U.S. Navy researchers dive into cold fusion debate

March 24, 2021, 9:30AMANS Nuclear Cafe

Scientists at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Indian Head Division, have pulled together a group of Navy, Army, and National Institute of Standards and Technology labs to help try and settle the debate over low-energy nuclear reactions (LENRs), reports IEEE Spectrum, the flagship magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Sometimes referred to as cold fusion, the science of LENRs has been debated since 1989, when Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann published the results of experiments in which they claimed to have generated nuclear energy using a simple, room-temperature tabletop setup involving palladium and heavy water. Subsequent experiments by other researchers, however, failed to replicate their findings, heightening skepticism.

According to the IEEE Spectrum report, the labs will conduct experiments in an effort to establish if there is really something to the LENR idea, if it is just odd chemical interactions, or if some other phenomenon entirely is taking place in these controversial experiments.

The Google paper: Much of the impetus for the research into LENRs by the Naval Surface Warfare Center comes from a 2019 paper published by a Google team in Nature that revealed the company had spent $10 million to research LENRs since 2015. The Google team, which included researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of British Columbia, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, found no evidence of classic Pons-Fleischmann–style cold fusion. It did, however, find evidence of the larger umbrella category of LENRs—suggesting that nuclear reactions may be possible in locally hot sites in otherwise room-temperature metals.

Not a career ender: While LENR research is still considered controversial, according to the IEEE Spectrum report the Indian Head team decided that, as a government lab, it had a little more freedom to pursue the topic, so long as the research also offered up the prospect of rewarding scientific results.

Oliver Barham, a project manager at Indian Head involved in the effort, said, “I’m not as worried about looking into something that is considered controversial as long as there’s good science there. The whole point of our effort is we want to be doing good science. We’re not out to prove or disprove anything, we’re out to assemble a team of scientists who want to take it seriously.”

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