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Solid-State Fusion: The Future of Clean Energy? (Podcast Transcript)

Co-host Anna speaks with PhD students Eman Elshaikh and Jonah Messinger about the science and sociology of solid-state fusion, its moonshot promise of abundant clean energy, and the lessons we can learn from history that will allow this fascinating field to reach its full potential. Learn more at ⁠⁠.

The following is a transcript of the conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full episode here.

[Anna:] Today we’re talking about solid-state fusion, a type of advanced nuclear energy that is pretty next-level. It does not require radioactive materials, and the metallic materials that it does require are found plentifully in nature. When these metals are exposed to hydrogen isotopes at high temperature, it creates a nuclear reaction that gives off excess heat. And this new way of producing energy would be super scalable, from a city to a car to a smartphone.

Solid-state fusion has the potential to replace all fossil fuels and be the ultimate abundant, clean energy source that is safe, reliable, and affordable. That’s why I’m excited to have two people from the field on the podcast today: Eman Elshaikh and Jonah Messinger are both Ph.D. students doing incredible work to push solid-state fusion forward.

We’ll be discussing everything from the physics to the history, to the current challenges and opportunities. So let’s get into it. Welcome to Spaceship One, Jonah and Eman. Feel free to introduce yourself and your work. 

[Jonah:] Yeah, so my name is Jonah Messinger. I’m a Ph.D. student in physics at the University of Cambridge.

My introduction to the solid state fusion field– more colloquially known as cold fusion– started in about February of 2022. So I’m actually quite new to the field. The field itself is sort of considered to be rather heretical in the physics community. And before February of 2022, that was sort of my impression of the field. 

I was working at an environmental think tank called the Breakthrough Institute, an ecomodernist think tank, so we believe in technological solutions to environmental problems. Someone on the board co-authored an article in Nature, “Reopening the Cold Case on Cold Fusion”. And so when I saw that Nature article, I started to look into the field, and that started a year-and-a-half-long process that’s taken me to today and will take me into the future.

So I’m, very, very excited about this field and excited to be talking about it. 

[Anna:] So excited to have you with us– and also you, Eman! I know you’re a science historian, so maybe you could give us a little bit of background, not only on yourself but also [speaking] to what Jonah mentioned about the view of the physics community about cold fusion not being so favorable because of the history. I know the Pons and Fleischmann experiment might not be familiar for those of us born in the ‘90s or later because I think it happened in the ’80s– is that right?  

[Eman:] Yeah, ‘89. Yeah, so my name is Eman. I’m a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago– actually, a Ph.D. candidate– and I’m writing my dissertation about the history and anthropology of fusion, more specifically cold fusion, and I also have worked as a public historian writing for high school audiences and non-scientists trying to translate some of this. Across both my work in both spaces, I’ve found it really fascinating to think about this as a case study of what it would mean to evaluate whether a science is real or not. Like, is there a “there” there? 

In 1989, when Fleischman and Pons– who, it must be said, were very credentialed and celebrated scientists in their own right, [as] electrochemists at the University of Utah– when they announced their findings, it was the biggest news ever. I mean, some of my professors remember getting faxes all the time about what people were trying to figure out in terms of how to repeat their experiment. And so there was this so-called replication crisis. 

People were excited, but they were also really rushing to reproduce these experiments. There were some places that reported that they had reproduced them, there were many places that reported that they hadn’t. And for many reasons, which are part of the subject of my dissertation, some of those things stuck a little better than others. Within a year, reputations were destroyed, people had really taken a position on where they stood on this, and it became increasingly difficult to call yourself a cold fusion proponent because it became synonymous with being a pseudoscientist.

There’s a really interesting story there about what it means to reproduce an experiment, what kind of knowledge you need, who’s reproducing it and why it matters, [and] how the government agencies [that were] involved affected what kind of hearing some of these researchers got. There’s a lot to talk about there, but what has emerged is a science that everyone pronounced dead, but still lingers on.

I think that’s what kind of caught my attention, is that there’s still a lot of people working on this and now there’s new people entering the field and looking at it differently. I think it’s a story that needs to be told, and something that we need to keep thinking about as we are in a climate crisis and need to start getting a lot more creative about what kinds of ideas we look into in terms of clean energy.

[Jonah:] Yeah, I mean, I think the potential blue sky vision would be small-scale, solid-state nuclear energy devices– you buy a cell phone [and] never need to charge it, [or a] computer, TV, et cetera. [And] you would have the potential to completely decouple nuclear energy from radioactivity, [and] to fundamentally change the energy landscape. So that’s the promise, but at this point we are very much in the basic science realm. [Solid-state fusion] hasn’t been proven beyond a reasonable doubt to the wider scientific community. 

For me, what convinced me that there was, as Eman put it, some “there” there, was really a variety of experiments by different research groups over the decades [showing] unambiguous nuclear products– so things like neutrons flying out from samples, or high energy charged particles. These are things [where] it’s really hard to find explanations that don’t require some sort of a novel nuclear process. 

And I think that there’s another misconception about the emergence of physical phenomena. You know, if someone says they saw something, then you could just do the same thing that they did and you should see the same result, and if you don’t, then it’s not real. That’s a very idealized linear framework for scientific discovery. 

I’m writing an article right now with a colleague of mine on the emergence of different phenomena, like the transistor, or like nuclear fission, actually. Most physicists don’t know that the idea of breaking apart a nucleus would have been considered heretical in the 1920s, even for most of the 1930s. And so I think there’s lots of lessons to be learned from a historical perspective about the emergence of different scientific phenomena that I think is quite relevant here.

[Anna:] Absolutely. So I kind of want to back up a bit. Nuclear falls under two categories– there’s nuclear fission, which is the one that we’re all familiar with. That’s what we think of as nuclear today, and that’s the breaking apart of atoms to create energy. And then there’s nuclear fusion, which is fusing those atoms together.

And with fusion, there’s also two different types, mainly, right? There’s the cold and there’s the hot. And there’s only the cold because there’s the hot. With hot fusion, you’re trying to, like, recreate a miniature sun. That’s why it’s hot fusion. It’s millions of degrees. 

So we’re trying to figure out a way to do that at a much lower temperature with cold fusion– trying to bring these hydrogen atoms that don’t want to fuse, bring them together so that we can create energy. Feel free to correct any of that, but that’s my understanding. 

[Jonah:] No, that’s a really good backdrop. So I guess one way to think about this is that if you take two hydrogen nuclei– so the centers of hydrogen atoms– and get them really, really close to each other. You know, they don’t want to come close to each other because they’re positively charged. Just like if you were to try to stick two positive ends of a magnet [together] they would repel each other– and you’d really have to push really, really hard to get them close to each other– the same thing’s true here. 

These hydrogen nuclei are pushing away, they don’t want to come close to each other, but if you get them close enough to each other, there’s another force. That’s the electromagnetic force that’s keeping them apart, but there’s another force, a nuclear force– a strong nuclear force in particular– that if you get them close enough together, they’ll bind together. They’ll fuse. It’ll overcome that repulsion that you would feel if you were sticking the two magnets together. 

So if you fuse two hydrogens together, the resulting nucleus that comes from the fused nuclei weighs ever so slightly less than the sum of the masses of the two nuclei that reacted together. And that missing mass gets converted into pure energy. So that’s the origin story for nuclear energy, and in this case, fusion energy. 

As you mentioned, we know that there’s a giant fusion reactor, for example, in our solar system, the sun. The name of the game is basically, dump as much kinetic energy– as much heat energy– as you can, so that these nuclei are moving around really fast, and they have enough energy to push back against the repulsion.

And so the concept of cold fusion, from that frame of reference, doesn’t really make sense, right? It shouldn’t be possible that you could fuse nuclei at these low temperatures. And so I think my reaction, if you had asked me two years ago, to cold fusion, would have been just that: it can’t be possible, it doesn’t make sense. But it turns out, actually, that there’s a variety of quantum physical phenomena collective effects. 

In the conventional fusion picture, when you’re getting all of these atoms really, really hot, eventually they get so hot that you actually go to a state of matter beyond a gas. So if you heat up a gas enough, you get something that’s called a plasma. And a plasma is where the electrons are ripped off of the atoms. So you’ve got this sort of negatively charged electron and then a positively charged nucleus. So it’s sort of like a charged gas if you will. 

And the fundamental assumption that you would make when you’re doing these sort of fusion calculations is that the chances that those two nuclei come close enough together to fuse is completely independent. It has nothing to do with any other pairs of hydrogen that might be interacting with one another. But in a solid metal framework, that assumption doesn’t quite hold. 

These cold fusion experiments take place in something called the metal hydride, which is basically a metal that absorbs hydrogen really well. And the hydrogen can literally go inside the metal structure. And if you apply certain conditions to these metals, the assumption that the pairs of hydrogen that are interacting are independent from one another starts to break down. 

And so my area of interest, particularly, is on studying these conditions and trying to understand how some of these interactions between different pairs of hydrogen can start to unleash possibilities that on the face of it would seem at least highly, highly improbable, if not impossible.

[Anna:] Yeah, that sounds like a super exciting thing to work on. What would you say are the top barriers to progress in this field? And how can we work to overcome those barriers? 

[Eman:] You know, very broadly speaking, [the barriers are] political priorities in terms of scientific funding and what kind of science gets funded. We don’t have a lot of money for basic research– much less for basic research that’s been maligned for decades. And then that kind of links up to another barrier, which is sort of an inherent conservative attitude in at least funding agencies about what kinds of things are worth funding.

I think another barrier might be internal to the community: [an] inability to clarify a vocabulary that’s shared, [or] a set of experiments that’s shared. You know, there’s just so much diversity that it’s hard to get clear claims coming out that everyone can evaluate because there’s just so much clamor and so much contest. Even if it’s in good faith, it ends up not translating well to people outside the community who are already not primed to take it seriously. 

So I think all three of those probably contribute to some difficulty, and I think the solid state fusion project that Jonah and I are both working on is working towards alleviating some of those, both in terms of trying to talk about this field in a way that is more cohesive and translates things a little better to mainstream lay people, scientists, [and] investors. [We] try to educate people about what the field is and what they’re doing, but also try to lay out the merits of continuing this basic research, even if it doesn’t seem like a high political priority.

[Jonah:] I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Department of Energy has, for the first time in 30 years, started to fund cold fusion through their innovation arm, ARPA-E, [the] Advanced Research Project Agency for Energy. 

So we have a research program now– that’s not got a lot of money, like Eman mentioned– but it’s enough to really do good science, and I’m working on one of those teams. And it’s a big deal that the Department of Energy is funding this. Kudos to the leadership there because they really looked at the literature and said there’s enough here that seems anomalous that we should be studying this. But I definitely agree that there is a deep conservative milieu in the science field broadly.

I think that culture of scientific austerity has creeped into scientific investigation itself. The general scientific community has become quite uncomfortable with scientific ambiguity. I really don’t think that many people understand the degree to which nuclear fission, when it was first proposed by Ida Noddack, was chastised for about six years, I think, until it became clear that actually, she was spot-on: that the nucleus was breaking up. 

Ironically, Enrico Fermi won the Nobel Prize for his neutron bombardment of uranium. They weren’t calling it nuclear fission then, but that’s what he was doing. He won the Nobel Prize with the wrong concept of what was happening. He thought that nuclei were actually getting bigger, not breaking up into smaller pieces. It’s interesting that there was such ambiguity: they were just straight-up wrong for six years. 

Which doesn’t mean that every out-of-left-field idea is correct. The point is that there is a framework for scientific discovery that I think conventional institutions of science today have become unable to navigate. When you look at the cold fusion community, one of the surprises for me was the number of people who work on this field who make real progress, [who] are quite literally retired. This is essentially their hobby. 

I’ve been to people’s homes who have essentially cold-fusion reactors on the third floor of their home or something. And these people put out work that I think is actually super interesting, that [has] potentially real, live nuclear anomalies that conventional nuclear theory can’t explain. And that will never get published in the mainstream research journal.

And I should be clear, a lot of the nuclear anomalies that I point to in the literature are not from hobbyists. They are from mainstream research universities or government labs. But I think the point remains: you have different communities that are doing science, but there is no way that those communities can talk to each other. One of the things that I’m really interested in is sitting at the intersection of those two communities. 

I know what it looks like to do an experiment, and characterize it thoroughly. I know what it looks like to get that into a paper. But I’m also comfortable going into a hobbyist lab, understanding the experiment they’re doing and trying to bring some more rigor and top-notch tools that physical science has to offer to those experiments, to really probe further and decide, you know, is this actually an anomalous result? Is this actually something that is as of yet unexplained? Or is there some sort of error?

It doesn’t help that the scientific community has gotten more conservative [and] less ambitious. It’s one of these things where, from within the community, you can’t see that there’s been that deterioration. But to me, it’s quite clear, looking at it from this lens of working on cold fusion, where there has been decades of good work trying to do experiments and share data within the community. 

We have a national conference on condensed matter nuclear science– so we have our own conference. [And] the field has their own journal. Most journals will not accept, [or] might not even review cold fusion papers, and that goes for Nobel prize-winning physicists. 

I mean, Julian Schwenger, who won the Nobel Prize– I would bet a lot of my small stipend that very few people in the physics community know that Julian Schwenger was working on cold fusion in his last years of life. I think they’d be quite surprised at that. But even he couldn’t get published in the American Physical Society’s conference proceedings and journals.

There is a real palpable stigma. Eman is braver than I am to do her dissertation on fusion. But I think that there is a recipe, to take experiments that have shown some reasonable amount of reproducibility in the past, that show results that would be, if true, impossible to assign to a non-nuclear process– and bring the top-notch tools to science that one might have access to at a national lab or at a top research university.

[Then] you can make a publication– that might not explain cold fusion, but can prove that there is [an] anomalous, inherently nuclear result. And I think if you publish such a result, the mainstream scientific community will move quite quickly. You know, there’ll still be plenty of skepticism, but you will have a large influx of labs that you never thought would be working on cold fusion start to work on that subject. 

And I think that’s ultimately what we need. I think it’s an incredibly difficult process to understand and to probe and there’s so many different parameters that play. And I think you just need thousands of labs across the world working on it to really sort of crack the code. 

[Eman:] I think that the ambiguity is something that should be a starting point. And unfortunately, a lot of people in the scientific community take that as a sign that it’s not worth pursuing. You know, as kids, we were taught about scientific curiosity in a certain way, and the more I’ve studied modern science, since the Cold War, it hasn’t felt like that ever sets a priority. 

One of the reasons it’s inspiring to talk to a lot of scientists in this field is that they retain this curiosity and this commitment to just finding out “the thing”. And of course, many of them do have an eye on applications, but I think it’s a very, very long timeline, and I think many of them know that. 

And despite knowing that the potential applications of this may exceed their own lifetimes, they still have poured hours and hours of thankless labor into it. I think we owe a lot to them and I really hope that people are able to tolerate ambiguity and connect with that curiosity enough to continue to work on this really interesting field.

[Anna:] I’m so glad you brought that up, because science is about being curious. At its most fundamental level, science is about being open to new information and pursuing that and figuring it out. So, do you feel like there could be more room for science communicators in this field, particularly, that speak to the value of investing more resources into it? You know, it’s not just a really cool scientific endeavor; it’s also potentially game-changing for humanity.

[Eman:] I think that’s really important. I think we need to get more creative about what kind of scientific communications we have. 

You know, on our team at the Anthropocene Institute, we’re trying all kinds of different techniques to communicate with people and with all different stakes in the field. We had this really great discussion about, well, what would it take to come up with this, like, almost portable experiment? 

In this field, we’ve had all this talk about [how] we need the reproducible experiment, the reference experiment– this idea that we just need the thing that will prove something, whether we prove that something is happening, [or] that there’s an anomaly, that it’s nuclear. You know, there are various stages of proof that are being asked for here.

But, if we look at, for example, the famous experimentalist Faraday, that’s a technique that he used. He tried to create a portable experiment. He tried to give a description that was sufficient for people to be able to witness the phenomenon. And in a lot of ways, he was not just an experimenter, but a scientific communicator himself, because the way he set up his laboratory, he essentially would perform the experiment. I mean, people used to come into these labs as though they were theaters and witness this. 

And of course what he presented then was a much more polished and cleaned-up and persuasive experiment. We like to think of experiments as things that just show themselves, but you know, experiments have to be persuasive. They have to have a rhetoric that shows that something is happening. A good experiment has the right parameters to do that. 

As Jonah said, for many people, heat is just simply not persuasive enough and a nuclear product is. That doesn’t mean that the experiments that have excess heat are not good experiments, it’s just that for their particular audience– for example, mainstream physicists– they’re not persuasive. 

I’m always inspired, when thinking about how to communicate with scientists, to think about how other scientists in the past have managed to make their experiments exciting. And what does it mean for an experiment to look rigorous? I mean, we know that many, many fields when they first started were not taken seriously– even something as big as quantum theory now. When it started, people weren’t very interested in taking it seriously. 

Studying those transformations is a really, really great reservoir of information and insight for science studies now. If scientists are looking to apply it, they can take lessons from this. And what’s fascinating about this community is that they’re doing this. I mean, I have seldom seen groups of scientists so readily try to understand the history and sociology of science so that they can advance their own field. 

I think that scientific communications could do a lot for the field, but I do think we need to think outside the box and be really creative with what we use as inspiration.

[Jonah:] Yeah, I think part of the problem here is that most scientists know next to nothing about the history of their fields. They think they do, but they don’t.

Wolfgang Pauli, who was a famous physicist and laid some of the groundwork for quantum theory, has this hilarious quote: “…One shouldn’t work on semiconductors. That is a filthy mess. Who knows whether any semiconductors exist?”

Another person who had experimental evidence for significant phenomena that allowed transistors to really explode [did] a really great interview with the American Institute of Physics. No one thought that the transistor would become a huge thing, or it was not clear at all. It wasn’t clear that this discovery [he] made in [his] Ph.D. would be so significant. [He] was just getting a Ph.D.

This is sort of the rule, not the exception. In the moment, you don’t know you’re in the moment. And in the moment, it’s inherently ambiguous and uncertain. And then in hindsight, it all makes sense. 

And I think that in hindsight, the general scientific community will look at this period of the last 20 years or 30 years and say, like, “Oh yeah, of course, it all makes sense in hindsight.” 

But the other thing I was going to mention about science communication is, I think oftentimes people think that science communication is a one-way street from science to the public. But I think maybe even more important is, as Eman was highlighting, [the] communication within and across scientific fields and domains.

The fusion science field has been inextricably, fundamentally tied to plasma science and plasma physics for decades. But a lot of these phenomena that I think are fundamental to providing a theoretical scaffold that starts to explain how cold fusion could be possible– from a plasma physicist’s perspective, [they] have absolutely nothing to do with plasma physics. Nothing at all. And they’re much more applicable in the study of light-matter interaction. 

And that’s actually the sub-department that I’m at at Cambridge. But the people who I work with would never make the connection that the principles that they work on– that are totally well established, uncontroversial, and sort of banal– could have really radical implications at the nuclear energy scale. And so there is this sort of disconnect, [and] inability to transfer concepts and ideas across artificial boundaries that have been set up. 

You know, it’s not impossible to do this. I was at a conference a few months ago, presented a poster, [and] didn’t mention cold fusion once, but I had a bunch of colleagues totally understand how I was making these connections. [I was] connecting, again, principles that take place at the low energy scale, like in this light-matter interaction field, and saying that these concepts could readily be applied and actually are applied at the nuclear scale already today. That field already exists: quantum nuclear science. 

The full implications of these dynamics are not fully appreciated, I think. And I think part of that is a communications issue, with [an] artificial knowledge gap – or knowledge barrier, really– that prevents providing the context for the fusion community to understand why something like cold fusion or low-energy nuclear reactions rely on these collective effects that I was drawing earlier.

So, not thinking about all these hydrogen pairs interacting with each other independently, but actually thinking about one collective system that is working together. They’re not independent from one another. That’s a totally foreign concept to the general way that people think about fusion science in a plasma physics context.

[Anna:] So it sounds like we need a lot more communication and collaboration between different fields in science in order to advance solid-state fusion– and in general, just a lot more people working on it. From what I can gather as a non-scientist, this field is very complex, challenging, and even frustrating at times. So I have to ask: what keeps you going? What motivates you to do this work day in and day out?

[Jonah:] Well, I’m naive, so I think that this is all gonna get settled quickly, but that’s because I’m naive. 

What keeps me working in this field is that I think that the potential implications are totally radical, and my scientific interest is really working on things that have what I perceive to be a misplaced stigma or taboo– a field that needs to be broken open and where there’s really opportunity to make real scientific impact. It’s just a more interesting, exciting, dynamic space that I’ve come to quite like. 

So, between that and the societal implications, it’s something that I’m quite committed to working on for the foreseeable future, even if my naive hopes for the field don’t pan out.

[Eman:] I share a lot of what Jonah said. I have a whole lot of tangled reasons– one is my own curiosity. Why was this so suppressed for so long? Why now? What’s changing? What’s happening in our particular moment of climate crisis, that moonshot science is on the table again?

You know, people are talking about getting to Mars, and there’s all this interest in things that previously were in the domain of pathological, or pseudo, or fringe, or science fiction. And all of a sudden now people are looking at them a little bit differently. And so I’m really interested in that process.

Also, you know, [I’m] rooting for the underdog in many ways. I’ve befriended many of these scientists and want to really interrogate what’s at the heart of a lot of these taboos and these places we don’t go in science. It really makes me want to, as a scholar, think more deeply about what this thing is we call science and what its authority is. We need its authority very badly in a time of climate crisis. We need its authority in times of pandemics. But we also aren’t thinking very critically about how that authority is built and maintained and what it’s made of. 

And above all, there’s a question that a friend of mine asked me that stays stuck and lodged in my head as I do my work. I basically moved to a new neighborhood during the pandemic, [so] I didn’t really have many social contacts, as many of us didn’t, but I used to go on walks in the park and a friendly neighbor of mine, who’s now someone I consider a friend, who was a retired chemist, started chatting with me about all kinds of scientific mysteries surrounding water and solid materials that he was really interested in. 

Over our many conversations, I found myself increasingly not questioning him for things that I’m told are not serious, but questioning my own skepticism that we’re told we’re supposed to have and asking myself, by what authority am I supposed to dismiss him? He asked a question that motivates my research to this day, which was: “Where’s the error in my claim?” 

You know, [it got me] thinking about how we can go about answering that question, and why we often are met with a refusal to answer that question. People aren’t willing to evaluate a specific claim, but rather, want to dismiss things out of hand because of the kind of person who works on them, [or] because they’ve worked on cold fusion before [and] therefore, we can’t take them seriously. 

But also, what are the stakes in not answering that question, in the context of climate insecurity? And why can’t we try to answer that question? That really got me started and that research has gathered momentum, and I’m still doing it now. I’d really love to do an oral history of this field because if nothing else, so much committed work has been done that I think is worth remembering and honoring.