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A Tempest in a Test Tube, 10 Years Later
By William J. Broad
The New York Times
March 23, 1999
B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann are still true believers, as are other scientists and enthusiasts scattered around the globe who still see a glimmer of hope. Even the Federal Government keeps a few researchers investigating the topic, though inconspicuously.
Ten years ago today, on March 23, 1989, Dr. Pons, then chairman of the chemistry department at the University of Utah, and Dr. Fleischmann, a top British chemist at the University of Southampton, set the world of science on its head by announcing in Salt Lake City that they had achieved nuclear fusion at room temperature in a jar of water.
They claimed, in effect, to have tamed the sun, unleashing its might on the earth without destructive side effects.
Hailed in headlines as the greatest discovery since fire, cold fusion was seen as promising to provide a safe, cheap and virtually inexhaustible form of power, ending human dependence on oil and redrawing the geopolitical map to make Salt Lake City the energy capital of the world.
Best of all, it was outrageously simple. The test apparatus cost a pittance and centered on palladium rods in a jar of heavy water, in which normal hydrogen is replaced by deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen that is ubiquitous in sea water.
The two said that an electric current passing through the test cell produced excess heat. Somehow, they said, atoms of deuterium were forced to fuse together, paving the way for a new age.
But the dream soon faded. Skeptics rushed forward. And after a few hectic months, cold fusion collapsed as most scientists were unable to match the startling results. Heavy blows were landed by such giants as the California Institute of Technology and a 22-member Federal panel made up mainly of top university scientists, which said the reported find was too good to be true. In particular, it found no credible evidence of bursts of neutrons, which the Utah team had claimed as key proof of nuclear alchemy.
Frank Close, a physicist with top positions at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the Rutherford Laboratory in Britain, went further. In ''Too Hot to Handle'' (Princeton, 1991), he charged that crucial evidence in the original claim was so skewed as to be ''invented,'' an allegation the two claimants denied.
Surprisingly, despite a decadelong cold bath of criticism, cold fusion is still alive today and apparently doing well in the scientific underground. Researchers around the globe quietly claim success at getting tantalizing results, if not blistering heats ready to topple the status quo. This hum of low-level work confounds skeptics and delights believers.
''It's as alive as it's always been,'' Dr. Fleischmann, 72, said in a telephone interview from his home in Britain. Successful tests, he added, continue to show that whatever is happening has to be nuclear in nature. ''It can't be chemical,'' he said. ''The energy quantities are too large, orders of magnitude larger.''
A Fellow of the Royal Society, the top honorary group for British scientists, Dr. Fleischmann painted a picture of conspiracy in which cold fusion was killed politically by a cabal of oil- and hot-fusion interests, among others. Over the decades, scientists have spent billions of dollars to mimic the sun's hot-fusion reactions on earth. But that research has remained a scientific curiosity, and its practitioners were quick to question cold fusion, which in theory was a potential rival.
''We've had incredible disinformation,'' Dr. Fleischmann said in the interview. He added that he himself was still exploring cold fusion experimentally, but would not say where or with what success.
The other half of the pair, Dr. Pons, 56, left the University of Utah in 1991 and now lives in France. Colleagues say he still backs the claims but is bitter over their public denunciation. ''He doesn't want to talk to the press,'' said Jean-Paul Biberian, a physicist at the University of Grenoble who is in contact with Dr. Pons.
Dr. Biberian, who said he has studied cold fusion for six years, is one of perhaps a few hundred scientists around the world who investigate the phenomenon, publish articles and go to international meetings.
John R. Huizenga, co-chairman of the Federal panel that found cold fusion wanting, said the true believers were chasing a ghost.
''It's as dead as ever,'' he said in an interview. ''It's quite unbelievable that the thing has gone on for 10 years. But it's the same group of people and they don't want to take no for an answer.''
While conceding that some evidence was unquestionably faulty in the early days, cold fusion advocates insist that the evidence has improved in quality and quantity over the past decade.
''The presence of unexplained heat is essentially unquestioned,'' said Michael C. H. McKubre, a chemist at SRI International, a private research group in Menlo Park, Calif., who works in the field. ''There's a source of heat we can't explain with known chemistry.''
Dr. McKubre added that scientists, including himself, had also made progress in finding hints of nuclear reactions. When deuterium atoms fuse, they produce not only neutrons but byproducts like tritium and helium. Both of these, he said, have been identified.
But some of the results are still frustratingly erratic, he added, and hard proof will require more research.
The Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, the Navy's top science center, last year published a review of cold-fusion research that concluded that enough mysteries remained to warrant more inquiry.
''Further experimental investigations of these and related questions seem desirable, at least for scientific if not practical reasons,'' wrote David J. Nagel, the report's author and head of the laboratory's division of condensed matter and radiation sciences. Last week, officials there said the laboratory was currently doing no such research.
One of the biggest public advocates of cold fusion is Eugene F. Mallove, the editor and publisher of Infinite Energy, which is based in Concord, N.H. The bimonthly magazine ($5.95 in the United States, more elsewhere) tracks cold-fusion research and usually prints 5,000 copies that are distributed in 37 countries, Dr. Mallove said.
''It's real,'' he said of cold fusion. ''For many years now, it's been absolutely clear that there is nuclear-scale energy that's emerging.''
For $595, plus shipping, the magazine's parent company, Cold Fusion Technology Inc., sells a ''Plasma-Discharge Electrolysis Exploration System,'' complete with an X-ray shield in case the emerging energy is so abundant as to be deadly.
Dr. Mallove said the field was destined to fly.
In a few years, he said, commercial developments that are going on right now will produce ''a revolution in energy.''
But Dr. Huizenga, the Federal skeptic, said business people sinking money into the field were going to lose it.
''Oh well,'' he rued, ''that's the way it goes.''
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