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Nuclear Fusion

Energy can be produced by the fusion of small atomic nuclei.

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Credit: StevenBKrivit
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gas-ColdFusionCell-SRI-Intl-McKubre.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Being a copycat is usually considered a bad thing—except in science. This picture shows a physicist, named Michael McKubre, working in his lab. For decades, Dr. McKubre has been trying to copy, or replicate, research demonstrating cold fusion. The idea of cold fusion has been criticized repeatedly by many other scientists. But the potential rewards of cold fusion are so great that Dr. McKubre keeps working on it.

Why It Matters

  • Cold fusion refers to nuclear fusion that takes place at room temperature. Most scientists think that nuclear fusion can occur only at very high temperatures, like those inside stars. If nuclear fusion could take place at low temperatures, it would be possible to use it to generate electricity.
  • Producing energy from cold fusion would solve many of our problems. It would produce no air pollution or dangerous nuclear wastes. Fuel for cold fusion would also never run out. It uses hydrogen, which is the most common element in the universe. There is a huge amount of hydrogen available on Earth in ocean water.
  • In 1989, two physicists named Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann claimed to have discovered a method of cold fusion. However, their work could not be replicated. Other researchers performing similar experiments could not obtain the same results. Pons and Fleischmann also violated so many ethical rules that they were soon drummed out of science.
  • Ever since then, a few other scientists have been searching for a way to achieve cold fusion, including Dr. McKubre pictured above. Watch his interview in the following video. It takes a look at the history of cold fusion research, as well as its status as of 2009 when the video was made: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4967330n

What Do You Think?

Learn more about replication in science and the case of cold fusion at the links below. Then answer the questions that follow.

  1. What is deuterium? Where is it found? How is it involved in nuclear fusion?
  2. In 1989, physicists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann claimed they had achieved cold fusion in their lab. How did they say it occurred? What evidence for fusion did they report they had observed?
  3. At the same time as Pons and Fleischmann were researching cold fusion, another physicist, named Steven Jones, was also studying cold fusion. What evidence for fusion was Jones looking for? Did he find it?
  4. Jones said he was publishing his research results soon. He asked Pons and Fleischmann to be co-authors, to which they agreed at first. But then Pons and Fleischmann jumped the gun and published sooner that they had agreed upon with Jones. Why did Pons and Fleischmann publish their research results so quickly, without more testing or replication of the results? Why was their research report accepted for publication without replication?
  5. What are some ethical rules of science that Pons and Fleischmann broke?
  6. Not every experiment in science needs to or should be replicated. Why was it especially important to replicate Pons’ and Fleischmann’s research results?
  7. Pons' and Fleischmann’s work was so thoroughly discredited that cold fusion came to be equated with “junk” science. What was the status of cold fusion research as of 2009, when the video above was made?
  8. What do you think? Is cold fusion possible? Should scientists keep trying to achieve it?

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  1. [1]^ Credit: StevenBKrivit; Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gas-ColdFusionCell-SRI-Intl-McKubre.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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