Arthur C. Clarke: The Man Who "Predicted"
Cold Fusion and Modern Alchemy
(Originally Published November,
1998 In Infinite Energy Magazine Issue #22)
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
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,
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
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.
Clarke's June '98 Essay in Science, by E.F. Mallove
2001: The Coming Age of Hydrogen Power,
by A.C. Clarke