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Purdue scientist is under scrutiny
By Will Higgins
The Indianapolis Star

March 9, 2006

Professor says he produced nuclear fusion; school starts inquiry after journal reports doubts

Purdue University is reviewing allegations that one of its professors, a scientist who claims he has developed a way to produce nuclear fusion in a test tube, misrepresented his research findings.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Rusi Taleyarkhan, a member of Purdue's faculty since 2004, said he stands by his work "absolutely."

Yet many in the scientific community have been skeptical of Taleyarkhan since he announced his findings.

Nuclear fusion is the process that powers the sun. Scientists have long attempted to harness fusion, which could provide limitless supplies of energy cheaply and safely. In his original report, published in the journal Science in 2002, Taleyarkhan and colleagues said they created nuclear fusion in a beaker of chemically altered acetone by bombarding it with neutrons and then sound waves to make bubbles.

He claimed the bubbles rapidly expanded and then collapsed, producing a brief flash of light and superhigh temperatures -- a phenomenon called sonoluminescence. He also made the controversial claim that his team detected atomic particles and isotopes, suggesting nuclear fusion may have occurred.

Millions of dollars have been spent on efforts to re-create Taleyarkhan's findings, including $800,000 from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Last spring, two junior Purdue researchers, post-doctoral research associate Yiban Xu and graduate research assistant Adam Butt, claimed to have confirmed Taleyarkhan's findings in research published in the magazine Nuclear Engineering and Design. Xu and Butt's research was the first confirmation of Taleyarkhan's work.

Xu said Wednesday he stands by his study. Butt could not be reached for comment. Experts have been especially skeptical about lab-produced fusion claims since Martin Fleischmann of the University of Utah and Stanley Pons of Southampton University, England, held a news conference in 1989 to announce to the world that they had done it. Their "cold fusion" claim was swiftly debunked.

At Purdue, the dean of the engineering school, Linda Katehi, has expressed concerns about Taleyarkhan's work to Purdue Provost Sally Mason, according to Purdue spokeswoman Jeanne Norberg. The flap became public Wednesday with the publication of the latest issue of Nature magazine. Nature reported that two of Taleyarkhan's fellow professors doubted the validity of their colleague's research.

In a prepared statement, Mason described the charges as "extremely serious." She said that "to ensure objectivity," the inquiry would be conducted by Purdue's office of the vice president for research, "which is separate from the College of Engineering." Taleyarkhan is a professor of nuclear engineering.

The skeptics quoted by Nature include the head of the nuclear engineering department, Lefteri Tsoukalas, and Tatjana Jevremovic, an assistant professor. Both claim Taleyarkhan refused to share his raw data and had removed the equipment on which they were attempting to replicate his work. Neither returned phone calls or responded to e-mail Wednesday.

Katehi, in California at an engineering conference, declined to comment and referred questions to Norberg.

"We are not investigating this poor gentleman," Norberg said. "This is just fact-finding. Fairness is really important to us." Norberg said she did not know when the fact-finding would be complete.

On Wednesday, Taleyarkhan belittled Nature's report. "You wonder if it's Nature or the National Enquirer," he said.

Taleyarkhan, who was born in India, began his fusion research while a group leader and program manager at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. He had been at Oak Ridge since 1988. He joined Purdue's faculty in 2004 and is a full professor, earning $149,875 a year.

Call Star reporter Will Higgins at (317) 444-6043.

 

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