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Why cold fusion is hot news again

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The death occurred on 3 August 2012 of the British electrochemist Martin Fleischmann. In March 1989, with his former student Stanley Pons, he stunned the world by announcing nuclear fusion at room temperature. This so-called “cold fusion” promised cheap, abundant and clean energy. The process seemed to contradict accepted science, since nuclear fusion occurs at extremely high temperatures, such as those found in the sun or under laboratory conditions using enormous lasers and magnetic chambers containing hot gases.

Their experiment involved the electrolysis of heavy water. The theory was that continuous electrolysis would release hydrogen atoms, which would fuse together on a palladium electrode, releasing a burst of energy. They reported that their apparatus produced excess heat of a magnitude that could only be explained by nuclear processes.

They wanted the preliminary results to be published in an obscure scientific journal, but claimed they were pressured into the public announcement by the University of Utah, which wanted to establish priority over the discovery and its patents. A media frenzy followed, and when other scientist failed to replicate the experiments, the pair were discredited. Cold fusion was rejected by the mainstream scientific community for the next two decades.

However, with a change of name to “low energy nuclear reaction”, cold fusion is back in the news. Recently, the Italian Andrea Rossi unveiled his E-Cat energy catalyser, which he claims will produce “limitless energy”. He has already carried out demonstrations in front of scientists and the Italian media.

The process mirrors that of Fleischmann in that hydrogen is passed over a nickel-based electrode, whose exact composition is secret. Rossi claims that several kilowatts of output is produced from a 400 watt input.

Scepticism still surrounds the project. Mr Rossi is expected to address a conference in Zurich today (8 September 2012). Observers have been hoping for an announcement about when and where independent testing of his equipment will take place.

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