T’arah Inam-McDermott discusses the feasibility of cold fusion, and the profound impact it could have on humanity and the world itself
You have probably heard of cold fusion before, whether that be from a J.J. Abrams movie, or some sensationalised headline, but can cold fusion really be done?
Nuclear fusion is all around us. It is the process which gives our Sun, and all other stars, the energy to produce heat and light. This energy is released when the nuclei of two atoms collide and fuse, forming a heavier atomic nucleus. This requires a very high heat of between 100 and 200 million degrees celsius and high pressure.
These conditions are required to increase the likelihood of fusion occurring, as it also requires lots of energy to fuse the nuclei together. This is because the nuclei are both positively charged so, like the positive poles of two magnets, it is difficult to make them touch. Heat gives the atoms energy so that they move faster, and the pressure packs them in tighter, resulting in a greater chance of collision and of overcoming the strong repulsive forces.
Fusion could epitomise the future of our energy supply, as it comes from a reliable source, and is a lot less inconvenient than our current nuclear energy option, fission. This involves splitting the nucleus of an atom into smaller parts which releases a large amount of energy. In theory fusion is great. But currently, due to the energy required to reach the necessary temperatures and pressures, fusion doesn’t produce enough energy for the output to exceed the input. Also, such conditions are very hard to maintain, so fusion can only occur for a short amount of time.
Scientists are currently striving to find a solution to these problems so that nuclear fusion can be a viable energy option. The National Ignition Facility are attempting to tackle the issue with highly amplified lasers, while 35 nations are collaborating to build the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, the world’s largest magnetic fusion device. However, these problems are yet to be solved and nuclear fusion is not yet a reliable energy source. Will cold fusion be the answer?
Well, probably not.
Cold fusion is a form of nuclear fusion that, theoretically, can occur at low temperatures so requires much less energy to run than traditional nuclear fusion. People think that either cold fusion is a load of science fiction nonsense, or that it could save the world. The majority of the scientific community side with the former, as there is currently no theoretical model to back it up.
Cold fusion was ‘discovered’ in 1989 by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, whose findings showed that they had produced extra heat and nuclear by-products by combining hydrogen and palladium through electrolysis (where an electric current is passed through them) at room temperature. They attributed these results to cold fusion. The prospect of cheap and abundant energy shook the scientific world, and countless experiments were undertaken, with everyone desperate to repeat the results. However, hopes were quickly dampened when no reliable replications were obtained. Indeed, after further investigation, scientists uncovered sources of error unaccounted for in the Fleischmann-Pons experiment.
So, if this is true, why all the fuss? Although the scientific community dismiss these claims, the strong following desperate to formulate new theories and techniques is understandable. If cold fusion is possible, the consequences could be groundbreaking. It would only require hydrogen (the most abundant element in the Universe), palladium, and a test tube! You could run a car for a year on a teaspoon full of fuel, the unnecessary human contribution to global warming would be essentially negligible, and it even opens up the possibility of long term space travel. It may not be possible, but if those that research the feasibility of cold fusion suggest that it may be, the world would be forever changed. In the meantime, it fuels some great sci-fi.
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