The dangerous dark side of cold fusion research

Maybe the previous post would have been a nice way to close out this blog, but I’ll do one last post, because I saw something that just really horrified me. In this otherwise nice and unremarkable article about the low proliferation risks of conventional (tokamak) nuclear fusion, a commenter bragged that cold fusion is awesome because it has such a low nuclear proliferation risk. And I was thinking: Are you kidding?? How on Earth could you possibly think that???

I do, in fact, think cold fusion has a low proliferation risk, for the simple reason that cold fusion doesn’t exist in the first place! But I don’t want to just shrug and leave it at that. For people like me interested in research ethics, I think the cold fusion community is an interesting case study, in that the community apparently has no culture of research ethics whatsoever, despite what I see as clear-cut reasons for extreme caution, up to and including terrified paralysis! So I wrote this post to quickly summarize why I feel that way.

I think maybe the cold fusion advocates are complacent because cold fusion doesn’t fit into the mold of, say, research into making viruses more contagious, where we are afraid of something that is both very specific and very likely. Indeed, if cold fusion existed, and if it were explained and widely accepted, well, I can’t think of a single specific bad thing that would happen with high probability. But the “unknown unknowns” are a different story…

Research as “digging for buried treasure in a minefield”

Visualize “Truth” as a giant meadow. Scientists and engineers go digging around in this meadow with shovels labeled “Research”. Often we find a buried treasure, and occasionally we set off a landmine. If we discover and publicize “Knowledge About How to Prevent Pandemics”, then we have opened a treasure. If we discover and publicize “Knowledge of How to Cause Pandemics (in 5 easy steps using untraceable household chemicals)”, then we have set off a landmine!

Now, in most of the meadow, people can freely dig without worrying about landmines. Increasing humanity’s knowledge about astronomy, or entomology, or nutrition, or a zillion other topics, is always a 100% good thing. But a few sections of the meadow are notorious for being packed full of big scary landmines, and the “Nuclear Physics” section is one of them!

Now let’s put cold fusion in here. If it existed, cold fusion would be a new way to catalyze nuclear reactions, by a mechanism nobody yet understands, except that it’s definitely totally different from everything else known in nuclear physics. So in this analogy, it would mean that there’s a giant section of the Nuclear Physics minefield that’s totally uncharted!

Finding and publicizing the mechanism for cold fusion is like driving your car full-speed into the uncharted part of the minefield. That’s pretty reckless, but that’s just the beginning! Once you convince mainstream science and society that you’re right, all of the sudden 10,000 bulldozers come driving into this minefield right behind you! Think about it—just about every physicist, chemist, engineer, and entrepreneur on Earth is going to want to follow up on this work, once it is widely accepted. These people will be spending the next 30 years excavating every nook and cranny of this previously-uncharted territory. Whatever mechanism makes cold fusion work, the worldwide scientific community will study everything about that mechanism, refine it, twist it, slice it, dice it, uncover similar mechanisms in other contexts, find ingenious ways to combine the mechanism with other technologies, and on and on. Will they find treasure? Probably! Will they set off any landmines? It’s impossible to know! But good luck keeping a dangerous truth secret, when 100 top research groups in 100 countries are all digging nearby.

Maybe you’re thinking, “We already live in a world with nuclear weapons. So what’s the worst that could happen?” Well I say to you: If you can’t think of even a single possibility that gives you nightmares … if you can’t think of even a single possible outcome that is very very much worse than Climate Change … then you’re not thinking very hard!

As far as I can find, in the 30 years of the cold fusion community, no one has even acknowledged that there might be a problem here, let alone tried to weigh the risks and benefits, let alone succeeded in weighing the risks and benefits intelligently. I find that awfully depressing, and I sure hope that other communities, studying risky topics that actually do exist (unlike cold fusion), are doing a better job at research ethics.

3 thoughts on “The dangerous dark side of cold fusion research

  1. Jones Beene

    Many observers of the LENR/nickel-hydride scene are unaware of the details of the Thermacore, Inc. runaway reaction back in 1996. It was not an explosion but it is easy to imagine that a similar reaction could be weaponized. I suppose that is where you were going with this thought.

    The calculated energy released was tens of megajoules in a short time period. Unfortunately, this was the last effort which that high-tech company made in the field, and the main contributing reason that they dropped LENR. The incident echoes other thermal runaways over the years, including that of P&F, Mizuno, Mark Snoswell in Australia, SRI and Brian Ahern.

    The Thermacore event however, was more energetic than any of the prior incidents, including the fatality at SRI. The experiment in question was to have been a low powered experiment to look at phase change energy release but the experimenters never had a chance to apply input power and the energy was hundreds of times greater than an equal amount of TNT would have provided but thankfully more gradual without an explosion..

    The work was government funded and was to be a follow-on to a Phase one grant from USAF
    (document in LENR-CANR library). Recently, Brian Ahern has been in contact with Nelson Gernert, the chief researcher in the new Thermacore (having gone through two changes of ownership) who was also in charge of the runaway. Little of this has appeared in print before.

    A few details: Gernert added 2.5 pounds of nickel powder (200 mesh of Ni-200) into a 3 liter stainless steel Dewar. The Dewar weighed 300 pounds. It was a strong pressure vessel with a hemispherical volume. Thermacore evacuated the nickel under vacuum for several days before adding H2 gas at 2 atmospheres (apparently there was no potassium but this detail needs to be verified).

    The powder immediately and spontaneously began to heat up before external power could be added. The Dewar glowed orange (800C) and the engineers ran for cover. No external heat had been used and no radiation monitors were running. The nickel had sintered into a glob alloyed into the vessel and could not be removed.

    The (then) owner of Thermacore, Yale Eastman was at first frightened that an explosion was imminent and that someone could be killed. Later he forbade any further work on LENR. The incident was not published but his earlier successful work for USAF was published.

    The Dewar was no longer safe and was junked. Unfortunately, they did not measure it for radiation damage. Superficial thermal analysis – 3 liters of H2 gas at 2 atmosphere were added and will have a heat of combustion of 74 kilojoules when combined with oxygen (but there was no oxygen in the Dewar).

    Heating a 300 lb Stainless vessel to 800C requires about 20 megajoules. That is ostensibly about 289 times more that the possible chemical energy of combustion!

    Combined with the other documented runaway reactions, a case can be made that LENR could be weaponized – which is you premise if I understand it.

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    1. steve Post author

      Dear Jones, thanks for your comment!

      My premise was *not* that “LENR as it is understood today, if it exists, can be weaponized”. I wouldn’t know one way or another about that, and in fact, I lean negative despite your comment. Even if that’s not true, it doesn’t undermine this post.

      Rather, my premise is “LENR, if it exists, would be an entirely new mechanism for speeding up nuclear reactions, and if that mechanism became well-understood, and commercialized, and subject to billions of dollars of R&D, and studied by all the best scientific minds on the planet for many decades…if all those things happen, it’s reasonably likely that it will eventually become obvious to everyone in the field how to build weapons based on that mechanism.”

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