No cold feet: ARPA-E wants to explore low-energy nuclear reactions

September 22, 2022, 12:01PMNuclear News

The Department of Energy announced September 13 that it would spend up to $10 million in a bid to settle the question of whether low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR)—historically known as “cold fusion”—could ever become a carbon-free energy source. The funding is part of an Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) LENR Exploratory Topic designed to “encourage the submission of the most innovative and unconventional ideas in energy technology.”

“ARPA-E is all about risk and exploring where others cannot go, which is why we’ve set out with this LENR Exploratory Topic to conclusively answer the question, ‘Should this field move forward, or does it not show promise?’” said ARPA-E acting director and deputy director for technology Jenny Gerbi. “We look forward to seeing the intrepid teams that come forward to approach this field of study with new perspectives and state-of-the-art scientific and technical capabilities.”

“Scientific and rigorous”: ARPA-E “will apply a scientific and rigorous approach” to the topic. What does that entail? Awardees must “pursue hypotheses-driven approaches toward producing publishable evidence of LENR in top-tier scientific journals by testing/confirming specific hypotheses (rather than focusing only on replication), identifying and verifying control of experimental variables and triggers, supporting more comprehensive diagnostics and analysis, and improving access to broader expertise and capabilities on research teams,” according to the DOE’s press release.

Approximately $10 million may be distributed among five to eight awards, each with a maximum project length of 30 months. Final award notifications are expected in February 2023.

Past promise: A funding opportunity announcement (FOA) provides more information about APRA-E’s approach to the topic, including that “ARPA-E acknowledges the complex, controversial history of LENR beginning with the announcement by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons (FP) in 1989 that they had achieved deuterium-deuterium (D-D) ‘cold fusion’ in an electrochemical cell. . . . DOE reviews in 1989 and 2004 both concluded that the evidence did not support the claim of D-D fusion.”

The FOA also explains that despite LENR being largely discredited by 1990, research groups from around the world, including the United States, Japan, Russia, China, and the European Union, continued to conduct experiments, though the “repeatability of the key evidence over multiple trials of seemingly the same experiment remains elusive to this day. . . . As a result, LENR as a field remains in a stalemate with uncertain prospects for scientific advances and impact.”

Within the past decade, LENR has received “prominent sponsorship” from the likes of Google, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and NASA, but preliminary results from that work haven’t met ARPA-E’s program metrics. That sponsorship is derived from, as ARPA-E puts it, past claims that “LENR may support a form of nuclear energy with potentially low capital cost, high specific power and energy, and little-to-no radioactive byproducts.”

For more information: ARPA-E convened a Low-Energy Nuclear Reactions Workshop in October 2021; the workshop presentations provide additional information for the curious or skeptical.

More information about the funding opportunity is available on ARPA-E eXCHANGE. The deadline to apply for funding is November 15 at 9:30 a.m. EST.

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