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Fusion Claim May Be Settled Soon by Test
By Jerry E. Bishop
The Wall Street Journal

May 10, 1989

[Ed. note: same article also appeared with alternate title: "Fusion Brouhaha May Be Settled Soon by Helium Test" (jpg available here).]

LOS ANGELES -- Controversy over the University of Utah "cold fusion" claims may be settled in coming weeks by tests on palladium rods used in the experiment.

If tests find a relatively large amount of helium trapped inside the rods, that could verify the claims of Utah chemist B. Stanley Pons and his British colleague, Martin Fleischmann, that their battery-like device produces surplus heat by the fusion of hydrogen atoms at room temperatures. Helium can be produced by the fusing of two hydrogen atoms.

Failure to find helium "would eliminate a large part of our thinking" that fusion is taking place, Mr. Fleischmann said at a press conference late Monday night here. The British chemist also said, "I've always been willing to acknowledge that our experiments may be faulty. If we turn out to be wrong, I'll be the first to admit it."

Helium's presence in the Utah experiment's palladium rods emerged as a major issue late Monday when Messrs. Pons and Fleischmann and nine other scientists presented results of their "cold fusion" experiments to more than 1,500 chemists who jammed a special night session on "cold fusion" at a meeting of the Electrochemical Society. A week earlier in Baltimore, physicists from leading U.S. government and university labs described how their experiments hadn't produced any excess heat and launched devastating attacks on the Utah experiments as faulty and lacking evidence of fusion.

During their formal presentation, Messrs. Pons and Fleischmann responded to several of the Baltimore criticisms and said one of their experiments has recently begun giving off excess heat in bursts lasting as long as two days. The heat produced during these unexpected bursts was 1,000 times to 5,000 times as much as could be produced by electrochemical reactions, they said, implying that the excess heat was coming from hydrogen fusion.

Chemists from Stanford University and Texas A&M University also gave details of their earlier announcements that they, too, were obtaining excess heat from their own Utah-like experiments.

The helium issue arose when two scientists challenged Messrs. Pons and Fleischmann to let them test the palladium rods for the presence of helium. The presence of helium inside the palladium rods might satisfy many physicists that hydrogen fusion is occurring.

In the experiments, the palladium rods, encircled by a platinum wire, are sealed inside a large test tube full of water with heavy hydrogen atoms. An electric current is then applied to the apparatus. The device releases more energy as heat than it consumes as electricity, Messrs. Pons and Fleishmann claim.

As Mr. Fleischmann explained to reporters, "We don't ask anyone to believe it {fusion}. We've published reports saying we generate excess heat and it isn't consistent with chemical reactions. If the amount of heat is so large you can't account for it by chemical reactions, then what else are you going to believe," except that the heat is coming from fusion reactions, he said.

Some theorists propose that the heavy hydrogen atoms are forced into the nooks and crannies of the atomic lattice of the palladium, where they are squeezed so close together that they overcome their strong natural repulsion to each other and fuse. Since each heavy hydrogen atom -- better known as deuterium -- consists of one proton and one neutron, the fusion of two would produce an atom of helium with two protons and two neutrons, or helium-4.

Asserting that any helium-4 atoms wouldn't escape readily from the palladium atomic lattice, a scientist from the U.S.-owned Sandia Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., asked Mr. Pons during the meeting for "some of your samples {of palladium rods}" to test for helium-4. Another researcher, from the fusion laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made the same request, saying the tests could be done at MIT in three days.

Mr. Pons replied, "We are taking steps to have these samples analyzed." At the press conference later, the chemist said, "We've already made commitments" for analysis of the samples and therefore wouldn't submit them to MIT or Sandia. He declined to elaborate. On April 12, Mr. Pons had also told questioners at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Dallas that he had sent samples of palladium rods "for analysis."

On other matters, Mr. Fleischmann used a videotape of the Utah experiment to answer charges made a week earlier that the thermometer used in the experiment had been placed in a "hot spot" in the test tube and therefore gave a misleadingly high reading. The videotape showed intense bubbling occurring throughout the water. The bubbling caused a red dye dropped into the test tube to be evenly mixed in about 20 seconds, evidence that the bubbling results in heat being evenly distributed throughout the test tube, Mr. Fleischmann said. The criticism that there were hot spots "doesn't hold water," he said.

Mr. Fleischmann, however, did concede that the Utah measurements of gamma radiation given off by the experiment "are the least satisfactory of our measurements." Several scientists have charged the graphs of gamma ray emissions in the two chemists' published report fail to support the fusion claim.

The main support for the Utah experiments came from Robert A. Huggins of Stanford University. Mr. Huggins said he had set up two Utah-like devices side by side, each with a coin-shaped piece of palladium hanging by a gold wire. One device has heavy water and the other has ordinary water. When the same amount of electric current is applied to both devices, the one with the heavy water produces 20% to 40% more heat than the other. Mr. Huggins didn't offer fusion as an explanation but later told reporters that "something real is happening here."

The Stanford scientist also cautioned that there might be several reasons why so many other scientists have been unable to reproduce the Utah experiment. The palladium rods, he said, can't be cast in carbon or graphite molds, because the presence of carbon leads to formation of methane that prevents the deuterium atoms from getting inside the palladium rods.

"I'm still skeptical, but the Huggins experiment is impressive," said one electrochemist in the audience. "But the real issue is the helium," he added.

 

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