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Martin Fleischmann

August 10, 2012

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. About three-quarters of the mass of the universe is hydrogen. It's useful in much chemistry, but solid state physicists used a lot of hydrogen in the early twentieth century, since it liquefies at 14.0 K (-259.14 °C), enabling experiments at very low temperatures.

One perquisite of working at a university is that you get to hear the "war stories" of the old professors about research in earlier days. Dewar flasks, now made mostly from stainless steel, were once made of glass. A cracked Dewar would release large quantities of hydrogen gas into a laboratory, so explosions happened when the hydrogen-air mixture reached an electrical spark, usually at the motor of a vacuum pump.

Much of my early work involved hydrogen in metals. At that time, there was the idea that hydrogen could be safely and inexpensively stored in metals, enabling a "hydrogen economy." The alloys I investigated contained rare earth elements, which were expensive at the time. The rare earths have become much more expensive of late, as I've written in some previous articles (Faux Palladium, January 14, 2011, and Rare Earth Shortage, June 21, 2010).

Since I was doing fundamental research, problems of cost didn't bother me, since the assumption was that enough research would lead to cheaper materials. This is very often the case, photovoltaic materials being a recent example. Since we were experienced in putting hydrogen into metals, we did research on how hydrogen would change the magnetic and superconducting properties of alloys. In one case, we obtained a significant result.[1]

My hydrogen work ended in late 1977, when I started my career in industrial research. I didn't think much about hydrogen until March 23, 1989, when all my experience suddenly seemed important to many of my colleagues. On that day, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons of the University of Utah announced that they had fused the hydrogen isotope, deuterium, into helium in an electrochemical cell.

Palladium-heavy water electrolytic cellSo simple. Too bad it didn't work.

This is a simplified version of the Fleischmann-Pons electrochemical cell.

Heavy water is deuterium dioxide (2H2O, but more commonly written, D2O).

(Via Wikimedia Commons).

The process, aptly named, "cold fusion," appeared to be the answer to the world's energy problems. Although some scientists are still doing research on the process, cold fusion was never suitably reproduced on the grand scale reported by Fleischmann and Pons. Martin Fleischmann died on Friday, August 3, 2012, at his home at Tisbury, U.K., at age eighty-five.[2-5] A contributing cause of death was Parkinson's disease.[3]

Apparently, this blog is one of the few places that you'll read about Fleischmann's death.[2] He seems to have been ignored because of the failed cold fusion results, but he did inspire a lot of research on hydrogen in metals. He was also an example of how science functions. Replication of experiments and peer review of results are the standard by which science operates.

Martin Fleischmann was born on March 29, 1927, in Czechoslovakia, and his family emigrated to England in 1938 to escape the war. Fleischmann received a Ph.D. in 1950 from Imperial College London. When you subtract dates, it appears that he was precocious, indeed. Fleischmann was well regarded as an electrochemist, and he was chairman of the chemistry department of the University of Southampton and a Fellow of the Royal Society. Fleischmann was awarded the Royal Society Chemistry medal for electrochemistry and thermodynamics in 1979, and the Olin-Palladium Medal from the Electrochemical Society in 1985,[4,5]

In 1989, Fleischmann was in his sixties and chairman of the University of Utah Chemistry Department.[4] It's reported that he and Pons invested $100,000 of their own money over a five year period in their experiments.[3] Their apparatus, shown in a simplified version in the above figure. The anode was a coil of platinum wire, and the cathode was a palladium rod. Deuterium went to the cathode, where it was absorbed by the palladium, and oxygen went to the anode.[3]

The idea was that all those deuterium atoms squeezed into the palladium would have infrequent encounters in which they would fuse, releasing energy. The first problem was that if it worked, Fleischmann and Pons would have died from neutron radiation. Nonetheless, many research groups, including Los Alamos National Laboratory, tried to replicate the experiment.[2] Replication was difficult, since the Fleischmann and Pons process was not described in a research publication. There was only a press conference and press release.

At the time, my colleagues and I talked about buying some palladium as an investment, but none of us ever did. Surprisingly, there was no uptick in the price of palladium in that period.[6] General Electric entered a collaborative research agreement with the University of Utah, and the Utah State Legislature released $5 million to fund a National Cold Fusion Institute.[4] The experiments done to replicate the process disproved the deuterium fusion hypothesis, and nothing of commercial significance was evident.[7] It was a disaster for all involved.[2]

Fleischmann and Pons were criticized for their "science by press release."[3] They ignored the peer-review process that's essential to science. Gary Taubes, in his 1993 book, "Bad Science," wrote that the premature announcement was forced on the duo by academic politics. Fleischmann was a good scientist who got trapped in a bad situation.[4]

At the end of 1989, things were looking grim for cold fusion. A group of scientists was recruited as an Energy Research Advisory Board, and they were commissioned to prepare a report to the United States Department of Energy. Quoting from this November, 1989, report (DOE/S-0073 DE90 005611),[7]
"The Panel concludes that the experimental results on excess heat from calorimetric cells reported to date do not present convincing evidence that useful sources of energy will result from the phenomena attributed to cold fusion. In addition, the Panel concludes that experiments reported to date do not present convincing evidence to associate the reported anomalous heat with a nuclear process."

When the Utah National Cold Fusion Institute closed its doors, Fleischmann and Pons went to France, where a subsidiary of Toyota funded their further research for about $20 million through 1997.[2,4] Pons, who stopped working in cold fusion after that, is reported to be well, teaching mathematics and chemistry in the south of France.[5]

There are still a few cold fusion believers, and a there's a theory that nuclear weak interactions might be involved in the net energy output seen in some experiments.[4] The amount of heat liberated is very small, and errors can occur from many sources. Even the entropy change in the material as it absorbs deuterium is important. Much of this research is now labeled as studies of "low-energy nuclear reactions" to disassociate it from cold fusion's bad image.[2]

References:

  1. P. Duffer, D.M. Gualtieri, and V.U.S. Rao, "Pronounced Isotope Effect in the Superconductivity of HfV2 Containing Hydrogen (Deuterium)," Phys. Rev. Lett., vol. 37, no. 21 (November 22, 1976), pp. 1410-1413.
  2. D. Chandler, "World Renowned Scientist, Dr. Martin Fleischmann Dies With Questionable Coverage," Guardian Express, August 8, 2012.
  3. Colin Schultz, "The Man who 'Discovered' Cold Fusion Just Passed Away," Smithsonian, August 8, 2012.
  4. Brooke Adams, "Martin Fleischmann, co-discoverer of 'cold fusion,' is dead," The Salt Lake Tribune, Augist 6, 2012.
  5. Steven B. Krivit, "Fleischmann Dead at 85: End of an Era," New Energy Times, August 4, 2012.
  6. Henry E. Hilliard, "Metals Prices in the United States through 1998--Platinum-Group Metals," USGS Minerals Information Team
  7. Energy Research Advisory Board, "A Report of the Energy Research Advisory Board to the United States Department of Energy," DOE Report DOE/S-0073 DE90 005611, November 1989.
  8. Martin Fleischmann, University of Southampton Web Site, August 8, 2012.

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