Professor Hagelstein talked to us about our post on cold fusion. The interview was interesting enough that we thought it warranted being run in its entirety.
Tim Barribeau: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us...we're hoping you could talk to us a bit about your research and the models you're working with right now and possibly and the field as a whole and how it's changing. [The press release] mentioned that your model should be able to account more effectively for the heat observed in the original set of reaction. What does the model actually show.
Peter Hagelstein: Lets take a step backwards. I apologize, but in order to make any sense of it we need to go back to experiment for a moment. So in the experiments, a huge amount of energy is seen, so much energy that it could not conceivably be of chemical origin. Plus, there's no chemistry that's observed going on in the experiments that has anything remotely to do with the observations of the power and total energy production. The second piece of it is that basically no energetic particle are observed commensurate with the energy. So there are no significant amount of neutrons, there's no fast electrons, there's no gamma rays. There's nothing you might expect if it were a more normal nuclear reaction process. The basic statement here is that — if it's real and if it's nuclear... the argument for it being nuclear is that there's 4He (helium-4) observed in experiments, roughly one 4He for every 24 MeV of energy that's created. So what you need in the way of a theoretical model, basically a new kind of mechanism that doesn't work like the old Rutherford reaction picture that nuclear physics is based on. So that's the basic problem that I've been working on for a great many years.
The big problem is one that has to do with the quantum mechanics issue. The nuclear energy comes in a big energy quantum, and if it didn't get broken up, then the big energy quantum would get expressed as energetic particles, as normally happens in nuclear reactions. So the approach we've taken is that we've said "the only conceivable route for making sense of these observations at all, is that the big energy quanta have to get sliced and diced up into a very very large number if much smaller energy quanta." The much larger number is on the order of several hundred million. In NMR physics and optical physics, people are familiar with breaking up a large quantum into perhaps 30 smaller pieces, you could argue that there are some experiments where you could argue that maybe that numbers as high as 100 or so. It's unprecedented that you could take an MeV quantum and chop it up into bite sized pieces that are 10s of meV.
So after a lot of years of work on it, about 10 years ago we found a model that actually did something like that. It's remarkable! It turns out in the physics literature, there's a model called the 'Spin-Boson Model' that's basically a fundamental quantum mechanics model, so you have a harmonic oscillator and you hook it up to what's called a two level system — that's just an idealisation, it's a little bit of physics having to do with two of the energy levels in a more complicated system. But it makes the math really simple, so the resulting model is one you can analyze to death. People have studied that model now for between 40-60 years, depending on how you count them. This model predicts the 30 or 50 fold, or the ability to break up a two level system quantum into, for example, into nearly 30 individual quanta. What we found is the way that the model does it, it can do it, but it's hindered. There's a destructive interference effect that goes on, that makes the effect relatively weak. What we found, is that if you added a weird kind of loss to the model— a loss that you would expect in the cold fusion scenario. The new model, with loss, is much more relevant to the physical situation called fusion than otherwise. But this weird kind of loss, it breaks the destructive interference, and it makes this energy exchange go orders of magnitude faster. And instead of being a relatively weak effect, it's now a very strong, it's a dominant effect. This model is exactly what you need! It's a microscopic engine to take big quanta and chop it up into little tiny quanta. So that's what we've found.
Looking in to basically modelling excess heat production in the Fleischmann-Pons experiment based on variance of this kind of model.
So maybe there's 2D (dueterium-2) somewhere in the lattice, and maybe it goes to 4He and in the process maybe it can give its energy up to the lattice oscillations — basically optical phonons directly using this mechanism. So, if we set up a model to try to do that, we find immediately that it doesn't work. It doesn't work because the coupling is to weak. But if we change the model a little bit to say first the 2D transfers its excitation someplace else, to nuclei that have stronger coupling, then if these nuclei do in fact have a stronger coupling, then the model kicks in, and they can chop the energy up and give it to the optical phonons.
Anyway, that's sort of the essence of the model that we've been studying. It's been a tough physics problem for a lot of reasons, recently we've had some luck in obtaining analytical and numerical results on these models, so that we can quantify them. We're actually able, these days now, suppose you want to start out with a 23 MeV quantum, and chop it up into 50 meV quanta, how long does it take to do that? How many nuclei do you need to do it? How much excitation do you need to do it? We can ask these questions of these models, and the models can give us quantative answers. As a result, within the framework of these models we can begin to develop answers to some of these questions.
For example, it's pretty sure from these models that you don't go directly from a 24 MeV quantum down to the optical phonons. What you'd prefer to do is to downshift from 24 MeV to some sort of intermediary stopping point, maybe 2.25 MeV or so, and then try to downshift to the optical phonon loads. The models say that that works vastly better than starting with a larger energy quantum. Anyway, those are the kinds of things that the basic model does.
It also tells us what to look for in a material as to what makes it special, to make the cold fusion excess heat process work. What we've found recently — very recently — is that bulk palladium cannot host a 2D molecule, but if the palladium has a vacancy, it lowers the electron density and 2D can form. And very recently we found not only can it form, but there's a little cage that it has a possibility of fitting in, if the loading is just right. If the monovacancy has the right occupation and so forth. These conditions under which the monovacancy can host the 2D molecule seem to very consistent with the onset of the excess power in the experiments. So that's exciting to us!
The same detailed calculation that found this effect in palladium seems to show a lesser version of it in gold. One of my friends has a result, where he thinks he might have seen some excess heat as a preliminary result in a [gold coated cathode]. That's a result that needs confirming, but if its confirmed, then maybe we're beginning to get the ability to maybe do the computation of the material to find out. We now think we know what properties are important for it to be able to produce excess power. What we'd like to do is start trying to correlate between these densely functional calculations and experiments to see whether we've got a practical handle on this part of the problem.
Anyway, there's lots and lots of other results!
TB: What are your feelings about cold fusion as a whole in research right now? This has gone from something that was almost seen as a psuedoscience to now, where it's something more and more people are saying "look, there's something behind this", and funding is finally starting to show up. Would you be willing to comment on the situation as a whole?
PH: I can try! There's going to be a lot of parts and pieces associated with it, but lets start at the beginning. The basic excess heat/excess power production seems to be real, seems to be something that can be done by many groups in the laboratory. It seems to be reproduced much better these days than in 1989 when these things first got started. The amount of energy is truly prodigious, and given that we're living on a planet right now that's very concerned — for the right reasons — about energy, people ought to be much more interested in this experiment and the results that were obtained, and the associated scence.
Is it going to be an energy source for the future? I don't know, nobody knows. But it has the potential, maybe, to be an energy source that can solve some of the big problems the world's facing. That is something that should catch people's attention.
With respect to the science, there's been some good science that has been done. We've worked on it for a lot of years, we've learned some things. For example, we've learned that He comes out into the gas in association with the excess power that's produced, and that you get one He atom for roughly 24 MeV worth of energy — as a preliminary experimental result. We would like more confirmation of that result. At the moment, the data seems to support that, which is very interesting.
We've learned that, in some experiments, if you increase the temperature, the rate of excess power production goes up — that's interesting. As it turns out roughly in the same way as if you expect to go up if you were trying to clear the He out away from the active sites by diffusion. If He clogging up the active sites were responsible for limiting the excess power, then it would have the same temperature dependence as what's observed experimentally.
With respect to funding, I don't know that funding has eased up in this field. For example, I don't have much in the way of funding these days. Most of my research is unsupported, and that's been true for a while. I'm going to the conference because I'm buying the ticket with my credit card, and I'm paying the conference fee with my credit card, and so forth. So, if there is funding, that's very nice, but I'm not familiar with available funding in this field these days.
TB: The one other big question I do have, and this is of course the one that's on everyone's mind, would be "how long do you think it would be before this technology is in use?". Knowing what you know now, and assuming things go relatively well.
PH: If things go on the way that they're going on today, the answer is that it's never going to happen. There's fewer and fewer people each year, and the amount of resources are not great, and basically we're getting older. We're not going to live forever — I don't think we're going to live forever, anyway. Unless something changes, there's a very good change we're not going to finish our work before there's none of us left to do any of it. Generally new new people have not been joining the field, and there's a lot of reasons for that. If a young person thinks of joining the field, he or she does it at peril of having a career ruined by association with being in the field. So, it's not guaranteed at the moment that this technology is actually going to make it into any kind of commercial used without a fundamental change in how things work. There needs to be some support in the field that's more significant than what's present now by a couple of orders of magnitude — at least. We need to find a way to remove the taint, such that young people can join in the field so we can hand down what we've learned — both in training up scientists in the field and making the science available in good documentation, journal papers, textbooks and that kind of thing. At the moment, one though is that the best that we could be doing right now is to document the fruits of labor, such that some time in the future — whenever society finally decides that energy is an important enough problem that you ought to put some time and effort into what's probably one of the best solutions to it — and then maybe we can hand off our work for another generation, maybe 50 years from now, or however long it takes for society to figure out which way is up on this problem.
On the other hand, if tomorrow somebody decided it was a rational thing for government support to go into this area at a substantial level, because it was a national priority or some such, then I actually think you could have the very first technology beginning to be applicable or available in something in the general neighborhood of 3 to 5 years. Probably the very first technology would be very simple kinds of things. Maybe something as simple as a modified version of a furnace, where it takes electrical energy as input, for example, but the thermal energy that you get out might be a significant multiple of the energy going in. So maybe instead of getting a fraction of the joules for every joule of energy going in, maybe you get three joules or five joules or something. That kind of application might not sound like the world's most important application, but something like that might actually be the very first product to come out of the new technology.
Future products which one would hope to come out of the technology would be a more significant energy source, that could, for example, power your car in such a way that you fill up your gas tank when the car is made, and you never have to fill it up again. Because the energy density associated with heavy water in regards to this process is about 10 million times that of chemical energy density associated with gasoline.
Other areas that would benefit dramatically from this technology: one is robotics. Robots suffer from having to have a cord for power supply from a wall, or if they have to carry their own energy supply, well then basically they have to carry their fuel or their energy pack, and that hinders robot development. But if you had a factor of 10 million increases in your energy density, or energy to weight or energy to mass ration, then your robots could do a lot more.
In terms of getting out into space, if you had a power source that had such higher energy to weight ratio as this technology can provide, then that changes the landscape fundamentally. It becomes much less of an issue, you don't need a very large amount of rocket fuel stacked up in these towering thrusters to get out into space!
More prosaic, the worlds got problems of drinking water. If you have cheap energy, you would be able to solve the drinking water problem. The half of the world or so that's not got access to drinking water, you have the potential to solve a problem like that with an energy source of that kind.
Those are some of the thoughts people in the field have had about what this technology might be used for.
TB: I had no idea the state that the field is in right now! It feels like, 3-5 years, that could be just around the corner.
PH: It's not going to happen anytime soon, most likely. For example the physicist who was one of the organisers of the May 1st Baltimore session in 1989 that debunked cold fusion was a fellow by the name of Steve Koonin. [He] was recently appointed to be under-secretary in charge of research at the Department of Energy. As a result, basically part of his success and part of his reputation was made based on killing cold fusion. He's now in a position of responsibility for research at the DoE, you can imagine what kind of difficulties that leads to in terms of trying to move cold fusion research to the point where you get funding, or you try to remove the taint from it. The folks that debunked cold fusion in 1989, many of them have profited by their actions, and we will will likely continue to pay for that for years to come.