PITTSFORD-Sixty-eight-year-old Tom Freeman of Pittsford is the kind of maverick scientific researcher early 20th century electrical wiz Nikola Tesla would have been proud of.
Freeman, a retired General Dynamics nuclear researcher, worked on fusion experiments as far back as the 1970s. Freeman retired to Vermont in 2003 with his wife of 20 years. He still conducts research, mostly computer simulations, on low-cost approaches to cold fusion.
Freeman believes the controversial atomic energy source has great potential for the future and might even help fight the effects of global warming in a big way.
"I worked for General Dynamics," Freeman said, "and I performed some early mathematical work concerning the feasibility of cold fusion when I was living San Diego. It intrigued a few researchers like me early on."
Freeman said cold fusion has been around for decades but didn't enter the public imagination until 1989.
At that time, award-winning chemists Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton (U.K.) and Stanley Pons of the University of Utah shocked the world when they reported that a small, tabletop electrolytic cell they tinkered with generated a huge amount of heat via a mysterious nuclear process that occurred at room temperature.
"Pons and Fleischmann literally put cold fusion on the map," Freeman said, "although some were experimenting with it, at least on paper, since the 1950s."
Other researchers have had similar results to the 1989 experiments, Freeman added, but many in mainstream physics dismiss the idea.
"Some consider cold fusion to be pseudoscience," he said, "but of course what they say is nonsense. Cold fusion is very real and it certainly produces a potential of vast amounts of energy. That's why we need to being doing a lot more research into this awesome process. Our government is more interested in solar and wind energy-which is fine-but it ignores cold fusion, just because of the N-word, nuclear.
Cold fusion produces zero greenhouse gases and scant waste material. It's relatively inexpensive to setup a fusion experiment. At this time, Freeman said, the Japanese and the French are leading the way in this research field. "America is far behind," he said.
Despite his contempt for conventional thinking about energy development in the U.S., Freeman does credit the Los Alamos National Laboratory for the work it has done in cold fusion.
"It's the only national lab that seems to be interested in the process," he said. He also credits the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction author, inventor of the communications satellite, and the creator of "2001, a Space Odyssey", with supporting the idea.
"Arthur C. Clarke was a genius with several science degrees to his credit; he was a strong believer in cold fusion and often wrote about its future practicality," he said.
So, what exactly is cold fusion? Cold fusion is a form of nuclear energy. Nuclear reactions begin with neutrons. When fusion is produced by plasma, like in our Sun, it's called called hot fusion or thermonuclear fusion. The reaction emits neutrons, radioactive tritium, and other material. Mainstream science says nuclear fusion reactions cannot start without a significant input of energy, so cold-fusion is impossible.
Freeman built a small fusion reactor that looked like a dead-ringer for the fictional "Mr. Fusion" reactor that powers Michael J. Fox's time-machine sports car in the popular 1980s movie "Back to the Future": A Dewar vacuum bottle containing an electrolytic cell of palladium metal surrounded by water.
The photograph accompanying this article approximates what Freeman's cold-fusion rig looked like; it illustrates the basic hardware used for generating cold fusion in research laboratories.
"Cold fusion research appears to show that nuclear reactions can be triggered without the added energy or even with the neutrons used in hot fusion. Cold fusion is a nuclear process, much like hot fusion and nuclear fission-but it's the cleanest kind of nuclear energy; the primary waste is helium gas," Freeman said.
"By the late 21st century, I believe cold fusion will be the primary power source that will power civilization; it can reduce the use of fossil fuels that cause global warming," he added.
While the political debate rages over global warming, time will tell if Freeman's cold-fusion research will pay off. Most mainstream scientists would probably brand him as a misguided researcher working on the fringe of physics, but history may prove otherwise.
And then there's this quote, from a Jan. 16, 1880 news story in the New York Times, to remind cold-fusion skeptics that conventional wisdom can often be wrong: "... After a few more flashes in the pan, we shall hear very little more of Edison or his electric lamp. Every claim he makes has been tested and proved impracticable."