HANOVER, N.H. – With global attention becoming increasingly focused on climate change, more and more scientific research is turning to advancements in clean energy. One researcher at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) has set his sights on cold fusion.
Cold fusion — or low-energy nuclear reaction (LENR) as it is referred to today — is a hypothesized type of nuclear reaction that occurs at, or near, room temperature. In 1989, two electrochemists, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, claimed they could produce nuclear fusion using their apparatus on a small tabletop. Their claims were tested, found to be unreliable and have mostly been dismissed for the last 30 years.
“Engineers talk about three main problems that we strive to solve: communication, transportation and energy,” said Dr. Benjamin Barrowes, a research electrical engineer at ERDC-CRREL in Hanover, New Hampshire. “Of those three, we continuously make incremental improvements, but energy is a big problem these days. Generating and using energy with the current inefficiencies has led to greenhouse gases, climate change and even wars. It’s a big issue, so if we had a new energy source, it would be a huge benefit to everybody.”
With the current climate crisis, interest in LENR has grown.
“LENR hopes to show that there are nuclear effects under near ambient circumstances,” said Barrowes. “If we can do that, if we can show that there is any nuclear effect going on, and document it and have it repeatable then scientists around the world would believe that there’s something happening. Then they could get involved to help figure out why it’s happening, how it’s happening and then hopefully exploit it for a new energy source.”
Barrowes is new to the LENR community and has only been exploring the process for the last few years.
“I’m only able to do this because of Department of Defense Funding Laboratory Enhancements Across Four Categories, or FLEX-4 funding,” he said. “ERDC has invested in cold fusion in fiscal years 2022-2024. We’re halfway through at this moment, and that has allowed me to do some preliminary research to get myself in the game.”
For his research, Barrowes often works with the metal palladium and different types of lasers.
“Palladium has a very special property in that it absorbs a lot of hydrogen or deuterium, which is hydrogen with an extra neutron,” he said. “When palladium absorbs this hydrogen, it’s theorized that under the right conditions, those hydrogen or deuterium atoms get close enough to fuse — that’s our cold fusion.”
After a recent experiment, Barrowes discovered two very interesting features when examining the palladium.
“There is a triangular patch of silicon located in the general area of where we positioned the red laser,” he said. “It’s about a 1-millimeter square area of silicon, and it’s thick in terms of these things — like 50 microns thick — and it’s ridged and brittle. I don’t know how it got there, but if I can show that it’s from a nuclear process, that would be big news.”
Barrowes plans to analyze the silicon to see if it is natural or made in a nuclear process.
“There is another area where we used a blue laser and that also has silicon,” he said. It’s not very much — only approximately 1 micron thick — but that is about the size of the blue laser, and it’s located in the spot where it was positioned. It’s fascinating. It could be contamination, or it could be nothing.”
With renewed interest in LENR, more opportunities for research are becoming available. Last year the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, or ARPA-E, announced a $10 million award to revisit cold fusion. ARPA-E is a U.S. government agency tasked with promoting and funding research and development of advanced energy technologies.
“This is big news in our community,” said Barrowes. “An agency’s finally funding this again, and the potential payoff could be huge. I’m collaborating on two of the research awards. It’s exciting.”