]]]]]]]]]]]        COLD FUSION IN THE HOT SEAT         [[[[[[[[[[[[[[
                          by Alex Lane                   (11/23/1989)
                       (Freeman 32217LANE)

     The controversy raging around cold fusion since its announced
discovery last March by scientists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons
at the University of Utah has been both hot and manic.  Amid charges
of incompetence and expressions of sour grapes, hopes raised by
reports confirming cold fusion have been dashed by announcements
discounting the phenomenon, only to be raised again by new
corroboration.

     What the fuss is all about is fusion, the process by which two
hydrogen atoms are driven together to fuse into a single atom of
helium, liberating energy as a by-product. In the electrochemical
process developed by Fleischmann and Pons, fusion occurs not in the
million-degree environment of a star or at the core of an exploding
hydrogen bomb, but in an apparatus that fits atop a table in a
university laboratory, in a room-temperature environment that is
"cold" relative to, for example, the surface of the Sun.

     If it is eventually confirmed as true fusion, the cold fusion
process may have far-reaching implications for the energy future of
the planet.  Speculation as to the applications of cold fusion range
from the motive force for interplanetary exploration, to family-sized
power units, to self-powered integrated circuits. The deuterium fuel
needed to sustain cold fusion can be extracted from seawater, which at
last report was in plentiful supply.

     For the media, cold fusion has been a windfall, though of
moderate proportions.  Certainly the initial announcement was good
copy, allowing Dan Rather, for example, to speak of "what may be a
tremendous scientific advance."  Since then, the academic melee has
provided filler of the ringside "He's down!...No, he's up!...He's
down!..." variety for science columnists and the evening newshawks.
An interesting item, however, cropped up in the Los Angeles Times on
April 19, 1989. In an article titled "Fear of Fusion: What If It
Works?" staff writer Paul Ciotti sought the reactions of a number of
environmental illuminati to the prospect of cold fusion as a cheap and
abundant source of future energy.

     The tone of the environmental voices was set by Stanford
biologist Paul Ehrlich, who said that the idea of cheap and nearly
limitless power from fusion was "like giving a machine gun to an idiot
child."  This is the same Paul Erlich who nearly a decade ago wrote
"fusion might be equally (or more) benign" than solar energy, but
couldn't make up his mind.  Of course, ten years ago, fusion energy
was a megabuck technology whose realization appeared to be decades
away, too.

     On the heels of Ehrlich's dramatic quip came one equally stirring
from Jeremy Rifkin (described in the article simply as an author-
activist) who said "It's the worst thing that could happen to our
planet."  Like Ehrlich, Rifkin appears to chafe at the idea of a new
technology that might make life easier for earth's billions. In their
apparent view of the world, availability of cheap energy would be a
signal to simply breed more humans, but consider:  if affluence and
population growth go hand in hand, then the United States should be
among the most populous countries on the planet. Clearly this is not
the case.

     Barry Commoner, director of the Center for the Biology of Natural
Systems at Queens College, took a different tack. Fusion could
distract us from existing energy sources, he said.  Why risk
developing an unproven, maybe even dangerous technology like fusion,
he argued, when we've got solar power for the asking?  Of course,
three decades ago, solar power was itself unproven and, as far as
danger is concerned, the chemicals used to fabricate solar panels are
most unevironmentally toxic.  A stubborn devotion to solar power also
smacks of "Hey, I've got mine!" since solar technology does little
good to areas that don't receive their "fair share" of sunlight.

     It is interesting to consider a hypothetical confrontation
between the Ehrlich "don't-give-'em-an-excuse-to-breed" approach and
the Commoner "solar-all-the-way" school for the case where somehow,
someone magically develops a tremendously efficient solar cell.  If
that happened, would either of them budge?  Would Erlich liken cheap
solar power to, say, a cruise missile in the hands of an idiot child?
Would Commoner sniff at the new cell as "unproven," and discourage its
development?

     Related to the Ehrlich view, yet distinct, were arguments put
forth by Rifkin and UC Berkeley anthropologist Laura Nader. Their tack
was to deny that cheap, plentiful energy represents a boon to mankind.
Rifkin waxed eloquent about how more people go to bed hungry today
than at any time in history. (Of course, there's more people alive
today than at any time in history, too.)  Nader supported her position
by parading a set of statistics showing a decline in the quality of
life between 1950 and 1970 despite an increase in energy consumption.
Whose quality of life declined and whose energy consumption increased
was not specified.

     Of course, this "quality of life" is a tough animal to nail down.
The gloom-and-doom crowd uses the term ubiquitously, but rarely if
ever defines it, perhaps because it's safe enough to assert that
things are not as good as they were "in the good ole days," without
having to worry about specifics.  Indeed, the closest I've seen to an
actual definition of "quality of life" was published in
The_Mother_Earth_News in 1980.  Writing in his regular column, Walter
Prescott Webb proclaimed that, from now on, "we can expect the overall
quality of life, as we've come to know it, to do nothing but decline."
There follows an articulate, qualitative description of that decline
too lengthy to quote here.  Among the indicators, though, are: less
food, fewer goods, increased crowding, shorter life spans, increased
crime, less democratic government, more terrorism.  As he gets warmed
up, Webb talks of "genuine worldwide famines and pestilence," possibly
as the result of deliberate political action.  And more: more wars,
more nationalism, more demands, more protests.  Nothing will run the
way it used to; blackouts, brownouts, bad phone service. And on, and
on.

     True, much of Webb's pessimistic view has come to pass in the
decade of the 80s, yet note:  Almost uniformly, these indicators of
"quality of life" are affected not by the physical environment, but by
the political one.

     To make sure all bases were covered, cold fusion was also kicked
around on non-environmental issues.  Among the predictable digs was
the depiction of cold fusion as a power source for SDI weaponry.
Fusion's obvious connection to things atomic and hence, nuclear, was
also adroitly picked up by UC Berkeley physicist John Holdren, who
announced that -- in some circumstances -- fusion involved "deadly
neutrons" and "poisonous tritium."  Tritium is an mildly radioactive
isotopic form of hydrogen that occurs in nature (indeed, for 30 days
in 1972 a Hawaiian volcano spewed 100 curies of tritium per day into
the atmosphere!).  It has a half-life of about 12 years, and is used
as a tracer element in medicine.  Clearly, whatever tritium does
survive the fusion process (for it, too, is subject to conversion into
helium) could be dissolved in ocean water and not amount to a fraction
of the tritium that will get there via natural means.

     What Ciotti's piece made clear is that the crop of activists
consulted for the article don't like humanity very much.  Give a fella
a clean, cheap, non-polluting energy source, they seemed to be saying,
and he'll raze a forest before lunch, fill in a wetland in the
afternoon, and then go look for a stream to despoil after dinner.
Even if he doesn't do all that, say others, and merely cuts down a
tree to build a house, what is seen as progress is illusory: the
quality of life just took another hit.

     Few outside the United States and Europe, however, will listen
long to such voices, for despite their words, they appear to be
chorusing "I'm on board!  Pull up the gangplank!"  If cold fusion
works out (and the evidence indicates that  SOMETHING's_ afoot in the
experimental cells), it will (and should) be exploited to expand
humanity's ability to survive on this planet and beyond. Few in the
developing nations will stand being relegated to a permanent station
at the bottom of the ladder while the affluent of the world -- who
should know better -- play at going back to the land and dot their
landscapes with windmills and solar cells that will never save the
money it took to build them.

Copyright 1989, Alex Lane

                         *      *     *


Return to the ground floor of this tower
Return to the Main Courtyard
Return to Fort Freedom's home page