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infinite energy

Arthur C. Clarke: The Man Who "Predicted" Cold Fusion and Modern Alchemy
(Originally Published November, 1998 In Infinite Energy Magazine Issue #22)
A.C. Clarke with his DogsCompiled by Eugene F. Mallove

"To predict the future we need logic, but we also need faith and imagination, which can sometimes defy logic itself."
— Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future

Arthur C. Clarke might not remember that he really did "predict" cold fusion, so successful have been his many other predictions of technological and scientific breakthroughs — notably many milestones in spaceflight, including his own invention (in 1945!) of the geosynchronous communications satellite. Yet there it is in my well-worn 1964 Bantam Books edition of Clarke's Profiles of the Future.

It appears on many pages, but its most startling form is on page 153: "We must remember, however, that nuclear engineering is in roughly the same position as chemical engineering at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the laws governing reactions between compounds were just beginning to be understood. We now synthesize, on the largest scale, drugs and plastics which yesterday's chemists could not even have produced in their laboratories. Within a few generations, we will surely be able to do the same thing with the elements." Sorry, Arthur, you were a few generations too conservative— we'll forgive you for that! The catalytic transmutations that you predicted are occurring, in their most primitive forms, in cold fusion cells today.

Following this description in Profiles, Clarke describes the conventionally understood catalytic nuclear reactions that occur in the Sun, which convert ordinary hydrogen to helium— the first steps in what he says "might be christened 'nuclear chemistry.'" He continues: "But there are other ways of starting reactions, besides heat and pressure. The chemists have known this for years; they employ catalysts which speed up reactions or make them take place at far lower temperatures than they would otherwise do...Are there nuclear, as well as chemical, catalysts? Yes, in the Sun, carbon and nitrogen play this role. There may be many other nuclear catalysts, not necessarily elements. Among the legions of misnamed fundamental particles which now perplex the physicist— the mesons and positrons and neutrinos— there may be entities that can bring about fusion at temperatures and pressures that we can handle. Or there may be completely different ways of achieving nuclear synthesis, as unthinkable today as was the uranium reactor only thirty years ago. The seas of this planet contain 100,000,000,000,000,000 tons of hydrogen and 20,000,000,000,000 tons of deuterium. Soon we will learn to use these simplest of all atoms to yield unlimited power. Later— perhaps very much later— we will take the next step, and pile our nuclear building blocks on top of each other to create any element we please."

Well, we can't have expected Arthur to have predicted that palladium, much less ordinary nickel, would be the initiating catalysts of the cold fusion-transmutation revolution, but they are. He was thinking of exotic catalytic nuclear particles. Yet he did allow that there could be "unthinkable," "completely different ways" of achieving nuclear synthesis.

It is interesting that on his chart of "The Future," on the very last page of Profiles, under "Physics," Clarke places the invention of "nuclear catalysts" somewhere between the years 2020 and 2030. (This is on page "235" no less, for those who are fond of numerological coincidences.) Under the "Materials and Manufacturing" column he has "Fusion power," meaning hot fusion, of course. Well, hot fusion didn't come in 1990 and will probably never come, because it will not be needed, but then again— a nice coincidence— 1990 is just about 1989, the year of Cold Fusion Day, March 23.

Arthur may well have predicted even the critics of cold fusion. Concluding these nuclear catalyst passages, he writes: "In this inconceivably enormous universe, we can never run out of energy or matter. But we can easily run out of brains."

On page 19 of Profiles, Clarke writes: "...even when the existence of atomic energy was fully appreciated— say right up to 1940— almost all scientists would have laughed at the idea of liberating it by bringing pieces of metal together. Those who believed that the energy of the nucleus ever could be released almost certainly pictured complicated electrical devices— 'atom smashers' and so forth doing the job. (In the long run, this will probably be the case; it seems that we will need such machines to fuse hydrogen nuclei on the industrial scale. But once again, who knows?)" There again is Clarke's openness to great possibilities— doubting the notion that a simple fusion reactor could be developed, but holding open the possibility. "Who knows?", indeed! Barely a quarter of a century after these lines were penned came Fleischmann and Pons.

On page 143 comes an oblique version of the cold fusion prediction: "Perhaps the forced draft of space technology will lead us fairly quickly to a lightweight power cell, holding as much energy per pound as gasoline; when we consider some of the other marvels of modern technology, it seems a modest enough demand." That remark was in the context of energy storage, not power generation. Furthermore, cold fusion cells will have enormously greater energy storage density than gasoline. Even Dr. Randell Mills' "superchemistry" explanation of cold fusion excess energy has a 200 HP automobile going 100,000 miles on a tankful of ordinary water (see Infinite Energy, No. 17).

Even a remarkable technological seer, such as Clarke, can sometimes fall short and pen remarks that contradict his more penetrating visions. He also writes (page 143): "It may well be— indeed, at the moment it appears very likely— that fusion plants can be built only in very large sizes, so that no more than a handful would be required to run an entire country. That they can be made small and portable— so that they could be used to drive vehicles, for example, appears most improbable. Their main function will be to produce huge quantities of thermal and electrical energy, and we will still be faced with the problem of getting this energy to the millions of places where it is needed."

Alas, no one is perfect, but Arthur C. Clarke had nearly perfectly clear vision of how to go about the business of technology prediction— as Jed Rothwell recounts in his more encompassing review of Profiles of the Future.

Related Articles

Arthur C. Clarke's June '98 Essay in Science, by E.F. Mallove
2001: The Coming Age of Hydrogen Power, by A.C. Clarke

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