Undeterred by claims cold fusion was impossible, Google sunk $10m into trying to prove otherwise. This has now failed.
While various teams of nuclear physicists and engineers proclaim we’re edging closer to achieving stable nuclear fusion, the same could not be said for an offshoot called cold fusion.
Unlike the intense heat and complex process of replicating the sun in a tokamak reactor, cold fusion – otherwise called low-energy nuclear reaction – attempts to achieve limitless, clean energy under far less extreme conditions. In 1989, US chemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann claimed that by running a current across two palladium plates in water laden with deuterium, they had seen signs of nuclear fusion.
Peer reviews were not kind to the pair, pointing out a number of errors in the experiment. A series of subsequent reviews from the US Department of Energy also showed no evidence for it being possible.
However, this didn’t stop Google’s top scientists (as revealed in a piece to Nature), who since 2015 have spent $10m on cold fusion experiments. Those behind the experiments have now admitted defeat, saying they too found no evidence fusion could be achieved through simple chemical means.
The researchers explored three potential cold fusion methods: two involving palladium and hydrogen, with the remaining experiment involving metallic powders and hydrogen. Now, their findings – including the lack of evidence for cold fusion – have been published across 12 papers.
‘This is what we are supposed to do as scientists’
Their efforts haven’t been totally fruitless, however, as they claim to have made significant advances that could benefit energy research as a whole, including measurement and materials science techniques.
Speaking of the effort, Google’s research programme manager in Silicon Valley, Matthew Trevithick, said: “This is not just a chase for cold fusion. If it were, I don’t think we would have maintained an interest of this calibre of team for so long.”
Not only that, but the researchers hope their efforts inspire others to keep the cold fusion dream alive.
Among many of their peers, the topic of cold fusion remains very taboo, mostly because of the overwhelming evidence that says it’s impossible to achieve. Theoretical physicist Frank Close of the University of Oxford is one such critic of Google’s efforts.
“There is no theoretical reason to expect cold fusion to be possible, and a vast amount of well-established science that says it should be impossible,” he said.
“You cannot prove a negative in science. If Google wants to invest in cold fusion, that’s up to them.” Adding to this, he said: “If somebody I was investing my money in started doing this, I would withdraw my money.”
Not everyone is so critical, with University of British Columbia chemist Curtis Berlinguette saying that while he was sceptical of Google’s scientists being able to achieve it, he was encouraged to see them explore a space typically cut off by prejudice.
“This is what we are supposed to do as scientists,” he said.