March 23, 1989: Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons hold a press conference. The two men reported on an apparatus they had built which produced “excess heat” and was a demonstration of cold fusion. This is a hypothetical kind of nuclear reaction which would take place at or near room temperature. “Hot” fusion requires a temperature in the millions of degrees, such as that found naturally in stars. The two men not only claimed to have produced heat from cold fusion, but also measured small amounts of nuclear byproducts such as neutrons and tritium. All this was done with a small tabletop device which used electrolysis of heavy water on the surface of a palladium electrode. If true, it would be a source of cheap and abundant energy. The operative phrase there, was “if true”.
Fleischmann was a British chemist famous worldwide for his work in electrochemistry. He was born in Czechoslovakia in 1927 to Jewish parents who fled first to the Netherlands and then to England by 1938. After receiving his PhD from Imperial College London, Fleischmann taught at King’s College and then University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He moved to the University of Southampton, where he was the Faraday Chair of Chemistry and was the president of the International Society of Electrochemists. He began working with Pons in 1983 where the two men spent $100,000 in self-funded experiments at the University of Utah. Fleischmann wished to publish first in an obscure journal in a joint publication with another university doing similar work. The University of Utah wished for priority and went public with the announcement, forcing the two men to also go public.
Pons was born in North Carolina and studied chemistry at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and then began his PhD at the University of Michigan, but quit before finishing. He completed his studies at the University of Southampton where he met Fleischmann. The two men were interested in the problem of cold fusion, like many before them. The search for this energy source began in the late 1920s when two Austrian born scientists reported the transformation of hydrogen into helium by spontaneous nuclear reaction at room temperature. They later retracted their report, saying the helium measurement was due to background presence in the air. Others still held out hope.
Fleischmann and Pons did not publish their experimental protocol but physicists around the world attempted to replicate their experiment without success. The first paper submitted to Nature passed peer-review but was rejected regardless because similar experiments were negative and no theories could explain the positive result. The two men still believed in their process and the University of Utah asked Congress to provide $25 million for research. Pons was scheduled to meet with President Bush in May but by April 30, 1989, the New York Times declared the idea dead. On May 1, 1989 the American Physical Society concurred. Disgraced but undaunted, the two men moved to France to continue their work. Their funding ran out in 1992. Fleishmann died in 2012 of natural causes; he was 85. Pons gave up his US citizenship and remains in France.
There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will. – Albert Einstein
I will say this, though: If it is true that fusion will put unlimited amounts of energy into our hands, then I’m worried. Our record on this score is extremely poor. – David Brower
All I know about thermal pollution is that if we continue our present rate of growth in electrical energy consumption it will simply take, by the year 2000, all our freshwater streams to cool the generators and reactors. – David Brower
Today we know four types of forces – electromagnetic, gravitational, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. But the existence of the latter two was not even suspected before this century. I don’t believe that we have found all the forces in nature yet. There is probably at least one more type of energy operation at the physical level which serves to support psychic phenomena. – William Tiller
Also on this day: The Man Who Would Be Pope – In 752, Pope Stephen was elected but he died before taking his seat.
Safety First – In 1857, Elisha Otis installed his first passenger elevator.
Patrick Henry – In 1775, Patrick Henry spoke to the Virginia House of Burgesses.
Row, Row, Row your Boat – In 1889, the free Woolwich Ferry began service.
Circumvention – In 1896, The Raines Law was passed.