Cold fusion - holding the sun in the palm of your hand. Image Source: Discovery News.
On May 9, American theoretical physicist Michio Kaku discussed Fukushima on a popular Californian radio program and claimed that the uranium core of Reactor #2 had completely liquefied while promoting his book, The Physics of the Future. The book predicts an incredible future, filled with remarkable technological gadgets. But Kaku's anticipated Singularity will not happen if we don't solve our energy crisis.
Certainly, public concern about nuclear power plants is intense. But why is a string field theorist talking in the popular media about the downfall of nuclear power? From the way Kaku approached the subject, including his comments on the San Onofre plant in California, it almost sounded as though he implied that that downfall is now an inevitable precondition for the exponential acceleration of tech and culture.
String theory attempts to reconcile General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Does Kaku's statement about Fukushima hint that quantum physicists are now reappraising 20th century nuclear physics and engineering as far as our energy problems are concerned?
A simple diagram of a fission chain reaction; a neutron breaks apart a heavier nucleus into two smaller ones, which releases energy and more neutrons. Image Source: Everyday Science.
The objects of Kaku's criticism, nuclear power plants and bombs, operate using nuclear fission. This process also has occurred in nature and possibly at the earth's core:
The fission or "nuclear" chain-reaction, using fission-produced neutrons, is the source of energy for nuclear power plants and fission type nuclear bombs, such as those detonated by the United States in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, at the end of World War II. Heavy nuclei such as uranium and thorium may undergo spontaneous fission, but they are much more likely to undergo decay by alpha decay.The opposite process, nuclear fusion, is simply defined at Wiki:
For a neutron-initiated chain-reaction to occur, there must be a critical mass of the element present in a certain space under certain conditions (these conditions slow and conserve neutrons for the reactions). In two regions of Oklo, Gabon, Africa, natural nuclear fission reactors were active over 1.5 billion years ago. Measurements of natural neutrino emission have demonstrated that around half of the heat emanating from the Earth's core results from radioactive decay. However, it is not known if any of this results from fission chain-reactions.
When the nuclei fuse together, they release energy. Our sun is essentially one giant nuclear fusion chain reaction, which unleashes energy via a process called stellar nucleosynthesis. In February 2011, Michio Kaku argued that hot fusion nuclear reactors would be established by 2030.two low mass nuclei come into very close contact with each other, so that the strong force fuses them. It requires a large amount of energy to overcome the repulsion between the nuclei for the strong or nuclear forces to produce this effect, therefore nuclear fusion can only take place at very high temperatures or high pressures.
Cold fusion, i.e. nuclear fusion which might take place at room temperature, has been rejected by the mainstream scientific community. The first rule of cold fusion club is… you do not talk about cold fusion. This was a comment made by a Wired columnist back in 2009:
After cold fusion was initially reported in 1989, it was "experimentally confirmed" in 2009 (see here and here). But the results of this 'low energy nuclear reaction' were not consistently replicated. Kaku commented in 2010:Twenty years ago this week, physicists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced that they had replicated the fusion reaction which powers the sun, paving the way for endless free energy… in a laboratory test tube. The resulting debacle, which ended with their claims being scorned and ridiculed, left cold fusion research about as scientifically respectable as astrology.
Yet one can understand why cold fusion is such an attractive concept and why some scientists would risk ridicule to find it. The nearly-limitless power of the sun, harnessed cheaply at room temperature? In January 2011, cold fusion claims reappeared at the University of Bologna (incidentally, Bologna, founded in 1088, is the oldest degree-granting university in Europe, and arguably the world). See the cold fusion claims from Bologna's researchers described with a video, here. In March of 2012, those same researchers brought their theories on cold fusion to a talk at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider.Now some people have advocated cold fusion. Most physicists do not believe that cold fusion works. I keep an open mind about it; however, the bottom line is things have to be reproducible on demand. People who claim to have attained cold fusion in their laboratory, fusion in a glass of water. Their results cannot be duplicated by other laboratories. It wants to buy a car when you turn on the ignition and it sometimes works and sometimes doesn't work? That's not a viable commercial technology. So until we can have reproducible, testable, falsifiable cold fusion, physicists are naturally going to be a little bit skeptical.
Delivered on 22 March 2012, the CERN paper on cold fusion from Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi of the University of Bologna inevitably drew criticism (Hat tip: Physics and Physicists); actually cold fusion (such as it is) is kind of moving toward not-so-cold fusion, since these scientists are raising temperatures in their experiments.
Conspiracy theorists on the Web assumed that because CERN held a cold fusion colloquium, the researchers there were scientifically 'recognizing' it. This is not the case. Nonetheless, the fact that CERN hosted these cold fusion lectures is coincidentally intriguing.
At CERN, researchers are using the Large Hadron Collider to search for the popularly-called Higgs Boson 'God Particle' and Dark Energy and Dark Matter. CERN's high energy particle accelerator, modern descendant of the 20th century's atom smashers, breaks apart protons or lead nuclei to find the smaller sub-particles of which they are composed, one of which may be the Holy Grail of the four domains of modern physics. If the Collider can prove the existence of the God Particle and Dark Matter and Energy, it can perhaps reconcile the inconsistencies between the physics of the very large (Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, which modified Newton's Law of Gravitation and Classical Physics) and the physics of the very small (the Standard Model), hence confirming a so-called Theory of Everything.
Thus, it is interesting that the cold fusion paper was delivered at CERN (and self-published here), the very place where there is a much-more-concerted effort to pin down Dark Matter, Dark Energy and the Theory of Everything. These are also intuitively appealing concepts, but as yet unproven. The qualitative parallels between these examples - the sense that these are ideas we can imagine and partly confirm, but which lie just outside our grasp - reveal that while the hard sciences depend on ever-improved and challenged theories, those theories always exist in a general cultural context. To the layperson, the intuitive analogy between mysterious Dark Energy and cold fusion's low energy nuclear reaction would seem obvious, however unproven, laughable or considered utterly erroneous by physicists.
The cultural context of scientific debate was an aspect I discussed in this post on Dark Energy and Dark Matter. Both ideas were very much products of the mindset of the 1930s. Now, people at this turn-of-the-Millennium take mysteries literally. It is an era of Doppelgängers and invisible antitheses, of the real and unreal coexisting. Dark worlds must have dark gravity, surely? And, yes, here we are (at the Bolognese cold fusion mouthpiece): repulsive gravity and cold fusion (7 May 2012). And here is National Geographic asking (15 February 2012): is repulsive gravity really Dark Energy?
Everywhere, there are virtual worlds just on the other side of our understanding, just beyond our virtual mirrors. We are obsessed with nailing them down and discovering and controlling their concealed laws and secrets.
On 16 May 2012, E-Cat World reported that the American Chemical Society journal, Chemical and Engineering News, included an article on 14 May entitled, "Reviving Cold Fusion." Fukushima's nuclear disaster may harm and frighten many. But it could provoke a discussion at the crossroads of particle physics and nuclear physics that will change - everything.
Read all my posts on Nuclear topics.
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