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Cold Fusion Heats Up
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Quirks & Quarks join host Bob McDonald
 

Quirks & Quarks December 13, 2003

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[Available Saturday 2 hours after broadcast].



Cold Fusion Heats Up

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Almost fifteen years ago, the world was taken by storm with an announcement by two electrochemists. Drs. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann claimed to have discovered a way of making cheap, safe power. But unlike most scientists, they didn't publish their results in a scientific journal, instead they took it directly to the media. The story of cold fusion had begun.

But cold fusion proved almost impossible to replicate. Other labs that tried to copy the original research were unable to repeat it. The original research was declared fraudulent and Pons and Fleischmann left the United States, their reputations ruined. Cold fusion was moved to the scientific back burner.

However, not everyone thought the original research was a hoax. Pons and Fleischmann had both been respected researchers in their field before their announcement. One of the scientists who believed in them was Dr. Michael McKubre. Today he's the director of the Energy Research Center at Stanford Research International. He's continued to pursue cold fusion research and thinks that within the next two years he'll have a working cold fusion reactor.

Working along side Dr. McKubre is Dr. Peter Hagelstein from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He's working out the theory behind cold fusion. If his model is correct it will help experimentalists build better fusion reactors.

Another researcher who believes cold fusion will work is Dr. Edmund Storms. A former scientist with The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Dr. Storms now maintains an international database of research into cold fusion. Today, about a thousand scientists from seven countries are trying different ways of generating power with cold fusion.

Watching all this with scepticism is Dr. Robert Park, a physicist from the University of Maryland. He isn't convinced that cold fusion is a real phenomenon, and won't be until we actually see a working cold fusion generator available.

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Hot Fusion's Cold Shower

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ITER design
ITER design - picture courtesy of ITER


For fifty years the promise of fusion power generated from hot fusion, the same thermonuclear reaction that occurs in the sun, has been fifty years away. The future of hot fusion is supposed to be ITER, the International Thermonuclear Reactor, a multi-billion dollar project that will build the largest fusion reactor yet, and finally create a self-sustaining fusion reaction. The decision about where ITER is to be built will be made soon, but the Canadian bid to host the project has withered on the vine. Dr. Ronald Parker, a professor of Electrical and Nuclear Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the former Deputy Director of the ITER project. He brings us up to date on fusion research, ITER, the next fifty years, and whether Canada's role in ITER is really dead.

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Bombardier Beetles

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Bombadier beetle
Bombadier beetle - Courtesy of Thomas Eisner and Daniel Aneshansley, Cornell University


The bombardier beetle is a remarkable animal. When threatened by a predator it uses an internal explosion to generate a boiling hot jet of toxic liquid, which can be discouraging for a hunter looking for a light snack. While this is a fascinating mechanism, Dr. Andy McIntosh, a professor of thermodynamics and combustion theory in the Energy and Resources Research Institute at the University of Leeds in England, thinks teasing out the beetle's secrets might be the key to a whole range of new technologies. He's particularly interested in using the beetle's squirting technology to create a device to relight jet engines that have gone out.

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Plastics Under Pressure

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Baroplastics
Baroplastics - Courtesy Dr. Anne Mayes


Plastic is a miracle material, but recycling plastics effectively is a devil of a job. Most plastics need to be heated and melted to be reprocessed into new material, but that same heat is damaging to the plastic, and degrades it into a less useful material. Dr. Anne Mayes, a professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, may have a solution to the problem of recycling plastics. She’s invented a new plastic that can be reformed under pressure instead of heat, and can be recycled over and over. If it can be produced economically, it could make for cheaper production and processing, and much more environmentally friendly recyclable plastics in the future.

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Question of the Week: Physics on a Swing

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Rex Woollard in Ottawa writes, "When you watch someone on a swing, you usually see them lean back and stretch their legs out forward on the pump stroke. Would it be more efficient to swing with the legs draped downward rather than outstretched, and how does pumping make you go higher anyway?"

For the answer, we go to the University of Saskatchewan where Dr. Andrew Robinson is in the Department of Physics and Engineering Physics.






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