Professionalism/Stanley Pons, Martin Fleischmann, and Cold Fusion


Cold fusion, a hypothesized phenomenon, contrasts with nuclear fusion in that it would be self-sustained at room temperature. Scientists first began hypothesizing cold fusion in the 1920’s. Several claims to success had been made and disproved over the century, but the most famous case was made in 1989 by two electrochemists at the University of Utah, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann.[1] With public desire to amend the energy sector, their publication, originally sent to the Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry,[2] became a worldwide sensation, marking cold fusion as the most published research topic that year. Due to the experiment's vagueness and experimental error, replications were widely unsuccessful, and most reports that did substantiate Pons and Fleischmann's claims were retracted within days. Pons and Fleischmann's downfall is attributed to professional misconduct: accusingly forging data on gamma ray emissions to match those expected of fusion,[1] "ad hominem" attacks on critics,[2] and undermining Steven E. Jones, an American physicist who made progress on muon-catalyzed fusion. Pons, Fleischmann, and Jones originally agreed to simultaneously submit their findings to Nature, yet under pressure from the university, Fleischmann and Pons submitted their findings a day earlier, shortstopping Jones.[3] With backlash from the scientific community, Pons and Fleischmann reclused from the public and continued their research in the dark, remaining lifelong advocates of cold fusion. Today, the field has adapted alternative names to avoid the associated stigma.[4]

Historical ContextEdit

The initial receival of Pons and Fleischmann's announcement was influenced by the "wishful thinking" logical fallacy. Pons and Fleischmann's announcement was made just as the 1973 Oil Crisis had passed, which illustrated OPEC's political influence on U.S. foreign policy. The scientific community was being pressured to create a solution to energy dependency on the Arab States, and environmental activists were lobbying for a new direction in the industry. Several pressing issues were under the scope of the media: global warming, the anti-nuclear movement, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which occurred just as the announcement was made.

Potential Impact on SocietyEdit

Cold fusion technology would mean readily available, clean, and cheap energy. At current consumption rates, radiation is expected to be harmless. Cold fusion would offer an emission-free alternative to fossil fuels, yet a rapid shift to the technology could cause financial collapse. Uranium, oil, natural gas, and coal industries would become obsolete as well as current infrastructure including wind turbines, electrical facilities, and power grids. [5]

Jevons paradox suggests that cold fusion would increase energy usage due to increased efficiency in energy production. If not regulated, cold fusion could produce hazardous radiation where generators are densely used despite minimal waste byproducts. Overuse of cold fusion technology would be expected in impoverished areas with dense populations and low government oversight. Cold fusion generators could produce heat waste which would cause local temperature influxes. Desalination is common in such regions, which requires complex engineering to reduce toxic waste products. With readily available energy, small-scale desalination by boiling could become routine, demanding millions of waste sites for heavy metal and mineral disposure.[6]

Previous Cold Fusion ResearchEdit

Cold fusion was first suggested in 1909 when Irving Langmuir unintentionally observed anomalous heat releases from hydrogen plasma between tungsten electrodes. Intrigued, he confided with Niels Bohr, who dissuaded further research as the results seemed to break the conversation of energy.[7]

The ability for palladium to adsorb and split molecular hydrogen was discovered in the nineteenth century by Thomas Graham (chemist). Its use as a catalyst led to experiments like that of Friedrich Paneth and Kurt Peters, who in 1927, published results claiming that palladium could fuse hydrogen into helium through “nuclear catalysis.” It was later shown that the observed helium was from the atmosphere, and their publication was retracted. That year, however, John Tandberg did manage to observe seemingly fusion-based helium and excess heat through electrolysis with palladium electrodes. His Swedish patent was denied since he could not explain the phenomenon. Tandberg resumed his work when deuterium was discovered, but to no avail. In the 1950's, experiments on muon-catalyzed fusion suggested practical cold fusion, but proved to be net-energy negative. Cold fusion was first idolized in 1956 when The New York Times published Luis Walter Alvarez's work on muon-catalyzed fusion.[7]

The Impact of Pons and FleischmannEdit

When Fleischmann and Pons had observed “hundreds of times more heat than the chemistry could account for,”[8] they had unknowingly replicated Tandberg’s experiment with deuterium-heavy water in palladium catalyst. The couple claimed that running a current through the electrolysis cell caused phases of increased temperature, which would last for days. During these periods, the extracted power was over 40 times that of the power supplied.

Initial ReceptionEdit

After Fleischmann and Pons announced their results on March 23, 1989,[9] members of the scientific community attempted to replicate their results. A group at Texas A&M reported the presence of neutrons and tritium, confirming their original results.[10] Scientists at Georgia Tech also confirmed Fleischmann and Pons' results, but retracted their findings three days after.[11] Research from the Brookhaven National Laboratory found neutron counts that were slightly higher than expected, but the group did not deem it evidence of cold fusion.[12] Many groups followed up on cold fusion, but had a lack of evidence from the start or felt they had false positives. The consensus of the scientific community seems to be that Pons and Fleischmann went public with their results without adequate testing or scientific rigor.

The Rapid Development of StigmaEdit

In one year, cold fusion went from one of the most promising fields in science to a pathological science.[13] The scientific community began to ignore Cold Fusion research in a way that resembled the fable "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," yet the mass disregard for the field happened after a single false alarm (Pons and Fleischmann's research).

A stigma developed around Cold Fusion due to Pons and Fleischmann challenging core ideas about how to do science. They challenged reproducibility, which is central to the scientific method.

A November 1989 report from the U.S. Energy Research Advisory Board to the U.S. Department of Energy stated: "The claims of cold fusion are unusual in that even the strongest proponents of cold fusion assert that the experiments, for unknown reasons, are not consistent and reproducible at the present time."[14]

Pons and Fleischmann were challenging the framework of science rather than operating within the framework. To use Thomas Kuhn's terminology, Pons and Fleishman were attempting revolutionary science rather than ordinary science, and it was this challenging of the scientific method that created the stigma surrounding the field.

Researchers pursuing Cold Fusion research commonly use the terms Low Energy Nuclear Reactions or Lattice Assisted Nuclear Reactions to avoid the stigma associated with Cold Fusion.

Psychological BiasesEdit

Confirmation Bias, Overconfidence, and Sunk CostEdit

Pons and Fleishmann told reporters that they were very confident in their results and that they had observed them many times[15], yet they seemed to avoid disconfirming evidence and took every positive experiment as support for cold fusion. They repeatedly avoided questions from CalTech researchers, who were attempting to replicate their experiments with higher quality equipment.[16]

After Pons and Fleischmann invested years and over $100,000 of their own money into cold fusion research[17], they likely felt a need to deliver positive results due to the Sunk Cost Fallacy.

Low FalsifiabilityEdit

The statement "Cold fusion is possible" has very low falsifiability, meaning that it is very hard to prove the statement "Cold fusion is not possible". The idea that cold fusion is not possible is based on current scientific theories. The Lawson Criterion is the currently accepted model that describes the criterion for determining whether a combination of density, confinement time, and plasma temperature will result in a net positive energy output in fusion reactions. The formula estimates 30 million degrees or more are required for a net positive fusion reaction.[18]

Ultimately, cold fusion researchers are challenging well-accepted theories. As Frank Close says: “There is no theoretical reason to expect cold fusion to be possible, and a vast amount of well-established science that says it should be impossible." Close was involved in efforts to replicate the original 1989 experiment, but was unsuccessful.[19]

This begs the question, should we be investigating something just because we can't rule it out completely? Does the small chance of revolutionizing energy make it worth investigating, despite not having theoretical grounds suggesting that cold fusion is actually possible?

Current State of Cold FusionEdit

Stigma around cold fusion has not completely faded. Currently, only a fraction of scientific journals accept work on the subject, though the general disposition is changing. Thousands of papers have been published on the matter, and a growing network has created books describing the science, reviews for nontechnical audiences, and educational websites. At least eight countries are invested in cold fusion since the potential benefits are too great to ignore.[5]

U.S. Naval ResearchEdit

In 2004, a group from the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, including Martin Fleischmann, published a paper on palladium cathode experiments. The paper again argued that there was excess heat and net power gain through the cell.[20] In 2019, the U.S. Navy applied for a patent for a fusion device.[21] The device described is definitely not cold fusion, reaching temperatures over 200 million degrees Celsius.

Google's ResearchEdit

Google has been researching cold fusion since 2015.[19] According to Google, they are doing it for the following reasons:

  • The potential upside is massive
  • The research pushes energy measurement technology which has benefits to other fields
  • It lets them investigate an underexplored field with scientific rigor

Google pursued three possible methods of cold fusion, one being very similar to that of Pons and Fleischmann.[19] None of their experiments produced results anywhere near sustainable cold fusion, but the scientists did feel that some of their results warranted further research. Some scientists approved of the scientific rigor that Google brought to the field while others believed they should have stayed away from cold fusion.[19] Curtis Berlinguette of the University of British Columbia, a principal investigator involved in the project, said "This is what we are supposed to do as scientists."[19]


  1. a b Farlex. (2013). Cold Fusion. The Free Dictionary.
  2. a b Ball, P. (2019, May 27). Lessons From Cold Fusion, 30 Years On. Nature.
  3. Yanes, J. (2019, March 22). "Cold Fusion: Anatomy of a Scientific 'Fraud'." OpenMind BBVA.
  4. Green Tech Talk. (2018, August 3). What is Cold Fusion?
  5. a b Storms, E. (n.d.). "The Present Status of Cold Fusion and its Expected Influence on Science and Technology. Innovative Energy Policies (4.1).
  6. Gibbs, M. (2012, November 20). Cold Fusion and Unintended Consequences.
  7. a b Beene, J. and Snoswell M. (2013, January). LENR – Anomalous Heat. Chava Science.
  8. Greshko, M. (2019, May 29). Cold Fusion Remains Elusive – But These Scientists May Revive the Quest. National Geographic.
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  10. Texas A&M reports cold fusion success. (1989, May 22). UPI.
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  12. No Support for Cold Fusion From BNL/Yale Experiment. (1989, May 5). Brookhaven Bulletin.
  13. Ouellette, Jennifer. (2011, December 23). Could Starships Use Cold Fusion Propulsion?. Discovery News. Retrieved May 06, 2020, from
  14. Cold Fusion Research: A Report of the Energy Research Advisory Board to the United States Department of Energy. (1989). United States: The Department. Retrieved from
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  16. Browne, Malcom. (1989, May 3). Physicists Debunk Claim of a New Kind of Fusion. The New York Times. Retrieved from
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  18. Lawson, J. D. (1957). Some Criteria for a Power Producing Thermonuclear Reactor. Proceedings of the Physical Society. Section B, 70(1), 6-10. doi:10.1088/0370-1301/70/1/303
  19. a b c d e Gibney, E. (2019, May 27). Google Revives Controversial Cold-Fusion Experiments. Retrieved May 06, 2020, from
  20. Szpak, S., Mosier-Boss, P., Miles, M., & Fleischmann, M. (2004). Thermal behavior of polarized Pd/D electrodes prepared by co-deposition. Thermochimica Acta, 410(1-2), 101-107. doi:10.1016/s0040-6031(03)00401-5
  21. PAIS, S. (2019). U.S. Patent No. US 2019/0295733 A1. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.