Volume 40, Issue 1 (January 1995)
Comprehensive Forensic Analyses of Debris from the Fatal Explosion of a “Cold Fusion” Electrochemical Cell
Selected components of explosion debris from the SRI International incident of January 2, 1992 were subjected to forensic analyses to elucidate potential causes of, or contributing factors to, the explosion. Interrogation of the debris encompassed nuclear, chemical, physical, and materials investigations.
Nuclear studies for the determination of tritium and neutron-activation products in stainless steel and brass were conducted. No evidence for signature species indicative of orthodox nuclear events was detected. The inorganic and particulate analyses were likewise negative with respect to residues of unexpected chemical species. Such target compounds included conventional explosives, accelerants, propellants, or any exceptional industrial chemicals.
Materials characterization identified the type of stainless steel used in the manufacture of the electrolytic cell as one relatively high in Mo concentration, probably type 316. Metallurgical analyses of the cell vessel wall and its detached base provided no evidence of corrosion or hydrogen embrittlement, leaving only ductile failure of the weld as contributing to the incident. The weld was found to have missed the center-line of the step joint, and the average penetration of the weld was measured to be 54%.
The GC-MS analyses of trace organic components in the explosion debris provided a most interesting result. Although no evidence of organic explosives, oxidizers, or other unusual compounds was detected, the presence of an organic oil in the interior of the electrochemical cell was established. It is likely that the source of this oil was lubricating fluid from machining the metal cell components. If residues of hydrocarbon oils are present during “cold fusion” experiments, the potential exists for an explosive reaction in the enriched oxygen atmosphere within the pressurized headspace of an electrolytic cell. It is possible that the oxidation of organic oil contributed to the total energy inventory, and perhaps the initiation, of the subject explosion.