Just imagine tooling across the entire United States without having to stop even once for gasoline, and you’ll get a feel for what this breakthrough technology promises.

Is cold fusion worth a longer look? You be the judge.

- Jeff Bahr

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