Science: Heat Source in Fusion Find May Be Mystery Reaction
By Jerry E. Bishop
The Wall Street Journal
April 3, 1989
The controversial University of Utah hydrogen fusion device appears to be producing energy by some previously unknown -- and still mysterious -- nuclear fusion reaction, one of the scientists involved in the experiment said.
"It is very clear that deuterium (hydrogen) fusion is taking place (in the device) but it is not the explanation" for the amount of heat generated by the device, said Universtity of Utah chemistry professor B. Stanley Pons, in an interview Saturday expanding on an unpublished paper on their potentially historic discovery. Mr. Pons and his British colleague Martin Fleischmann, announced twelve days ago that they had achieved a sustained hydrogen fusion reaction in the laboratory, a goal sought by scientists almost from the day the hydrogen bomb was developed more than 35 years ago.
Although Mr. Pons said he had provided copies of the scientific paper to only five people, copies were pouring out of facsimile machines in chemistry and physics laboratories around the country late Friday. One copy was obtained by The Wall Street Journal.
Scientists, upon getting their first look at the details of the Utah experiment, said they continue to be confounded by it. But their reactions hinted that the extreme skepticism expressed after the March 23 announcement is beginning to fade. Instead, some researchers indicated they were mentally crossing their fingers that Messrs. Pons and Fleischmann hadn't made a grave mistake in their measurements but instead had made a basic discovery.
"One is in suspense right now," until the experiment can be repeated, said one East Coast chemist who, like most other scientists, asked not to be identified since his reaction was based on only a few hours study of the paper. Despite the inexplicable findings in the paper "we all have faith in the actors here," he said.
Some of the energy produced by Mr. Pons's experiment in Salt Lake City may be the result of a kind of "cold" fusion reported by researchers at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, Mr. Pons said. But, he said, even that newly discovered form of fusion can't explain more than a fraction of the energy produced by the Salt Lake City experiment.
In the paper, to be published in mid-May in the Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry, the two scientists describe their small labortory fusion device and report measurements showing that it is producing more energy than is being put into it. They then state:
"The most surprising feature of our results, however, is that (known fusion) reactions are only a small part of the overall reaction scheme and that the bulk of the energy release is due to hitherto unknown nuclear process or processes . . . "
Messrs. Pons and Fleischmann, several scientists noted, have excellent reputations as chemists. The group of electrochemists at the University of Southampton, England, which was headed for several years by Mr. Fleischmann before his mandatory retirement, "is the most powerful group of its kind in Europe," noted a chemist in the Midwest. "It's his connections that make me reluctant to dismiss this out of hand," he said.
"We just had a meeting on this and we still have several concerns," said a physicist after seeing the scientific paper and spotting a number of unanswered questions. But, he added, "we're cautious about saying they are wrong."
The key question surrounding the Utah experiment has to do with the number of neutrons whizzing out of the laboratory device. When the nuclei of two deuterium atoms fuse, they create an atom of helium, releasing energy and a neutron in the process. If the amount of heat energy produced by the Utah device is as high as Messrs. Pons and Fleischmann report, and if the heat is coming from known fusion reactions, then a deadly spray of neutrons should be coming out of the laboratory beakers, a physicist explained.
In their paper, Messrs. Pons and Fleischmann say that if fusion of deuterium nuclei were producing all the heat in their device, it should be emitting more than 100 billion neutrons per second. Yet, they are detecting only about 40,000 neutrons per second from the hottest of several experiments.
The neutron count is based on gamma rays emitted when the neutrons plowed through a container of water next to the device. A corrected version of a graph in early copies of the paper shows the energy of the gamma rays peaks quickly and sharply at about 2.2 million electron volts, which is the energy expected from neutrons produced by hydrogen fusion reactions.
The two chemists also detected the formation of tritium, an even heavier form of hydrogen which is often produced by hydrogen fusion reactions instead of a neutron.
Yet, these known fusion reactions can't explain the fact that more energy in the form of heat is coming out of the device than is being put into it.
"We can't imagine any chemical process that can explain this, so the only alternative explanation is a nuclear process (that) heretofore has been unrecognized," Mr. Pons said.
In the scientific paper, the two chemists describe the results of an electrolysis type of experiment. Small pieces of palladium metal, in a variety of shapes and sizes, were immersed in beakers containing lithium, oxygen and deuterium dissolved in almost pure "heavy" water, whose molecules contain deuterium (a form of hydrogen with a neutron in the nucleus) instead of ordinary hydrogen.
The palladium, attached to the negative electrode of an electric circuit, was surrounded by various configurations of platinum, which served as the positive electrode. In experiments where the palladium was shaped in a small rod, the platinum electrode was a wire wound around a cage of glass tubes.
When an electric current is applied to the apparatus it causes the deuterium atoms to slowly seep, or diffuse, into the palladium. It is only when a sufficient number of deuterium atoms accumulate inside the crystaline latticework of palladium atoms that the mysterious fusing together of the deuterium nuclei begins to give off more energy than the apparatus is consuming.
It takes many days of "charging" in heavy water for a sufficient number of deuterium nuclei to build up in the palladium to produce detectable results, Mr. Pons explained. Thus, even if other researchers started days ago to reproduce the experiment it will be another two weeks before they get any results, he said.
In one early experiment begun in 1984, one which Mr. Pons warned shouldn't be attempted by others, the palladium was in the form of a one centimeter cube hanging in a large, sealed beaker by a thin palladium wire. The equipment to detect neutrons, he said, was rather crude.
"After several months we didn't get any results," the chemist recalls. The two scientists then increased the current in the apparatus. Sometime during the night the palladium cube suddenly heated up to the point where some of it vaporized, blowing the apparatus apart, damaging a laboratory hood and burning the floor. "It was a nice mess," Mr. Pons said. A check of the laboratory the next day with a radiation counter indicated radioactivity levels three times higher than the normal background levels, apparently the result of a sudden spray of neutrons. The radioactivity, he said, was far below any dangerous level.
To avoid another accident, the scientists switched to small, thin sheets of palladium. They then began getting heat energy close to the breakeven level, where the output equals the input of energy.
Last year, they switched to 10-centimeter-long palladium rods, ranging in diameter from 0.1 to 0.4 centimeters. (The exact size of the rods has been puzzling other scientists for days.)
It was with these rods that the researchers began getting out more energy, as heat, than was being put into the device electrically. The largest heat gains came with the largest rod. Specifically, the scientific paper shows that in the largest diameter rod about 26 watts of excess heat is produced by each cubic centimeter of palladium.
In the paper, the two chemists give several different calculations on whether the device is producing more energy than it is consuming. The results vary depending on how the input energy is calculated. In one of the hottest experiments, for example, they calculate the energy coming out in the form of heat ranged from 48% to as much as 839% of the breakeven point, the level at which the energy put in equals the level coming out.
Mr. Pons said he's been careful in recent experiments to avoid another accident. But, he said, recently a device that had been steadily boiling away about 10 milliliters of heavy water a day suddenly boiled away 75 milliliters of water overnight and went dry.
The paper was submitted to the Journal of Electroanalytical on March 11. A second paper, written on March 23, has been submitted to the British journal, Nature. Nature's editors are expected to decide later this week whether to publish it.
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