As past seemingly spectacular breakthrough experiments on “Cold Fusion” have only managed to spectacularly disappoint and discredit the scientific reputation of everyone involved, it is understandable that most physicists have grown a little cautious with respect to experiments that sound like hey have been copied and pasted from a Star Trek screenplay.
Yet, there can be no doubt that actually inventing a method to effectively use fusion energy outside of multi-billion thermo-nuclear reactors that use as much energy as a small country just to produce magnetic fields to separate “the sun” inside from the rest of the world would be (not just) the scientific jackpot, and would most certainly buy a first class round-trip to Stockholm.
So UCLA scientists Brian Naranjo, Jim Gimzewski and Seth Putterman actually tried and, according to an article they published in Nature, may have come close to winning the jackpot – but – maybe not close enough. (I quote from the Economist)
By counting the neutrons and measuring the X-rays the researchers estimate that about 1,000 pairs of deuterium nuclei were fusing every second.
This is, as they are the first to admit, a long way from producing a significant amount of energy. And although they reckon they could boost the fusion rate 1,000-fold with better apparatus, that still might not reach the magic threshold of producing more energy than it takes to run the experiment. Beyond that, they are understandably unwilling to speculate.
This does not, however, mean that their device will have no applications. With only a little tweaking it could be turned into a handheld X-ray scanner, which would be a significant medical advance. Not yet a precursor to a starship engine, perhaps, but maybe an ancestor of Dr McCoy’s portable diagnosis machine.
Either way, if their experiment is replicable and survives the global test, they will have cleared the way for more researchers to once again engage in this kind of research without risking their pensions. I think, freeing science of institutionalised creativiy barriers would be an important result in itself.