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10 years after cold fusion
Hot news then is pursuit of few believers now

SHARE 10 years after cold fusion
Hot news then is pursuit of few believers now

Choose one of the following descriptions. After all, you, the taxpayer, put $5 million into this, so you have the right to decide:

A. Today is the anniversary of a colossal blunder by the University of Utah, or,B. Today is the birthday of one of the world's greatest discoveries.

Ten years ago, on March 23, 1989, the U. called a press conference to announce that two of its researchers had discovered a room-temperature technique to create the same kind of nuclear reaction that happens in the core of the sun. B. Stanley Pons, chairman of the chemistry department, and his English colleague, Martin Fleischmann, said they had sustained nuclear fusion at room temperature for 100 hours.

The reaction happened in a $100,000 apparatus that they had designed and financed themselves, a bubbling little chamber using palladium in the basement of the Henry Eyring Chemistry Building. They had measured neutrons, products of nuclear reactions.

Most importantly, they said, much higher levels of energy came out of the apparatus than they were putting in -- fusion was actually creating energy.

The announcement came at what one reporter called a "madhouse" press conference, with media swarming from around the world. Cold fusion was top news everywhere that night.

Some who heard the news were skeptical. At the U., physics professor Owen W. Johnson told his class the day after the announcement that "it was bad science," he recalled Monday.

Still, many Utahns seemed to go into uncritical rapture. The same day that Johnson told his class it was not credible, the Deseret News cheered in a headline, "Fusion discovery at U. could rank as century's greatest achievement."

The hope was that cold fusion would be a cheap, clean and permanent solution to the world's energy crisis. Anyone who owned the rights to this technology would become a new OPEC.

Using $5 million advanced by the Legislature, the U. began perfecting the technique and chasing patents.

Today, most scientists agree that no proof ever turned up that the Pons-Fleischmann cold fusion method worked. No patents ever were issued.

Fleischmann remains convinced he and Pons did create nuclear reactions in their lab, he said Tuesday during a Deseret News telephone interview from his home in Tilsbury, England. One huge problem is finding the right combination of materials for the experimental device, which he said he and Pons were lucky enough to happen upon.

"If you use the correct materials, and this is a big if, and . . . run your experiment with sufficient accuracy and precision, then it is not difficult to see excess heat, early on, within a few days," he said. "If you do the experiment for a sufficient length of time and let the temperature rise, then you can see what we call positive feedback."

According to Fleischmann, the temperature starts to rise even faster and a form of helium is produced. In the sun, helium is created by the fusing of hydrogen atoms. Fleischmann said he believes it is created in the lab by the fusing together of hydrogen atoms from the water used by the experiment.

But, Fleischmann said, "if you don't do it with sufficient accuracy, then you just say, 'I see nothing significant.' "

However, the opinion of the scientific establishment has solidified, in general, to agree with comments Johnson made Monday about cold fusion: "There is no such thing, as we indicated 10 years ago."

Asked why some researchers, magazine editors and others continue to support the claims, he replied, "Human capacity for self-deception is almost infinite. In all seriousness, that's the only explanation I can give."

Does that mean cold fusion is dead?

Far from it.

Today, new believers are rare, but a few true believers continue to cling to the promise.

Hal Fox is one of those most ardent in defending cold fusion. Operating out of a business near 3000 East and 3300 South -- a building with "Speedy Cafe" on its side -- Fox and his associates maintain the Fusion Information Center. He also contributes to "Infinite Energy," a thick bimonthly magazine published by fellow fusion backer Eugene Mallove in Concord, N.H.

Cold fusion was brought down by researchers of expensive hot fusion processes, scientists who were worried about continuing the funding of hot fusion, Fox said. Traditional fusion research was getting more than $500 million a year, he said.

"I can't give you any specific names, because it was done behind the scenes," he said.

What about cold fusion? Is there anything to the claims?

"I have collected and read over 3,000 papers on cold fusion, from 30 countries, representing the work of over 200 laboratories," he replied.

"I have been to at least 12 conferences on cold fusion, including several in Russia. I visited with Pons and Fleischmann . . . in the south of France. Six hundred of the 3,000 papers reported either a replication or an extension of Pons' and Fleischmann's work. So, the scientific fact is that the cold fusion phenomena exist. Period, exclamation point."

If so, why don't we all have "Mr. Fusion" cars?

"So far they have not been able to find a sufficiently robust method of cold fusion to make a commercially acceptable device," he said.

However, research that is a spin-off from cold fusion work may lead to new devices, he said.

Pons and Fleischmann were treated unfairly, he maintains. The 1989 announcement was forced on them. It came out earlier than they wished to make it, because peer-review copies of a paper they wanted to publish were circulating by fax.

Tips about the paper were leaked to the media, and reporters were bombarding the U. for news, according to Fox.

"And they were ridiculed . . . so the scientific community owes them a real apology," he said. "They'll probably never get it."

Fleischmann said he is disappointed by the way they were treated, but not bitter.

U. Vice President Richard Koehn would like to get past the controversy. "The cold fusion story was a significant embarrassment to the University of Utah, as things turned out," he said.

"We handled, I think, the matter in as responsible way as we could, in the sense that we gave the technological claims every opportunity to be checked out and to be verified."

The claims were never verified, and when the U. was legally free to cut itself loose of "rights" to pursue patents, it did, he said.

"There's nothing wrong with being wrong," Koehn added. "But making claims in the absence of the peer-review process . . . it really violates the scientific culture."

But time heals as people's memories fade, and the U. has emerged as a major research university, he said.

Assuming the scientific establishment is right and atoms just can't fuse together except in an environment with the crushing pressures and millions of degrees at the center of stars, then the right answer is A. In that case, the race for cold fusion was the worst kind of wild goose chase.

Johnson can't help expressing a sense of dismay.

"There's been no convincing evidence ever," he said, "and the people who really understood the science weren't taken in by it."