Twenty years ago it appeared, for a moment, that all our energy problems could be solved. It was the announcement of cold fusion - nuclear energy like that which powers the sun - but at room temperature on a table top. It promised to be cheap, limitless and clean. Cold fusion would end our dependence on the Middle East and stop those greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. It would change everything.
But then, just as quickly as it was announced, it was discredited. So thoroughly, that cold fusion became a catch phrase for junk science. Well, a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion - for many scientists today, cold fusion is hot again.
"We can yield the power of nuclear physics on a tabletop. The potential is unlimited. That is the most powerful energy source known to man," researcher Michael McKubre told 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley.
McKubre says he has seen that energy more than 50 times in cold fusion experiments he's doing at SRI International, a respected California lab that does extensive work for the government.
McKubre is an electro-chemist who imagines, in 20 years, the creation of a clean nuclear battery. "For example, a laptop would come pre-charged with all of the energy that you would ever intend to use. You're now decoupled from your charger and the wall socket," he explained.
The same would go for cars. "The potential is for an energy source that would run your car for three, four years, for example. And you'd take it in for service every four years and they'd give you a new power supply," McKubre told Pelley.
"Power stations?" Pelley asked.
"You can imagine a one for one plug in replacement for nuclear fuel rods. And the difference only would be that at the end of the lifetime of that fuel rod, you didn't have radioactive waste that needed to be disposed of," McKubre replied.
He showed 60 Minutes just how simple the experiment looks; there are only three main ingredients. First, there is palladium, a metal in the platinum family. Second, one needs a kind of hydrogen called deuterium which is found in seawater.
"Deuterium is essentially unlimited. There is ten times as much energy in a gallon of sea water, from the deuterium contained within it, than there is in a gallon of gasoline," he explained.
The palladium is placed in water containing deuterium and the third ingredient is an electric current.
The experiment is wrapped in insulation and instruments. They're looking for what they call "excess heat." In other words, is more energy coming out than the electric current puts in?
No one knows exactly how excess heat would be generated, but McKubre showed 60 Minutes what he thinks is happening.
At the atomic level, palladium looks like a lattice and the electricity drives the deuterium to the palladium. "They sit on the surface and they pop inside the lattice," he explained, using an artist's rendition of the lattice.
McKubre believes there is a nuclear reaction - possibly a fusion process like what happens in the sun, but occurring inside the metal, at a slower rate, and without dangerous radiation.
Scientists today like to call it a nuclear effect rather than cold fusion. At least 20 labs working independently have published reports of excess heat - heat up to 25 times greater than the electricity going in.
"This little piece of palladium metal has about a third as much energy as the battery in your automobile. So very small volumes, very small masses can produce large amounts of energy," he explained, holding a small piece of palladium foil weighing just 0.3 grams.
McKubre has been working on this since that first discredited claim of cold fusion made headlines 20 years ago.
"To work on this issue is almost to put your scientific credibility at risk and I wonder why you've done it?" Pelley asked.
"My belief is that if there's a one percent chance that Fleischmann and Pons were correct, and I now believe that possibility is 99 percent. I have a duty to work on it," he replied.
Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons amazed the world in 1989 with their cold fusion news conference at the University of Utah. Fleischmann in particular was one of the world's leading electro-chemists, and the announcement of room temperature fusion set the world on fire.