Nitty Gritty on Cold Fusion
An interview with Dr. Michael McKubre
Director of the Energy Research Center at SRI International, Menlo Park, California
Director of the Energy Research Center at SRI International, Menlo Park, California
| Dr. McKubre has an extensive background in electrochemistry, surface and membrane chemistry, battery systems, and corrosion science. McKubre's team has been one of the few commercial laboratories in the U.S. to have received (at times) adequate funding for cold fusion research. |
The SRI work performed for the Electric Power Research Institute is among the best of the cold fusion research studies.
— Steven B. Krivit
ICopyright 2003 New Energy TimesTM
| When critics argue that nuclear reactions cannot occur at room temperature, They're not so much arguing the fact that excess energy is released but that the process is highly unlikely. Is this correct? |
The argument was basically "it's not our experience that fusion can occur in this way." We didn't violate any fundamental principles, we were violating their experience of hot fusion. It was Julian Schwinger who put it best, he said, "The defense of cold fusion is simple, the circumstances of cold fusion are not those of hot fusion." The fact that it occurs in a lattice means that new pathways are possible, new reaction rates and new reaction products become possible. This is something that the high energy physicists ignored. Some of them ignored it because they're ignorant and some of them ignored it cynically. They understood that this statement of Schwinger was in fact true and it wasn't a comfortable reality for them.
Please tell me more about "the lattice."
The lattice is the bulk. It's a three-dimensional network. It's a thing that conveys the properties of hardness. This is what makes a diamond a diamond. All of its atoms are connected by equivalent bonds. It permits a condition called "coherence." By coherence, we mean that every participant species, in this case, the atoms in the crystalline lattice, behave in exactly the same way, at exactly the same time. The ensemble of atoms has the special property which is significant, and that is of "coherence." They all know and experience the happenings of all the other members of this coherent system.
How does hot fusion differ from this work involving the lattice?
The hot fusion experience is "billiard-ball" physics. You take two round solitary balls and impinge them upon each other with high relative velocities in order to overcome their Coulombic repulsion. The problem is you only have two "billiard balls." Each of these are deuterium nuclei with a neutron and a proton. So when your composite state is achieved -- when you finally direct one "billiard ball" at the other fast enough to overcome the repulsion and have them unite, you have only four particles to convey the energy you produced in this reaction.
Four particles are not enough to hold 24 million electron-volts (MeV) worth of energy, which is the amount released when two deuterium atoms fuse and create Helium-4. What happens is, instead of the reaction proceeding to its logical thermodynamic final state, which is Helium-4, the reaction particles and potential products fly apart well before they reach their thermodynamic equilibrium.
In hot fusion, one of two reactions will occur. Either you will get Helium-3 and a neutron, which is highly energetic and flies out and does enormous amounts of damage on the containing environment. Or the other result is tritium and a proton. Tritium is not so energetic but it's still radioactive so you wind up with two undesirable products.
But reacting deuterium plus deuterium to produce neutrons and tritium is like reacting carbon, hydrogen and oxygen to produce high-octane gasoline. It's a highly unlikely product. It's thermodynamically possible but it's highly illogical and it occurs in hot fusion only because there is no surrounding medium able to contain the energy of the pair wise interaction.
Is it true that "Hot fusion" scientists have been trying to make fusion work for 50 years?
I think the hot fusion guys earnestly tried to create a useful energy product for maybe a decade, then they realized it was not possible. They are using a Tokamak because of the neutron problem - we have no materials able to withstand the neutron flux. So they then used the rest of the 40 years to explore plasmas and high energy physics. I think that currently no hot fusion scientist who knows anything about materials has any illusion that hot fusion via Tokamaks is likely to produce a useful energy product.
Does it matter what the cold fusion critics say anymore?
The critics still play an important role, but there basically aren't any more. They've either retired or died, or become so discredited themselves that their words are not harmful. I've never taken aboard any substantive criticism. I've lectured numerous times all around the world and have never been heckled or had any substantive critical questions or comments raised. These guys basically did it in private. They're part of the establishment.
Aren't the cold fusion researchers advancing in age also?
Sure many of them are of advanced age but that's primarily because a person looking for tenure or attempting to make his reputation can't afford to work in anything so controversial. You need a person of reasonable stature, confidence and experience in order to work in the field. They have to have the confidence and experience to trust their own observations.
How were you so fortunate to have the opportunity and freedom to pursue this controversial field?
I don't know. I guess my path, or footsteps were pre-destined, though I didn't know it. I did my post-doctoral work in Southhampton. At that stage, Martin Fleischmann was the pre-eminent electrochemist in the world. The reason I went to Southampton was because it was the number one school of electrochemistry in the world and it was the number one school because Martin [Fleischmann] was there.
You had already been working on some parallel experimental work that served as a foundation for your work in cold fusion. Please talk about that.
I was familiar with the deuterium-palladium system, I was familiar with the means of loading hydrogen and deuterium into palladium. I was familiar with the technique which ultimately came to dominate the measurement of the loading rate which is resistance measurements. My expertise is in resistance and impedance measurements and I was working with the electrochemical kinetic analysis tools that were needed to understand how to load hydrogen or deuterium into palladium to high levels.
The only things different that we did in the early days were firstly, we were quiet about what we were doing and secondly, we established a hypothesis that there will be no interesting new effects unless you operate outside the regime that's been well studied. If the fuel is deuterium, then presumably that regime is the high-loading regime. It seems obvious in retrospect, but having lived through it I can tell you that not a single person working in the field, either on the pro or con side, had any concept of measuring loading and correlating the loading with the effect.
I can tell you that the 1989 ERAB report was based entirely upon people who were gambling that somehow with clumsy electrochemistry in some cases, able electrochemistry in others, they were able to achieve the high loading condition. But they didn't know how to measure loading and they didn't know what conditions were necessary to obtain high loading. Fleischmann and Pons knew and understood because a) they're better electrochemists than 99.99% of everybody else that tried and b) they'd been working on it for three years already.
What is your particular area of research relative to Cold Fusion?
I'm a traditional electrochemist. My specific contribution,-- and its not mine, its the 20 people that have worked with me over this time.. is electrochemical kinetics which is studying the rate of electrochemical reactions and understanding what you needed to do to obtain high loading of deuterium into palladium. [It relates to] the ability to measure loadings in situ, inside your experiment, in real-time.
So we have an internal diagnostic as to whether we've obtained the conditions we believed were necessary. And calorimetry which is the measurement of heat. And honestly, in 1989 when this all started, I didn't know anything about calorimetry. The only thing I knew about it was that it was something I never wanted to do. It was old-fashioned and clumsy, except that if you want to measure heat, it is what you had to do.
So we trained ourselves with some help from some good people here at SRI and Stanford University, and we developed a first-principles mass-flow calorimeter, and in doing so brought calorimetry into the 20th century. We were the first people to computerize and automate mass-flow calorimetry and reduce the uncertainties to the levels needed to study this new effect. We increased the accuracy, computerized measurements for long-term operations, so that we could maintain good calorimetric control for the periods of months that were necessary to do these experiments. This had never been done before.
Despite our laboratory successes, we had a hard time publishing papers. The critics made editors scrutinize submissions with much greater diligence and also consider the reviewers' comments with higher weight than the authors'. We published a few, but it just wasn't worth the effort. Besides, we have the International Conference. People who are actually interested in learning and the people who need to be taught, attend the conference so we can share information there.
I remember reading that when you saw the nuclear evidence first hand, you felt a responsibility to pursue the research. Why was that?
Well that's interesting. At the time, it seemed to me that there was nothing more useful I could apply my talents to. It's almost as if I'd been pre-destined to run these experiments. I came armed with the skills and had a group of people around me who were armed with the skills that I didn't have. We were able to pursue this field, we were well-positioned. We had achieved a positive result in a controversial environment. The time of decision for me came with the explosion that killed Andy Riley. So we had at that point a perfect opportunity to say "its too dangerous, its too risky." We had perfect time to bail out and say, "This is not for us."
When did this occur?
January 2, 1992. It was a shock to us all and a terrible tragedy.
And that was the result of a cold fusion experiment?
Right. At the time, we were struggling with critics, we were struggling with the experiments. But we had a moral duty to continue. A scientist is really given his training. I didn't pay for my training, I've been trained at other people's expense, at society's expense. Society deserves something in return in exchange from me, what can I do most usefully in exchange? "Do something good for society. What does society need? A non-polluting energy source."
So to stop working on something you know to be true and know to have potential, something of that sort, it would be a largely immoral act. But we had an excuse at the time of the explosion. We could have said "it's too dangerous. I've lost a friend." We're going to stop and go back to our regular research which was profitable and also useful, not to the same degree, but it was still useful research. And I asked my group and close friends, "What should we do?" Every one of them said "we have to continue". The next year was a huge struggle. We had an accident investigation going on, our time was very stretched, emotions were strained, basically we did no work for a year. We floundered, we were just chasing our tails, yet not a single person said we should stop this, everybody wanted to continue.
What are your hopes and expectations for the field?
We're in a financial crunch in the moment. In the 1990's we ran a group effort which varied between five and ten people. We had physicists, material scientists, electrochemists, calorimetrists, the sorts of people that we needed in order to make progress, and we made good progress. But the funding takes a long time, 14 years is a long time to fund a research project.
We need to find a commercial object, something which will inspire re-investment in the fundamental issues because of its commercial and practical significance. So I do believe that commercial interests have to step in, and we're looking for such investments. I think government has done a lot. It's not fair to criticize the investment that the U.S. Government has made.
[The U.S. Department of Energy] has been conspicuously absent from funding this field so far. But [the Department of Energy] has a huge commitment to hot fusion. So it doesn't surprise me that the US Navy and DARPA have both continued to provide funding in the area, at reasonable levels of funding. Not the levels which we need to push forward such a multi-disciplinary topic, but they have continued to provide funding.
Is the challenge for funding by the private sector due to the fact that the commercial application of this work seems to be so far away?
Yes, the event horizon is long. On the other hand, the payback is enormous. These two factors balance each other out. With what we know now, and the clear vision we have now of a commercial object, if we had this on the other side of the bubble, when everybody was feeling rich, we would have had no difficulty getting investments. The problem is that people feel poor now. They're not poor, but they believe themselves to be poor.
Are they resistant because the underlying science of this technology is not clear enough yet, or because they won't be able to sufficiently secure the intellectual property rights?
No, they believe the science in every case and they believe that we have a pathway to the intellectual property. The timeline, the first foreseeable payback being five years or more down the road, gives them pause for concern. But again, this is a strange animal for a venture capitalist.
Are you surprised that large corporate interests are not eager to collaborate with you?
Machiavelli most accurately described it: "You can't go to a member of the establishment to seek assistance to overturn the establishment." The people in the energy industry, for example, have no interest in a new technology. Innovation is a threat, its not a benefit to them.
Would this be considered a disruptive technology?
Yes, very disruptive.
I've seen a wide range of experimenters with varying skills and backgrounds who are attempting cold fusion. How is the world to assess the reports once they start popping up from everywhere, including "garage tinkerers?"
I think it would be useful somewhere to set up a template of how to judge an experiment's success or otherwise, particularly if the claim is heat. What is the accuracy of the measurements? What are the sorts of systematic errors that might be introduced into the measurements? Undoubtedly one of the big problems in the whole cold fusion field is that not everything that has been reported has been correct. So filtering the evidence is very difficult.
It’s very complex. I don't know if another's experiment is producing something out of the ordinary or not, and I wouldn't know from simply looking at it and I couldn't know from a cursory inspection. The only way to know is to either have the experiment here and subject it to our own discipline, or spend a lot of time on site with the experiment and experimentalist to come to understand it well. It's not a trivial thing, it involves an investment of considerable amounts of labor and time.
Even though one might see a lot of light, bubbling and perhaps flashy sparkles, is it fair to say that such visual observations are of little significance?
One of the early mistakes made in reporting this field is a good example of that. There was an experiment being run in a famous calorimetrist's laboratory in Texas and the media came and you saw on television this picture of a flashing light that looked so awesome, like something pulsing. It turned out it was just a light bulb that was being used to control the temperature of the water bath but as far as you could tell from the reporting and what you saw on TV, the light was the product and it was very spectacular. A real-time photograph of an experiment is never going to be definitive.
At SRI we worked for three months on our first experiment. Actually we designed it for three months, we operated it for one month, at the end of that time we had a result. And all the result encouraged us to do was to go back and do the experiment better. So after four months of effort, we still didn't know what we had. All we knew was that it was encouraging enough to spend some more time on it.
Our focus is no longer on the heat. That has been clearly demonstrated. There's no doubt in my mind that under certain rather well-defined conditions more heat comes out of the deuterium-palladium system than you can account for by known chemistry. We've seen this effect on more than 50 occasions, sometimes lasting as long as a week. The effect is not small, it's not fleeting, it happens only with deuterium and only if you have high levels of deuterium. In our experiments, it doesn't happen with hydrogen. There IS a heat effect. What is it due to? Since we know it's not a chemical reaction, it must be a nuclear effect.
We spent six years pursuing what the nuclear product was. And the product, in the large part, is Helium-4. We also see Helium-3, which is mostly or perhaps entirely the result of tritium decay. So we're producing tritium and we're producing helium-4. The diagnostic for these is mass spectrometry. Most of what we're doing now is operating cells making measurements of helium-4 in the presence of deuterium. It requires scrupulous focus, a rather expensive instrument, careful and painstaking measurements and it is extremely painstaking. But I'm not an expert in mass spectrometry so it would not even be appropriate for me to try. Some things you need experts for, and my colleague Fran Tanzella, co-author who has worked with me now for over 15 years, is a very capable guy who makes the measurements. But it's extraordinarily boring.
We've done everything we need to do. We have a clear demonstration of a heat effect. We have a measurement at confidence level of 90 sigma, that's 90 times the experimental measurement uncertainty. We've published it, we've repeated it, it's clearly there. We've established the conditions under which it occurs. And we've established the nuclear product. What more must we do?
It sounds to me that in your research, you don't even try to prove that cold fusion is real anymore. Is your current focus to figure out why it works and how to make it more effective?
We have, in conjunction with Peter Hagelstein at MIT, figured that out too. He's developed a theory which is by this point, essentially predictive. We know what we need to do to convert a laboratory oddity into a commercial reality.
We have a very clear trajectory toward that. We have taken steps to lock up the intellectual property and we're in an unbelievably strong position with respect to the science. Yet, we still can't get anybody to fund it. And the question is...What else do we have to do? What else can I do?
Patent it outside of the US, I suppose.
Well, to take it offshore is an answer. There's an interesting dichotomy here. We are actually allowed to do what we do because the US government, specifically DOE, doesn't believe that it happens. We make tritium. It is not legal to make tritium in this country without a DOE license. We make it! We have even published papers saying we have manufactured it. We are able to continue because we are not believed.
If they were to admit that they believed you, might they be in a bind considering their 1989 ERAB report?
Partly, yes, but also, they'd have to start investing in it and they'd have to start taking that investment from the people who have criticized us in the past.
Academic freedom has been trampled in the cold fusion field. John Bockris, a very dear friend of mine at Texas A&M, was subject to a threat that they were going to withdraw his tenured and senior professor status, which is just outrageous. But to Texas A&M's credit, they understood that it was an issue of academic freedom and they did not allow this to go through. There was bad press attention and the fact that this recall effort of Bockris was unsuccessful was never publicized, only the fact that the allegations occurred was publicized. There is strong inertia in support of the status quo, and harsh punishment meted out to those who seek to disrupt it.
Is there a strong cooperative spirit among those in the cold fusion field?
That's actually one of the delightful things about working in this field and probably one of the things that has kept me buoyant over the years. Being a despised minority is actually a strength. There is a sense of camaraderie in the case of cold fusion. Its a feeling of teamwork, warmth and acceptance which has very rarely occurred for me in my academic career. I've worked with batteries and fuel cells which is a field inhabited by people who are very bitter, sort of nasty back-biting folks. Everybody's critical of each other, they each have a battery which is better than everyone else's battery, there's very little sense of being in it together for the betterment of mankind.
Do you expect the current camaraderie will continue once the pre-commercialization research and development phase passes?
Well the cracks in this camaraderie have already occurred several times, always when one of the members believe that they are on the cusp of commercial or academic success. If there's a Nobel prize to be awarded, a major commercial arrangement to be made, people become secretive, protective. At one stage, I'm certain, half a dozen groups around the world were all protecting the same secret. This is not useful or constructive. The breaks in the camaraderie have all been the results of imagined, imminent success, all of which was an illusion of course. The success was never that close, its not that close now. Its still three to five years away. The joke of course is that the payoff, intellectually, academically and economically is so large that it could easily be shared between all of the good people who are working in the field and nobody would be shortchanged.
When it does happen, it will be because a team of people have worked studiously, diligently for a very long period of time contributing rare talent in order to produce the commercial object. It's been a tremendously enjoyable journey. It doesn't seem like 14 years. It seems like yesterday I was huddling around in the laboratory trying to figure out what we needed to do in order to check out this crazy idea of Martin's. Its been an extraordinarily enjoyable journey with a few sad points on the way but by and large, its been a great trip, and I have worked with the best people I ever met in my life. Thank you Martin.
Interviewed by Steven Krivit, August 8, 2003, Menlo Park, California
From New Energy Times @ http://www.newenergytimes.com/v2/views/Group1/McKubre.shtml
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