Four academic laboratories partner with Google to explore how materials science can help make fusion more accessible
Scientists from the University of Maryland (UMD), the University of British Columbia (UBC), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), and Google are conducting a multi-year investigation into "cold fusion", hypothized to occur in benchtop apparatus at room temperature. The group, which included about 30 graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and staff scientists, has not yet found any evidence of the phenomenon, but they did find important new insights into metal-hydrogen interactions that could impact low-energy nuclear reactions. The team says they remain excited about investigating this area of science and hope their ongoing journey will inspire others in the scientific community to contribute data to this intriguing field.
Nuclear fusion is the process that powers the Sun. It is so named because it involves fusing atoms, and 30 years ago two scientists made sensational claims about achieving a version of the process at room temperture — a claim offering the promise of limitless, cheap energy. However, those results were soon disproved and the topic has been generally avoided by reseachers since that time.
The new multi-institution group's progress report, published in the May 27 Nature, publicly discloses the group’s collaboration for the first time.
“We came together to work on an interesting problem with the potential for significant impact,” said Jeremy Munday, a principal investigator on the project and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Maryland. “Even if we do not find a better way to produce clean energy, our discoveries along the way will still contribute to the scientific community.”
Operating as a “peer group” with a stringent internal review process, the team started out by vetting previous claims of cold fusion, which have not been pursued in mainstream academic research for the past 30 years. If cold fusion could be realized, the heat released by this process might offer an attractive option for decarbonizing the global energy system.
“We need a fundamentally new energy technology that can be scaled within the span of a human lifetime, and this requires scientists to be afforded the opportunity to do daring work,” said Curtis Berlinguette, a principal investigator and professor of chemistry and chemical and biological engineering at UBC. “This program provided us with a safe environment to take the long shot – given the profound impact cold fusion could have on society, we should remain open to it even if there is an unknown probability of success.”
“If any research project ever met the definition of high-risk, high-reward, this would be the one,” said Yet-Ming Chiang, a principal investigator and Kyocera professor of materials science and engineering at MIT. “Electrochemistry can create interesting states of matter. If those states of matter help us in the search for new clean energy sources, all the better.”
The collaborative effort has produced nine peer reviewed publications and three arXiv posts. The team continues to search for a reproducible reference experiment for cold fusion.
“We shouldn’t be afraid to look into areas that may have been written off,” said Thomas Schenkel, a principal investigator and acting director of the Accelerator Technology and Applied Physics Division at Berkeley Lab. “Not frivolously – but with new ideas and a recognition that there are things we don’t know and that we should be curious about.”
Read the full perspective in Nature: “Revisiting the cold case of cold fusion,” Curtis P. Berlinguette (UBC), Yet-Ming Chiang (MIT), Jeremy N. Munday (UMD), Thomas Schenkel (Berkeley Lab), David K. Fork, Ross Koningstein and Matthew D. Trevithick (Google)