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Research Profile - John Dash
Research Profile - John Dash

Energy like the sun

Squeezing hydrogen atoms together creates heat. It's what the sun does every day—using intense gravity to suck in hydrogen and squash it into a smaller and smaller space, until it fuses.

If you could squeeze hydrogen on Earth, you could produce the power of the sun and deliver plentiful, clean energy. Just one problem: Earthly methods of squeezing hydrogen use more energy than the power produced. Or do they?

Researchers around the world, including John Dash (pictured at left), professor emeritus of physics, are pursuing a way to make hydrogen squeeze itself, so to speak.

The metals titanium and palladium are sort of super sponges for hydrogen. Palladium can attract and absorb up to 900 times its own weight in hydrogen. And when that much hydrogen gets attracted into and squeezed onto the metal, cold nuclear fusion happens. (It's "cold" because no heat is used to squash the atoms together.)

Researchers at a handful of U.S. universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Illinois, are working on developing cold fusion to a scale where it could be useful. There might be more scientists working on the technology except for the stigma.

About 20 years ago, two scientists trumpeted to the press that they had created cold hydrogen fusion. Their claims made them the wunderkind of the age—instant Einsteins. But when only a few scientists of the many who tried could duplicate their claims, the study of cold fusion gained a reputation as pseudoscience and government funding fizzled.

With that kind of skepticism, only a few intrepid scientists, like Dash, continued to investigate cold fusion and its potential for safe and inexhaustible energy.

With funding from PSU and the U.S. Army Research Office, Dash got positive results with his first experiment. He and his student assistants continue to produce incremental improvements in heat output. Their efforts caught the eye of a private, anonymous donor, who has contributed $1 million to Dash's research.