From the archives: Nothing but a Dirty Film? Polywater – the cold fusion of the 1960s Bill Penny The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 4, Issue 6, from 1990.

In the history of modern science there have been several disputes, sometimes quite heated, over controversial phenomena which were later shown not to exist. These are examples of what is sometimes called pathological science. Examples of pathological science are sometimes raised in discussions on the paranormal partly because they are instances where conventional science can become very similar to the paranormal – see, for instance, Dave Love’s article on cold fusion in The Skeptic 3.4.

Pathological science is of relevance to paranormal research because it shows how researchers can mistakenly come to believe in the existence of a phenomenon. It shows how mistakes, self-deception, and careless or hurried research can lead to mistaken beliefs. But in the hard sciences, such as chemistry and physics, as the weight of evidence against the phenomenon increases, most supporters are able to accept they were mistaken.

The two classic examples of pathological science are N rays and polywater. I will discuss N rays in a future issue but in this article I would like to present the scientific ‘discovery’ which inspired Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle with its lethal ‘Ice 9’-polywater.

In 1962 Nikolai Fedyakin was working in a laboratory in Komstroma, a city about 1 90 miles from Moscow, investigating the behaviour of pure liquids in very narrow (about 0.003 mm diameter) glass capillaries. He found that over a period of a month a column of liquid about 1 .5 mm long formed at the top of some of the capillaries, where previously there had been no liquid. Even odder than this separation of a pure liquid into two parts was the fact that the liquid in the top of the capillary was denser that the original liquid below it. His publication of these findings in a widely read Soviet science publication marked the start of the strange story of polywater.

Fedyakin’s report aroused the interest of some scientists in Moscow, especially Boris Deryagin, the director of the Surface Forces Laboratory at the Institute of Physical Chemistry in Moscow. As early as the 1930’s he had conducted research into how liquids very close to solid surfaces differed structurally from liquids in bulk. Deryagin and his colleagues began by repeating – and improving – Fedyakin’s original experiment until it only took a matter of hours to collect a sample of this modified liquid several millimetres long. To try to prevent impurities getting into the liquid, they took great care over the liquids and equipment they used. However, they found that the modified water they produced had very different properties to normal water: it froze at -30 degrees Celsius, boiled at 250 degrees, was 15 times more viscous and its density was 10% to 20% greater. It was this modified water which was later given the name polywater.

Between 1962 and 1966 Deryagin’s laboratories published ten papers in a small circulation Soviet journal, and in 1965 Deryagin presented details of his work at an international chemistry conference in Moscow. Despite all this activity, western scientists were still not properly aware of the importance of the claims being made. Partly to blame for this was the way in which the papers actually understated the importance of their contents, and an inefficient translation system at the conference.

This situation changed with the 1966 Faraday Discussion at the University of Nottingham, where Deryagin presented a summary of his team’s discoveries. He also speculated that polywater was more stable than ordinary water, with the implication that all water would eventually change into polywater, though this could take a very long time. He claimed that this work on modified liquids proved that liquids could exist in several forms. This phenomenon – called polymorphism – is known to occur in solids. For example, the element carbon can exist as graphite or diamond, and disappointingly, even diamonds are not forever: they change extremely slowly into graphite. As for polywater, Deryagin suggested that it could be caused by the solid surface of the capillary altering the forces between the water molecules to such an extent that the modified water could exist independently of the surface. Surprisingly, there was little reaction from the audience to his work or his speculations.

While he was in Britain, Deryagin visited several British laboratories which were interested in his work on polywater, and subsequently a number of British groups, including one led by Brian Pethica of Unilever, began research into polywater. The Russians continued their research but neither they nor anyone else was ever able to produce more than very small amounts of polywater. In 1967 Deryagin attended the Gordon Conference in the USA but once again his report on polywater was received with little interest. But things began to change with the 1 968 Gordon Conference, where Pethica announced that his group had verified Deryagin’s work. Most of the audience were skeptical but one scientist, Robert Stomberg of the US National Bureau of Standards, was interested enough to investigate further.

In fact, it was due to the US Office of Naval Research that the idea began to be taken seriously in the US. They were alerted in 1968 when the regular summaries they received recording developments in European research began to mention polywater. They reacted by setting up a conference in February 1969 exclusively for US scientists, to increase their knowledge about polywater. In this it was very successful and it was to America that the story now moves.

In early 1969 there were many speculations in the scientific journals on polywater, but the first serious report was in Nature (12 April 1969) in which Pethica summarised his findings. He confirmed some of Deryagin ‘s results but warned that until polywater became available in large amounts it would not be known whether it was just an impure solution or actually a new form of water.

Then, on 24 May, an Anglo-American team, which included Ellis Lippincott, professor of chemistry at the University of Maryland, announced that using spectroscopy they were sure that polywater was ‘a new form of water and not the result of casual contamination.’ They concluded it must be a polymer of water molecules.

But it was a paper which appeared in the 27 June issue of Science which more than anything else aroused the interest of US scientists in polywater. This paper, by Lippincott, Robert Stromberg and others, reported that after comparing 100,000 different spectra with the polywater spectrum they were sure that polywater was a new substance, which they believed was produced when the quartz capillary tube caused the water molecules to form a polymer. Their tests for contamination revealed minute quantities, but these were too small to have caused the difference between the polywater and water spectra. Lippincott and his colleagues increased the publicity they were receiving by travelling widely to different countries to give lectures on polywater.

There was much reporting and speculating on polywater in the scientific press but it was not until a lecture given by Lippincott in New York on 11 September that the news was published in the media worldwide. The media would probably have soon lost interest in this subject if it had not been for a letter F J Donahue sent to Nature. He wrote that polywater was ‘the most dangerous substance on Earth’, fearing that if molecules of polywater got outside the laboratory they could, because they were more stable than normal water, act as nuclei around which normal water could change into polywater, eventually turning Earth into a Venus-like planet. From this point the mass media were to play an important – but bad – role in the polywater affair.

In contrast to the growing support for polywater, at the end of 1969 a letter was published in Nature from a researcher into glass solubility suggesting that polywater was just silica contaminated water. In 1970 a team led by Dennis Rousseau of Bell Laboratories reported in Science (27 March) that careful chemical analysis showed that polywater was simply water contaminated with sodium, potassium, chlorine amongst other things, but hardly any silicon. In June many of the leading people in the polywater debate attended a conference at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania Deryagin dismissed the contamination explanations by saying that these were the result of careless work, and that his own samples contained only minute levels of contamination. The revelation by Lippincott that his polywater spectrum was almost certainly caused by contamination shook the belief of many supporters. Little new evidence was presented, and most of the scientists left as they had arrived, unconvinced by either side in the debate.

Little new data emerged during the rest of 1970 but many articles continued to be published including one by Deryagin on the evidence for polywater (Scientific American, September 1970). Robert Davis of Purdue University received much publicity without having published a single paper on polywater at that time. To support the contamination theory on polywater he was able to show an article from an obscure Russian journal in which a chemist reported that in 1968 an analysis of samples of Deryagin’s polywater suggested it was caused by contamination. Its chemical composition suggested it could be of human origin, possibly sweat. This was reported in the New York Times of 27 September. In October Davis appeared in Time magazine with a photo of him at work, wringing sweat out of a T-shirt.

The year 1971 began with Pethica and his colleagues announcing that the recent work of others led them to think that polywater was a contaminated solution rather than a polymer of water. Deryagin’s reply to this showed that he still believed in polywater. Chemical analysis continued to provide evidence against polywater and by now much of the argument had moved away from whether polywater existed to what the cause of the contamination was. The sweat and carelessness theories continued to have some support but it was the silica contamination explanation which was receiving increasing support. Headlines in Nature such as ‘Polywater and Polypollutants’ and ‘Polywater Drains Away’ reflected how attitudes were turning towards acceptance of contamination.

During 1972 and early 1973 papers on polywater were still being published, though in decreasing numbers. Nothing of significance on polywater was reported until the 17 August Nature in which Deryagin stated that more careful work had shown that polywater was caused by impurities in the water. The composition of these impurities depended on the method of preparation, but always included silicon (Scientific American September 1973). This can be considered the end of the polywater affair though the results of polywater research continued to be published for the next few years.

It is now believed that the properties of polywater are due to high silica concentrations. But is is also known that it could not all come from the quartz capillary tubes because quartz is not soluble enough to produce the required concentration of silica. This fact had been used by Deryagin against the claims of silica contamination. This is one of the questions which Felix Franks, in his definitive Polywater (MIT Press, 1981), claims had still not been satisfactorily answered when he wrote about these events in 1981. The negative label attached to polywater research may have delayed investigation into the exact nature of the contaminants, but what is now clear is that polywater was not at all what it originally appeared to be.

The post From the archives: Nothing but a Dirty Film? Polywater – the cold fusion of the 1960s appeared first on The Skeptic.

From the archives in 1990, Bill Penny looks at the history of the pseudoscientific cold fusion, free energy movement
The post From the archives: Nothing but a Dirty Film? Polywater – the cold fusion of the 1960s appeared first on The Skeptic.