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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 12, 2006

Bubble Fusion Implodes

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Posted by Derek

The bubbles produced by sonication of liquids are weird things, and there's no doubt that strikingly high temperatures and pressures can be produced in them (for strikingly short periods of time). The idea that they might be high enough to induce nuclear fusion has been around for years, and in 2002 a group at Oak Ridge claimed to have done it. (I wrote about that on my old site here when the news came out, and here a few days later).

In 2004, a further paper from the group came out, followed by another one in January of this year. The lead investigator, Rusi Taleyarkhan, had moved to a new faculty position at Purdue, and a number of people there were working on the idea. I was encouraged. Perhaps I shouldn't have been. Nature is now reporting that many people at Purdue have extreme doubts about Taleyarkhan's work. And if these accounts are accurate, I don't blame them:

Once Taleyarkhan had arrived, lab members became increasingly concerned by his actions. Jevremovic says that he would sometimes examine the equipment and claim that it was producing positive results, referring to an oscilloscope that he had. She says that she was uncertain about how the oscilloscope fitted into the experiment so she asked him for the raw data, but never received any. "He said: 'Look, there's a peak', but there was nothing to see," she says. "I started questioning it."

Then one day, in or soon after May 2004, lab members arrived to find that Taleyarkhan had removed the experimental set-up from the communal lab, and taken it to his own lab off-campus. "I was really upset," says Jevremovic, who had been planning further work with the equipment. . .

Meanwhile, the data in the latest paper have come in for some very hard scrutiny. The experiments are claimed to emit neutrons at the particular energy that would be a sign of nuclear fusion, but it seems that the published data aren't consistent with that at all - and are consistent with those from californium-252, which is a common neutron source. There wasn't supposed to be any such source in these runs, though, which is very disturbing. (A preprint of the paper on these problems is here, for those who want all the details.

I Am Not a Nuclear Physicist, but I am a scientist, and this is all starting to look very sad and suspicious. Depressing as it is to write this, I'm now strongly inclined to think that the Taleyarkhan work is spurious. It would take some amazing results to convince me otherwise, and this would be a mighty good time for him to produce them if he's got 'em. But I don't think he does. As I've said before, the possibility of discoveries like this fills me with joy, which makes it still more painful to watch it all crash in a flaming heap.

The idea of sonochemically induced fusion isn't dead: others are looking at it in different systems. Sonication bubbles are indeed weird (see also here), and much remains to be discovered about them. But a lot of time and effort has seemingly been wasted on the wrong approach, and the whole field ends up looking like a refuge for cranks. It's sad, it's just sad.

Comments (8) + TrackBacks (0) | Category:


1. Sigivald on March 13, 2006 1:30 PM writes...

FYI, he link under "weird" in the last paragraph is broken.

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2. Milo on March 13, 2006 8:04 PM writes...

If this is in fact yet another case of not-quite-true-science, this will only serve to further degrade the public's trust in science.

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3. John Bailo on March 13, 2006 11:55 PM writes...

I know everyone is ready to jump on RT -- but most of the criticism is coming from a colleague with whom he is at odds with -- and, more to the point -- who is offering a competing tabletop fusion technology using crystals (that he says uses more conventional physics).

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4. Derek Lowe on March 14, 2006 7:44 AM writes...

John B., while professional rivalry is never something to overlook, I don't get the impression that that's what's going on here. For instance, the criticism is coming not only from Taleyarkhan's Purdue colleagues, but from other universities as well. And that point about the Californium-252 looks pretty convincing - enough so that I wonder how the paper got accepted.

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5. Paul Dietz on March 14, 2006 12:02 PM writes...

The tabletop crystal fusion thing is much more believable. Anytime you get multi-kilovolt potentials and discharges in deuterium gas you're going to have the possibility that some ions will be accelerated to an energy where fusion reactions can occur. The physics behind this is 70 years old. Commercially available neutron generator tubes are based on this principle, accelerating deuterium nuclei into a solid target containing deuterium or tritium. This can't in theory come anywhere close to breakeven, however.

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6. tiberian on March 14, 2006 4:54 PM writes...

I don't exactly know what is being argued about in this post, but let me set some things straight and define a couple terms:

Tabletop fusion has been acheived. Crystal fusion works by creating an electric field that accelerates deutrenium atoms together to produce heat and fusion. Sonofusion I don't know. Some say that it can be done and has produced energy, others say otherwise. However, it is PROOVEN that crystal fusion does in fact undergoe the process of FUSION.

It does not produce ENERGY, no "cold-fusion" or table-top device that undergoes FUSION has ever produced an excess of ENERGY that can be used.

The "cold fusion" acheived by the russian guy in Purdue is bogus. But fusion has been acheived.

So what is the arguement about?

I don't think a tabletop device at room temperature will ever give more energy than you put in because of the simple fact that it requires something to counteract the repulsion forces between the atoms, and these devices just do this atom by atom. In other words, you create a certainly shaped bubble (which requires energy) which in turn, fuses like only a couple atoms (two--not that much energy). So you have to put in energy for each reaction to get a reaction from the fusion.

The only way to get energy from such reactions is to initiate a chain event, or a chain reaction to occur that benefits from the excess heat of a certain fusion reaction to start another, and so on.

There has been no way of doing a "chain reaction" at room temperature. Therefore, the only way to get a "chain reaction" is by getting a lot of heat and "confining it" so that it feeds on itself (hot fusion) and causes more fusion reactions, until all the fusion creates an "excess" on top of the energy required to keep this "reaction" alive.

I don't see how you could do this with something like bubble cavitation. Maybe an electric field could be scaled up and you could create a chain reaction in the field to create "tides" that in turn set up a patter of fields that fuses atoms. But even that is far-fetched.

You can use the fusion, by its production of a cheap neutron source to cause a more efficient fission reaction, which in turn could produce nuclear energy at a lower cost, I guess.

It's all about scaling up. Since we don't have control of the interactions at the molecular level.

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7. Elia Diodati on March 22, 2006 12:46 AM writes...

I probably should note that Ken Suslick, a prominent sonochemist at Illinois (where I am at) had raised objections back in Fall 2004 as to the physical impossibility of what Taleyarken was claiming.

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8. Derek Lowe on March 22, 2006 7:09 AM writes...

Yep, one of the tests to use for sonochemical fusion claims is whether they convince Ken Suslick (and Seth Putterman at UCLA).

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