America is so bogged down in bureaucracy and so unwilling to accept new thoughts and ideas that technology developed from cold nuclear fusion could be lost to foreign countries, a state official warned Wednesday.
"My concern is that if this nation doesn't get behind this, and put in a little money - $25 million would be nothing - I am afraid we will be upstaged," Ray Hixon, chairman of the State Fusion Energy Advisory Council, said. "That's the greatest concern I have."The council, charged with monitoring the expenditure of $5 million appropriated to the University of Utah's National Cold Fusion Institute by the Legislature, met Wednesday for its quarterly fusion update.
Committee members who heard technical reports from institute scientists, including fusion co-discoverers B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, were enthused over the institute's progress.
"I am more more than satisfied with the progress," said board member Clair F. Coleman, former CEO of Questar Pipeline Co. "I think it has been quite remarkable considering we started from scratch. In the face of considerable criticism from the scientific community, I think they have done remarkably well."
Institute researchers said they have now successfully replicated the initial Pons/Fleischmann experiments and have recorded both excess heat and tritium. They've now entered "Stage 2," trying to find out what triggers the thing.
Coleman, echoing sentiments of fusion scientists, said the development of commercial products likely still is "down the road."
"No one can really know if a practical device can result from this. It's a crap shoot in that respect, and I think the Legislature knew that to start with," Coleman said. "But there are interesting scientific developments here. In the end we are going to benefit from it."
It's been eight months since Pons, a U. chemistry professor, and Fleischmann, of Britain's Southampton University, announced they had achieved room-temperature, or "cold fusion," with rods of palladium inside electrically charged coils of platinum immersed in deuterium rich heavy water. While many researchers worldwide have duplicated the experiments, a Department of Energy panel recently called fusion "an illusion," and recommended against new federal funding for major fusion projects.
The state of Utah has allocated the largest sum for fusion research development in the United States. Although U. officials anticipate receiving $500,000 in federal or commercial grants by year's end, no out-of-state money has yet been awarded to the institute.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union, India and Japan are devoting substantial resources to fusion research and development with startling results.
In fact, two teams of Japanese scientists at universities in Nagoya and Osaka recently reported neutron emissions several thousands times higher than natural background rates normally observed in laboratories.
"My first thought when I saw that announcement was this is uncharacteristic of the Japanese. I fully expected them to come out with some fully developed, practical application - which wouldn't surprise me at all given the way we've reacted to things in the past," Hixon said. "The Japanese have upstaged us so many times in the past few years."
Hixson said he hopes the state's money will take the science to the point where "we can demonstrate and overcome some of that irrational opposition that's been expressed to Drs. Pons and Fleischmann."
But if federal money isn't forthcoming, the chairman said he might consider asking the state for additional funds.
"It would probably depend on the progress that has been made here at the university at the time we have to make that decision," he said.