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The Man who “Discovered” Cold Fusion Just Passed Away

Martin Fleischmann, who in 1989 claimed to have discovered cold fusion, died in his home in England on Friday, August 3rd, following a long battle with Parkinson's disease.

Reaction cells created by Texas A&M scientist John Bockris in an attempt to replicate early cold fusion claims. Photo: Ryan Somma

On March 23, 1989, two scientists stood before the world at a press conference at the University of Utah in order to announce their “successful” discovery of cold fusion. One of those scientists, the Czech-born chemist Martin Fleischmanndied in his home in England on Friday, August 3rd, following a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

The promise of cold fusion—a bountiful supply of “free” energy, with more being produced by a chemical reaction than is needed to get it going—is an alluring one. Fleischmann and Pons’ work was heralded as the energy source of the future, freeing us from the constraints of burning fossil fuels or the perils of nuclear fission. (At the time the memory of 1986′s Chernobyl nuclear disaster was still fresh.)

Exciting times followed from Fleischmann and co-“discoverer” Stanley Pons’ announcement, whose approach to cold fusion was laid out in a study published after their announcement. As Wired notes:

For more than five years the two men worked in secret, spending about $100,000 of their own money. They ended up with something very simple: an insulated glass jar containing deuterium oxide (commonly known as heavy water) in which two electrodes were immersed, one of them a coil of platinum wire, the other a rod of palladium – a precious metal comparable in value to gold. A small voltage between the electrodes decomposed the deuterium oxide into oxygen and deuterium (a form of hydrogen), some of which was absorbed into the palladium.

This was high school chemistry. But Fleischmann believed that if the process continued long enough, deuterium atoms could become so tightly packed in the palladium, fusion would occur.

At first the discovery seemed promising, but later it became apparent that the pair’s results would be difficult or impossible to reproduce, says Science.

Early on, a number of young scientists set out to replicate the attention-grabbing findings of Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, and many of them did just that: They “verified” that Fleishmann and Pons had succeeded in achieving nuclear fusion by electrolyzing heavy water, he says. Within a couple years, many more studies had proven them utterly wrong.

Over time, the failure by other scientists to replicate Fleischmann’s successes first cast their work in doubt. Later, they were ejected from the scientific mainstream altogether. The story became a go-to example of the worst kind of “science by press release,” which is the idea that any scientific “breakthrough” that is presented to the world as a spectacular media event before it has passed through the gauntlet of scientific peer-review should be approached with extra skepticism.

Sorties into the field of cold fusion research waned following the spectacle, but devotees remain, especially the recent work by physicist Andrea Rossi.

 

More from Smithsonian.com:

What Would YOU Do With a Fusion Bomb?

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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