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Claim of Achieving Fusion in Jar Gains Support in 2 Experiments
By Malcolm W. Browne
The New York Times

April 11, 1989

COLLEGE STATION, Tex., April 10 — A recent claim by scientists in Utah that they had achieved nuclear fusion in a jar of water gained important support today from two independent research groups that repeated part of the experiment.

Results reported by Texas A & M University and the Georgia Institute of Technology appear to have substantially strengthened the assertion by researchers at the University of Utah.

If the Utah findings are verified, they might have far-reaching importance as a new source of energy and would herald an entirely new field of scientific research. But even some of the scientists involved in the work cautioned that it was not yet clear whether their results were a laboratory curiosity or a breakthrough that would lead to a practical new power source.

Results of 2 Experiments

In separate experiments that sought to confirm the Utah results, scientists at Texas A & M said that they had achieved a large energy increase but were not certain whether it was a result of nuclear fusion, and Georgia Tech researchers said that they had detected neutrons resulting from a fusion reaction but were not certain how much energy had been produced.

Unlike fission, in which atoms are split to produce energy, fusion involves the joining of the nuclei of hydrogen atoms to produce helium and large amounts of energy. Scientists have long sought to produce controlled fusion reactions that might provide a cheaper and somewhat safer source of energy than fission, which is used in nuclear power plants.

The findings announced today, taken together, duplicated some of the most significant results first reported on March 23 by B. Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and Martin Fleischmann, a collaborator from the University of Southampton in Britain. Technique Used in Utah

The two chemists said at a news conference in Utah two weeks ago that by passing an electrical current through a small container of heavy water (water in which hydrogen is replaced by its heavier isotope, deuterium), a fusion reaction was initiated in a palladium cathode.

They said the reaction produced substantially more heat energy than had been put into the cell, which suggested that a reaction of some kind was occurring and was yielding large gains in energy. They said tests at Salt Lake City also showed that the reaction was producing both neutrons and helium, neither of which would result from a simple chemical reaction. That would suggest that a nuclear fusion reaction took place, they said.

The two announcements today appeared to support that conclusion.

At Texas A & M, Dr. Charles R. Martin, Dr. Kenneth N. Marsh and Dr. Bruce E. Gammon showed reporters an apparatus that they said had yielded from 20 percent to 80 percent more energy than had been put in.

The cell was enclosed in a water bath in which temperature was measured and maintained to within a small fraction of a degree. The water bath surrounded and collected heat produced by a cell similar to the one used at Utah.

''We have been unable so far to measure any other effect of the reaction,'' Dr. Martin said, ''and we're certainly not confirming at this point that we're seeing nuclear fusion.''

''We have not ruled out the possibility that this is simply a chemical reaction of some kind,'' Dr. Marsh said. ''To do that will require a great deal more experimentation than we have yet been able to perform.''

At the same time, the scientists said, it was very difficult to understand how a chemical reaction could have taken place between the materials in the cell that would have continously produced the heat actually measured.

Reporters sought an assessment by the Texas A & M researchers as to how long it might take before cold fusion might become a significant source of power.

'Gigantic' Engineering Hurdles

''You haven't heard us say anything about fusion,'' Dr. Martin said. ''A lot of alternative explanations have yet to be ruled out. Even if this should prove to be fusion, the engineering problems of harnessing fusion energy would be gigantic. It remains to be seen whether, in practice, fusion could create power more cheaply than other forms of fuel.''

Other laboratories throughout the country have been trying to duplicate the Utah findings without success. Among those conducting the research are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

The dream of cheap, plentiful fusion energy has prompted the Federal Government to pour billions of dollars into research over the years. Those research efforts have focused on two techniques: the use of powerful magnets to compress and heat electrically charged hydrogen, and the use of a powerful laser to implode a tiny capsule containing hydrogen.

While several laboratories believe they are on the verge of initiating fusion with the help of huge, costly machines, no existing fusion apparatus seems capable of producing more energy than it consumes.

If the Fleischmann-Pons apparatus proves to be as efficient as claimed, it would represent a major advance over previous attempts to achieve controlled fusion.

Dr. Martin said that research in cold fusion clearly warranted financing. Experiments that have been under way here for the past two weeks have been partly financed by the Office of Naval Research and the Electric Power Research Institute.

The experiment at Georgia Tech succeeded in measuring a flow of neutrons from a cell that was similar to the one used in Utah. In a fusion reaction, two deuterium (heavy hydrogen) atoms are joined together to create helium atoms, energy and neutron particles.

Dr. James Mahaffey, leader of the Georgia Tech group, commented in his announcement, ''Our data convinced me that we are making neutrons in that vessel. There is no way to get neutrons unless something nuclear is going on.''

He said the neutron counting device his group used measured an increase of thirteenfold in the flow of neutrons emitted from the test cell when the current was switched on.

After the initial announcement at Utah two weeks ago, scientists at major laboratories conducting conventional fusion research expressed deep skepticism. It had been thought that the mutual repulsion of charged hydrogen atoms could be overcome only by duplicating temperatures and pressures common in the sun.

Many scientists remain skeptical, but a special discussion of the controversial assertions has been scheduled for a meeting this week in Dallas of the American Chemical Society. Vigorous debates are expected. Dr. Pons in Utah said he believed that fusion took place because atoms of deuterium were absorbed into the lattice structure of the palladium electrode when electrical current split heavy water into its constituents, deuterium and oxygen. The crystal lattice of the palladium metal holds the deuterium atoms so close to each other that many of them are able to join together, producing heat.

At the news conference this afternoon at Georgia Tech, researchers expressed cautious optimism about the import of their replication work, which so far has cost $25,000 to perform.

''The Utah experiment was so fantastic and out of the mainstream of physics that simply reproducing it is significant,'' said Dr. Mahaffey, the leader of the five-member team.

William Livesay, a team member, added, ''It remains to be seen whether this is a curiosity'' limited to the laboratory rather than paving the way for industrial-scale production of cheap energy.

The Georgia researchers said they took careful steps to be sure their measurements of neutrons, the ''signature'' of a fusion reaction, were from the experiment and not some outside source. The cathode of the electrolytic cell was shielded by graphite, tap water, paraffin, boron and lead, with the neutron counter being located in the tap water.

The researchers said they also did a control in which they took measurements of neutrons when the experiment was not running, so as to get a reading on ''background'' neutron counts.

During the experiment, they said, neutron counts averaged 600 counts per hour, substantially more that what might be expected if a nuclear reaction were not taking plance.

In addition to neutrons, the researchers said they measured tritium, a byproduct of the fusion of deuterium.

 

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