The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 32.0°F | A Few Clouds

MIT professor may publish papers on cold fusion

By Linda D'Angelo

Peter L. Hagelstein '76, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, has submitted four papers providing a theoretical explanation for cold fusion to the Physical Review Letters, according to a MIT News Office press release.

These papers, described by Hagelstein as a "first look assessment," deal with the quantum, collective, and coherent effects of a deuterium fusion model related to the experiment recently conducted by researchers at the University of Utah. Their extraordinary results, first reported on March 23, have spurred numerous laboratories to attempt the experiment.

DD fusion, which Hagelstein considers an "exotic reaction," involves the fusion of two deuterium nuclei (deuterons) to form a helium nucleus, which contains two protons and two neutrons. Unlike the energy in normal gaseous plasma reactions, the 23.8 million electron volts produced per reaction of two deuterons are not released as dangerous gamma rays, which in this amount would have killed the Utah researchers. Rather, the energy remains within the palladium lattice in the form of heat.

The quantum mechanical properties of the metallic palladium lattice are also involved in the "considerable enhancement of the fusion rates at low temperature," Hagelstein contended. Quantum tunneling enables deuterium nuclei to overcome strong electrical repulsive forces, thus allowing the nuclei to fuse, according to the paper. Hagelstein also describes a "coherent" fusion rate that depends "linearly on the number of deuterons present" in the lattice.

The purpose of the first paper, as stated in its introduction, was "to provide a very simple model for exploring nuclear reactions at low temperature in the presence of a lattice." The paper elaborates on the DD fusion equation, which yields "much higher transition rates at low temperatures." But the calculated reaction rates, although containing a "very different dependence on temperature and density than that of conventional rates," do not account for the effects reported by Utah researchers.

The second paper attempts "to build up a theory" to explain the reported cold fusion experiments in terms of a reaction-driving non-thermal distribution of excited many-particle states. This paper also contains Hagelstein's speculation on how cold fusion is initiated. "Natural background radiation and cosmic ray background appear to be. . . promising as sources of initiation" because they involve "charged components with masses matched approximately to the deuteron mass," he writes.

Hagelstein addresses the observance of substantially reduced levels of both neutrons and tritium in the fusion reaction in his third paper. An understanding of this effect is important in order "to minimize radioactive waste in fusion reactors," Hagelstein explains. He concludes that if his model is correct, then "relatively clean energy generation is possible at low fusion rates."

The final paper brings all the pieces together to describe "the overall mechanism for coherent fusion." Hagelstein contends that cosmic rays can start the process. Electrical current, like the battery that fueled the Utah experiment, "plays a similar role in enabling the fusion," Hagelstein speculates. A "very large number of fusions" can then follow this initial fusion event, according to Hagelstein.