He was supposed to be the keynote speaker at the 16th Annual International Conference on Condensed Matter Nuclear Science in Chennai, India which brings low-energy nuclear reaction scientists from the International Society of Condensed Matter Nuclear Science together from around the world, but the massive snowstorms in the U.S. prevented Dr. Robert Duncan from attending.
James Martinez took that as an opportunity to interview Dr. Duncan, the University of Missouri Vice Chancellor for Research, on his Cash-Flow show. The hour-long interview revealed a thoughtful and deliberative researcher who is exploring a science that could potentially solve all of the world’s energy problems. The development of a table-top nuclear-sized power generated from a small piece of metal, like palladium or nickel, infused with hydrogen, found in water, could power the entire planet for tens of millions of years.
Dr. Duncan had not been involved in any related research until he was asked by the 60 Minutes television program in 2009 to investigate Energetics Technologies’ cold fusion claims. Energetics Technologies is a young energy company that had at that time made some outstanding claims of excess heat using a modified Fleischmann/Pons cold fusion cell. Dr. Duncan was chosen by CBS to investigate, having made a career on “making extremely accurate measurements of heat output in open thermodynamic systems”.
Dr. Duncan, initially skeptical, reviewed the data and realized “there was something going on here”. His first review of the literature, and talks with some of the researchers involved, documented at least 200 instances of the excess-heat effect, and this is what prompted him to accept CBS’s offer to examine Energetics’ lab. Today, Dr. Robert Duncan is a strong and active researcher in the field of cold fusion, technically called low-energy nuclear reactions.
Describing his first impressions of the announcement of Drs. Fleischmann and Pons back in 1989, he noted that the claims were not accepted by the physics community because of the initial problems in reproducing the experiment, even though it was not the first time this had occurred.
The first report of a possible nuclear reaction using a deuterium-palladium system occurred on September 17, 1926 in Berlin, Germany when the very well respected scientists Friedrich Paneth and Kurt Peters saw something anomalous. When they could not reproduce the effect, they had to retract their findings.
Dr. Duncan continued with analogy when he described the first silicon transistors and superconductors. In both cases, technology was being developed before understanding of the underlying processes of material science was understood.
In the 1950s when silicon transistors were discovered, materials science was just beginning. During those first years, batches of transistors were made and tested, and the ones that worked were kept, while the ones that didn’t work were thrown away. As much as 80% of the batches had to be thrown away because they didn’t know what was causing them to work or not.
Today the process control in fabricating silicon transistors is well-known. The certainty in quality comes from the purity of silicon and added dopants, but this knowledge is the result of decades of research and hundreds of billions of dollars. A similar situation occurred with superconductors.
Duncan says this may be the same thing happening again with cold fusion research. If this is some kind of fusion process, the scale in which the reaction takes place is very tiny, distances of 1/10,000 the size of a hydrogen atom and time scales on the order of an attosecond, a duration of 10e-18 seconds. Given these extremely small scales involved, the coarseness of control makes the materials environment difficult to determine. This may be why using nanoparticles of palladium, super-small particles sized on the order of a billionth of a meter, and heavy hydrogen (deuterium) appear to now give a 100% reproducibility rate of excess heat, as they seem to load-up automatically.
But Dr. Duncan also cited the recent announcement from Andrea A. Rossi‘s group in Bologna, Italy on January 14 that used a different system of light hydrogen (regular hydrogen) and nickel.
Differences and similarities between the palladium-deuterium and hydrogen-nickel systems are not fully understood. The elements palladium, nickel, as well as platinum, another metal important to low-energy nuclear reactions, are in the same column of the periodic table, and thus should behave similarly.
He has not closely examined the Italians’ system, and since they are withholding information about their device, citing trade secrets, he cannot yet determine the validity of their claims. The patent process has been a problem for scientists developing these clean energy technologies to protect their intellectual property, he said.
In the interview, Dr. Duncan responded to the fundamental question of how this technology will be developed. Will a few elite own this new energy technology, withholding it from the world through, as James described “red-tape and bureaucracy”, or will the entire planet benefit with a “free flow of information” from an ultra-clean power source that uses a fuel of water?
Responding, Dr. Duncan said he “has a basic commitment to the open exchange of information”, but this is why the patent and trademark office was established. “You need to have an openness for exchange of information, but at the same time you had to protect substantial private equity investments and efforts as well.”
He said a company building a better mousetrap may have spent hundreds of thousands, or millions, of dollars to do so, and it’s important that those who sacrificed to help create a new invention get their investment back.
“The main point is the United States Patent and Trademark Office was established with that understanding. Because when you prepare a patent, you are actually making a publication, and you are required to disclose openly all aspects that are necessary to repeat your invention. By doing so, you do exactly what we are discussing, you’re keeping in the public domain for public scrutiny and improvement, the major advance that you’ve obtained. And that’s the whole concept of being able to patent; it couples respect for private equity with an opportunity for open exchange which, certainly I know as a scientist, is critical for the advancement of any discipline.”
Doing research in a modern lab today is an expensive undertaking, and “money is never in academia, or never in scientific pursuits, an end in itself, but it’s always an important means to that end, it’s a way of moving forward.”
Promoting openness while respecting private investment is critical for the development of science. Dr. Duncan thinks “it’s unfortunate that the Patent Office in the United States rejects without review any cold fusion patent applications because, again, that makes it so people [scientists, inventors]…, many of them feel they have nothing but secrecy to fall back on. Whereas if they were able to make an open patent disclosure and be assured market protection for their private equity investors, then they’d feel much more confident about just putting everything out there and letting it be scrutinized by the open scientific method.”
“It really all comes down to the scientific method. The ability to describe very clearly what you’ve done, to have like-minded scientists scrutinize it and try to understand it and make improvements upon it.”
“That openness, that open exchange of information and ideas, inviting full scrutiny, criticism, skepticism, repetition of experiments as we’re starting to see in some cases today with the nanoparticle work, especially, and better repetition with some of the other methods of realizing this excess heat effect in cold fusion. As we start to see that occur, we must have that sort of open scientific exchange and I’d say that It’s really thriving fairly well today, because of the dedicated effort of the many scientists you’ve just mentioned.”
“Since there’s been so much angst developed, and this has become kind of like a pariah science unfortunately, I think that it’s unlikely we’re going to see much public investment in this in the United States, and let me say I’d love to be proven wrong. I think it would be a very good idea to see more funding of this.”
“It’s interesting that when this was reviewed in 2004 by the National Academy of Sciences, the NAS came back and recommended that well-controlled experiments in cold fusion be funded by public money just to avoid the the problem you’re mentioning and what surprises me is not only did that never happen, when you go and look at Wikipedia and other sources they’ll say that when this was reviewed by the government in 2004, they came to essentially the same conclusions as 1989. Well that’s not true. In 1989, there was alot more angst and people were ready to pronounce it completely a debunked area of research.”
“But in 2004, that committee came back and said where well-controlled experiments can be defined, they should be funded. But none have, to my knowledge, on public money. And that’s unfortunate, because just as you say, if the public invests in it, then the public owns it, whereas if its privately invested in, then you have to find some means like a patent to respect the private equity of those that have put either their money or other people’s money on the line.”
“And it’s not just some greedy person investing in science and trying to keep it secret. Alot of these major investments that made the silicon industry for transistors take off were securities that got bundled in very successful retirement accounts over many many years.”
“But with the patent office not being willing to review these applications even from the start, then that opportunity to respect private equity an get a similar open transparent discussion going where people can learn on and approve from inventions that others have made, will be very hard to achieve.”
“Now my prediction would be that, unfortunately, this will probably be done again with people resorting to trade secrecy, and again, …. I know alot of scientists who have been involved in this, naturally want to be open and transparent, but without patent protection, they’re left with nothing but trade secrecy to fall back on, and to protect, again, the private equity of their investors, and given that that’s the case, then I imagine what will happen, is this will remain a kind of opaque, kind of not transparent science, for that reason until, someone, possibly Rossi, or someone whose claiming such an outstanding result really proves it, and shows a black box that really does put out 20 times more energy than it consumes.”
“When somebody does that, then nobody really cares about the science, just the total energy output demonstration will be enough to kind of convince the world to jump in, but unfortunately, I wish we could get more of a public funding investment in this area of research, given how interesting and intriguing it is and I wish the patent office would review and scrutinize and potentially approve cold fusion patents. ”
“Now, granted we still don’t know fundamentally what’s going on in detail, but that’s again not too surprising because science is always in its own right, empirical, meaning its based on repeatability of experiments, rather than on whether you have confirmation in a theoretical model.”
Dr. Duncan says that scientists are always trying to rule out their hypotheses. He believes that if an idea can withstand repeated attempts to disprove it, then there must be something there.
While he declined to make a “magic prediction”, he did say it was quite likely that this [science] will someday lead to something of “technical significance”.
And he guaranteed one thing:
“If given these really tantalizing, empirical observations, that now hundreds of scientists have made all over the world, if we just say ‘wow that’s kind of interesting but we’re going to stick out heads in the sand and not explore it’, then I think we’d be remiss socially. I think we’d be failing our responsibility as scientists to tease out and understand these empirical results that we don’t understand because again, they often lead to things beyond our wildest imagination…”