2001: The Coming Age of Hydrogen Power
(Originally Published November,
1998 In Infinite Energy Magazine Issue #22)
by Arthur C. Clarke
Fellow of King's College, London; Chancellor, International Space
University; Chancellor, University of Moratuwa
(Address to Pacific Area Senior Officer
Logistics Seminar (PASOLS) on March 29, 1993, Hilton Hotel, Colombo.
The audience included Adm. Larson, Commander-In-Chief of the Pacific
Fleet, Lt. Gen. Stackpole of the Marines, and leading officers of
the military forces from many other countries, including Australia,
India, Japan, Korea, Russia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and others.)
Admiral Larson, Lieutenant General Stackpole,
Major General Abayaratna, distinguished guests--I'm very happy to
be here today, even though I should really be in Washington this
week. On Thursday, all my friends there will be gathered in the
Uptown Theatre to celebrate the 25th anniversary I can't believe
it! of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Now, that movie provides a very good example of how
difficult it is to predict the future. You may recall that in the
film we showed the Bell System and PANAM; well, they've both gone,
long before 2001. But I'm happy to see that the Hilton, which we
also showed in 2001, is still here, though not yet in orbit!
This proves how impossible it is to predict social
and political developments: who could have imagined what's happened
in Europe during the last few years? However, we can, to some extent,
anticipate technological developments by observing what's
going on in science and engineering. But the problem there is predicting
when things will happen, even though one can be quite certain
that they will.
A good example is provided by my 1945 paper on communications
satellites, which I imagined would be large, manned space-stations.
When I wrote that, World War II was still in progress, and I was
working on Ground Controlled Approach Radar, which had the then
enormous number of something like a thousand vacuum tubes in it,
at least one of which would blow everyday. So it was impossible
to believe, back in 1945, that TV relay stations could operate without
a staff of engineers changing tubes and checking circuits. But of
course, the transistor and the solid state revolution came along
within a few years, and what I'd assumed would have to be done by
large manned stations could be achieved by satellites the size of
oil drums. So everything I imagined would be done around the end
of the century happened decades in advance.
Now, I'm going to say very little about communications
satellites and the communications revolution, because you are all
very familiar with what's happened here. Essentially anything we
want to do in this area can now be done. And satellites have not
only transformed communications, but meteorology and navigation.
You all know what the GPS (Global Positioning System) did during
Desert Storm. However, the satellites I have always been particularly
interested in are what I call "Peacesats" the reconnaissance
satellites which have been largely responsible for the Cold War
never becoming a hot one, by creating a transparent world, and vastly
reducing the threshold of uncertainty. But I won't say any more
about satellites, because (if I may be allowed a commercial) I've
just written a whole book about them, How The World Was One.
So now I want to change the subject completely, to
something perhaps even more important than the communications revolution.
But first I'd like to mention a bit of forgotten history.
In December 1903, Orville and Wilbur staggered off
the ground in North Carolina, and made the first controlled flight
in a heavier-than-air machine. As a result, the North Carolina state
motto is "First in Flight" which you military men may well
think a rather unfortunate choice of words.
Yet for five years, Washington didn't believe that
the Wright brothers had actually flown because everybody knew
it was impossible: leading scientists were still writing papers
proving it couldn't be done. Not until the Wrights went to France
and started giving public demonstrations did the boys in the War
Department say, "My goodness, these things really can fly.
Perhaps they may even be useful for reconnaissance. We'd better
look into it." And they did five years late. Well, history
has just repeated itself, with what's been (perhaps inaccurately)
named "cold fusion."
You all know, of course, that the Sun is powered by
the fusion of hydrogen atoms, when they combine to make helium.
Tremendous efforts have been made to reproduce this reaction on
earth and produce virtually unlimited amounts of energy; the only
successful attempt to do this so far is the hydrogen bomb. Literally
billions of dollars have been spent in efforts to reach the multi-million
degree temperatures in the heart of the Sun, where this reaction
occurs. One day these experiments will succeed, but so far only
a few percent of the input energy has been obtained, for very short
periods of time.
However, just four years ago, two scientists named
Pons and Fleischmann claimed to have achieved "cold fusion" at
room temperature in certain metals saturated with deuterium,
the heavy isotope of hydrogen. Under these conditions, they reported
that they were getting out more energy than they put into the system.
This, of course, created a worldwide sensation, and many laboratories
tried to repeat the experiments. They all failed, and Pons and Fleischmann
were laughed out of court. That was the last anyone heard of them
for a couple of years.
But meanwhile, there had been an underground movement
of scientists who believed that there might be something in all
this business, and started experiments of their own--often in defiance
of their employers. Pons and Fleischmann went to France just like
the Wright Brothers! --and are now working in a laboratory near
Nice, financed by a Japanese consortium, Technova. Even more significant,
Japan's Ministry of Industry and International Trade (MITI) is investing
millions of dollars in an effort to commercialize the new technology.
The laboratories of NIT - the Japanese telecommunications
organization - recently announced positive results, and just before
last Christmas, NTT started selling "Do-it-Yourself" Cold Fusion
Kits for $565,000 each. I don't know how many of them were snapped
up, but that price sounds a bargain for a discovery that could change
In October 1992, the Third International Cold Fusion
Conference took place in Nagoya, Japan, and was attended by over
300 scientists. The highlights of the conference have been summarized
in a 34-page report by Professor Peter Hagelstein, of MIT's Research
Laboratory in Electronics. Other reports confirming positive results
have been issued by the U.S. Navy Air Weapons Center, the U.S. Army
Research Office in Japan, SRI International, and many others.
It is now beyond serious dispute that anomalous amounts
of energy are being produced from hydrogen by some unknown reaction.
The term "cold fusion"--"C/F"--has stuck because no one can think
of anything better. However, the sceptics who originally pooh-poohed
the whole thing did have a very good point. If it really was
fusion, the experimenters should be dead! Where were the neutrons
and gamma rays and tritium and helium--the lethal "ashes" such a
reaction should produce? Well, they have now been detected--but
in quantities far too small to account for the energy liberated.
The theoretical basis of C/F is therefore still a major mystery--as
was the energy produced by radioactivity and uranium fission when
they were first discovered.
Now, what are the implications of this? I'd like
to give several scenarios.
The first: there's a conspiracy of hundreds of scientists
in dozens of countries. They're either totally incompetent--or they're
superbly organized, and out to make a killing in oil and coal shares.
Slightly more probable: C/F is a laboratory curiosity,
of great theoretical interest but no practical importance. Frankly,
I doubt this. Anything so novel indicates a breakthrough of some
kind. The energy produced by the first uranium fission experiments
was trivial, but everyone with any imagination knew what it would
The next scenario: C/F can be scaled up to moderate
levels - say 100-1000 kilowatts. Even that could be revolutionary,
if cheap and safe units can be manufactured. It would make possible
the completely self-contained home that Buckminster Fuller envisaged,
because the electric grid would no longer be necessary for domestic
distribution. And it would be the end of the gas-fueled car--none
too soon...Automobiles could, quite literally, run on water--though
perhaps only heavy water!
The third possibility is that there are no upper
limits: in that case, the Age of Fossil Fuels has ended. So has
the Age of CO2 buildup, acid rain, and air pollution.
Twenty years ago, when OPEC quadrupled oil prices,
I remarked, "The age of cheap power is over--the age of free
power is still fifty years ahead." I may have been slightly too
However, coal and oil will always be essential raw
materials for an unlimited range of products - chemicals, plastics,
even synthetic foods. Oil is much too valuable to burn: we should
Now please fasten your seat belts: after these modest
day-dreams, I want to really stretch your imaginations...
Back in 1982, I published 2010: Odyssey II
and dedicated it to my friend, Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and to Academician
Andrei Sakharov, then in exile in Gorky. I knew that Sakharov had
worked on low-temperature nuclear fusion (as well as on the H-bomb!)
and in the novel I suggested that, in his enforced solitude, he'd
invented a spaceship engine based on these principles...
He didn't, of course, so that's a piece of fictitious
history. However, three Russian scientists who have indeed been
working on nuclear propulsion for rockets have now got into the
cold fusion act, and they have just published some startling results
in Physics Letters A, one of the world's leading scientific
journals. They are obtaining about five times their energy input
in gas mixtures, not solids, and at temperatures of up to
1800°C. Now this is not exactly "cold" fusion, but it's certainly
ice-cold compared with the tens of millions of degrees the hot fusioneers
are talking about.
And it's very interesting indeed from the point of
view of rocket propulsion. If a plasma fusion rocket could be developed,
it would open up the solar system, just as the airplane opened up
this planet. It's not generally realized that the energy cost of
going to the Moon is less than a hundred dollars in terms of kilowatt
hours of electricity. The fact that the Apollo round tickets cost
about two billion dollars per passenger is a measure of the chemically-fueled
Well, back to Earth. I'd like to read you a
letter which I sent to Vice-President Al Gore last week; it should
have reached him by now:
18 March 93
Dear Mr. Gore,
>COLD FUSION (?)
I am happy to learn that you are being briefed on the
above--perhaps misnamed--subject, as it is impossible to
imagine anything of greater potential importance from both
the economic and geopolitical points of view.
After initial skepticism, I have now seen so many positive
reports from highly respected organizations (e.g.
NTT- which is already marketing experimental kits in Japan!--ONR,
U.S. Army Research Office, SRI, MIT) that there can be no
further doubt that excess energy is being produced by some
previously unknown process, not essentially nuclear. I am
sure that your staff has already seen much of this material,
and I also refer you to Representative Swett's statement
in the Congressional Record for 16 February, 1993.
Whatever the source of the energy, which I am sure will
be elucidated in the fairly near future, the sixty-four
trillion dollar question is: (1) is this merely a laboratory
curiosity of no practical importance, or (2) can it be scaled
up for industrial and perhaps even domestic use?
If Number (2) is correct, the consequences are immeasurable.
It would mean essentially the end of the "Fossil Fuel Age"
and an era of cheap, clean power. The environmental benefits
would be overwhelming; at the very least, concern with CO2
build-up and acid rain would vanish.
Clearly, no effort should be spared to resolve this matter
speedily, by supporting scientists who are obtaining results
(and, perhaps, discouraging those who have been obstructing
them). One witness you might call is my friend, Dr. George
Keyworth II, President Reagan's Science Advisor and an expert
on fusion physics, who remarked in a recent letter to me:
"The conventional path we've been pursuing is trying to
build a bridge across the seas instead of inventing a boat."
Perhaps "cold fusion" may give us the lifeboats Spaceship
Earth so badly needs!
Arthur C. Clarke
And as Stop Press, I should mention that Representative
Dick Swett has just made the same point in a statement to the House
Committee on Energy (26 March). Let's see if it produces more energy
than went into it.
In conclusion: with monotonous regularity, all throughout
history, religious crackpots have predicted the imminent end of
the world. I have about 90% confidence that I'm now doing something
And this time, it's good news.
1. "The Third International Conference on Cold Fusion," Drs. Victor
Rehn and Iqbal Ahmad (U.S. Office of Naval Research, Japan).
2. "Anomalous Nuclear Reactions in Condensed Matter: A Report on
the Third International Meeting on Cold Fusion," Dr. Iqbal Ahmad
(U.S. Army Research Office [AMC] Far East).
3. "Summary of Third International Conference on Cold Fusion in
Nagoya," Peter L. Hagelstein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Research Laboratory of Electronics.
4. "Nuclear Product Ratio for Glow Discharge in Deuterium," A.B.
Karabut, Ya R. Kucherov and I.B. Savvatimova. Physics Letters
A ,170 265 (1992).
5. "Deuterated Metals Research at SRI International," 4 March 1993.
Arthur C. Clarke's June '98 Essay
in Science, by E.F. Mallove
Arthur C. Clarke: The Man who "predicted" Cold
Fusion and Modern Alchemy, by Eugene Mallove