Cold Fusion Dispute Boils; Panelists Ridicule Claims
By Thomas H. Maugh II
Los Angeles Times
May 3, 1989, p. 1
The dispute over cold fusion reached the boiling point Tuesday as scientists assembled here said they were prepared "to sign the death certificate" for the fusion-in-a-flask experiment and one Nobel Laureate said the head of the University of Utah, which backed the research, "ought to be fired."
But a university official defended chemists B. Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton in England and fired back with charges of "hand waving" and "Eastern elite" bias.
The 40 papers submitted for presentation at an American Physical Society meeting here variously ridiculed, questioned and doubted the Utah group's conclusion that they were able to produce more energy than was consumed in their simple fusion cell and traced a litany of purported errors in their research. The errors, they said, included failure to stir the liquid in the flasks and possible radon seepage into the experiment.
Few of the assessments were delicate.
Caltech physicist Steven E. Koonin summarized the feelings of many researchers here when he concluded that their results were based on "incompetence, and perhaps delusion."
And an indignant Leon Lederman, director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., said that University of Utah President Chase Peterson "ought to be fired" for his role in promoting Pons' and Fleischmann's claims.
James J. Brophy, the university's vice president for research and development, dismissed the charges as "a lot of waving of hands." He said that such criticisms are to be expected "because of the obvious importance of the technology" and said that the physicists, particularly the "Eastern elite," have a vested interest in protecting their own fusion research funds. He added that supportive evidence would be presented next week at a meeting of the Electrochemical Society in Los Angeles.
The consensus of most observers was that, unless Pons and Fleischmann can produce some dramatic new evidence to support their contentions, their claims are likely to fade into obscurity along with polywater, N-rays and other highly publicized scientific "breakthroughs" that were subsequently discredited.
The University of Utah also drew fire for unabashedly hyping Pons' and Fleischmann's findings, its failure to ensure that their results were scientifically sound and its effort to obtain $25 million from Congress for a cold fusion research center before the work had been replicated. Several researchers said that the university has been greatly embarrassed by its role in promoting the cold fusion fever and bypassing normal scientific channels in an effort to obtain research funds.
Visit to White House
Meanwhile, the principals in this monthlong scientific saga, perhaps oblivious to the latest torrent of criticism, prepared to meet today with Bush Administration officials at the White House.
A University of Utah spokeswoman said that Pons and Fleischmann were in Washington preparing for the meeting and that they would have no comment on the charges. They were invited to appear at the Physical Society meeting, but declined because of their speaking and research commitments.
The panel also said that it could not yet render a verdict on the claims by physicist Steven E. Jones of Brigham Young University that he had observed a much smaller level of cold fusion than Pons and Fleischmann. Jones has made no claims of excess energy production and has repeatedly argued that his results offer no immediate hope of commercial energy production.
Pons and Fleischmann startled the world March 23 when they announced that they had discovered a hitherto unknown fusion reaction that worked at room temperature and produced more energy than it consumed-a feat that has eluded physicists and their multimillion-dollar fusion machines for decades. They said that the extra heat could be obtained by simply applying a small electric current to palladium and platinum electrodes immersed in deuterium oxide-the so-called heavy water in which each hydrogen atom is replaced by deuterium, which has one extra neutron.
They said deuterium ions would be forced by the electric current to enter the palladium electrode, where they would fuse to form helium, releasing heat in the process. Their results held forth the promise of unlimited, inexpensive energy that could be produced from the deuterium in seawater.
Other scientists were immediately skeptical of their claims because the simple fusion cell produced only extremely small amounts of the radiation that should have resulted from a fusion reaction. Nonetheless, scientists throughout the world rushed into their laboratories to attempt to reproduce the Utah findings, working 16- to 20-hour days seven days a week.
Several groups throughout the world have claimed to confirm the Utah results in part, although some have subsequently had to withdraw their claims. But the research presented here this week has cast doubt on some of those claims as well.
Groups from most of the major U.S. energy research laboratories, such as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Brookhaven National Laboratory, reported that their studies with the most sophisticated scientific equipment available failed to show any evidence of nuclear fusion or excessive heat output. Physicist Douglas Morrison of the European Center for Nuclear Research said that even the Harwell Research Laboratory in England, which had used a fusion cell obtained from Fleischmann, had been unable to find any evidence of fusion.
Said physicist Moshe Gai of Yale University, who worked with the Brookhaven group: "Our results exclude without any doubt the Pons and Fleischmann results."
Studies at Caltech
The strongest evidence against the Utah results, however, was provided not by a physicist, and not by the Eastern elite, but by chemist Nathan Lewis of Caltech. Like other researchers reporting here, Lewis and his colleagues had undertaken exhaustive efforts to reproduce the Utah results and had obtained no evidence of fusion or excess heat production.
But Lewis went one step further and re-evaluated Pons' and Fleischmann's research strategy and calculations of energy efficiency. He says that they made several mistakes, including basing their claim of excess energy production on hypothetical numbers rather than actual measurements.
"We could find no evidence for anything other than conventional chemistry" in their results, Lewis concluded.
The critique by Lewis was so devastating that, even though his was only the fourth of 20 papers scheduled for presentation Monday evening, more than half of an audience estimated at more than 2,000 left after his presentation. By the time the litany of negative results reached its conclusion at 12:20 Tuesday morning, only a handful of observers remained in the meeting hall.
Among the problems, according to Lewis and others:
• Pons and Fleischmann reported that they measured gamma-radiation emanating from their apparatus, a sign that nuclear fusion was occurring. But Koonin and others noted that the frequency of the gamma-radiation they observed was characteristic not of fusion, but of radon, a byproduct of uranium that is commonly found in basements such as those used by the Utah researchers. Said Koonin: "I don't know how much radon they have in their lab, but I do know they mine uranium in Utah."
• Pons and Fleischmann cited the presence of helium in their apparatus as proof that fusion had occurred. But Lewis noted that helium is present in fairly large amounts in the air of most chemistry laboratories because liquid helium is used to cool many instruments. The amount of helium they observed, Lewis said, was at least 10 times higher than the amount that would have theoretically been produced by fusion, indicating it was a contaminant from the air.
• Pons and Fleischmann did not stir the heavy water in their cell, arguing that bubbles formed at the electrodes would circulate the water. But Lewis and Walter Meyerhof of Stanford University showed that if the water is not stirred the temperature measured in the cell was dependent on placement of the thermometer, indicating the presence of "hot spots" in the cell. Temperature measurements made near the electrodes would indicate heat production, Meyerhof said, while measurements at the edge of the cell would indicate heat consumption. The same problem was present in cells used by Robert Huggins of Stanford, who recently reported a confirmation of the Utah results.
• Pons and Fleischmann and other researchers, particularly at the University of Florida, have reported the presence of tritium in their cells as an indicator that fusion occurred. But Lewis noted that chemicals in the cell can interfere with the measurements and make it appear that tritium is present when it is not. Neither the Utah nor the Florida researchers took these reactions into account.
• Pons and Fleischmann did not actually obtain excess heat production in their cell, as they had implied. Rather, they had calculated, based on a faulty assumption, that they would recover 13% of the energy they put into the cell and they actually got 20%. Their calculations that they could obtain four to 10 times as much energy as they put in the cell, he added, were based on the use of a hypothetical number with no basis in reality-as Pons conceded in congressional testimony last week.
Believed It Wrong
After Lewis' talk, an unidentified researcher from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which has been working closely with Pons, rose from the audience and noted that "We felt he had done his energy wrong."
Although several groups reported that they had also not been able to replicate Jones' studies, which involve a complex "soup" of salts in the heavy water, most noted that they had not attempted to do so because he had not claimed excess energy production. Lewis carefully noted that the Caltech group had not studied Jones' system, but were now doing so.
During Tuesday's panel session, Jones displayed a small shoot growing in a flask. "The Utah people have claimed this is a tree . . . and it is going to grow up very quickly and give us enough wood to provide all our energy needs for generations," he said.
"I don't think it's a tree, and I told Congress it doesn't need a lot of fertilizer right now," he continued. "But this little sprout is still living and I do think it will grow into a pleasant flower, a new addition to the garden of physics."
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