The startling assertion by two chemists that they had achieved nuclear fusion in a test tube was based on invented data whose publication involved a serious breach of ethics and a violation of scientific protocol, prominent scientists have concluded.
One of the two researchers dismisses the charge, saying that their work on low-temperature, or cold, fusion was ethically sound and beyond reproach.
The cold-fusion debate erupted two years ago when the chemists, Dr. B. Stanley Pons and Dr. Martin Fleischmann, announced at the University of Utah that they had captured the secret of the sun's energy in a test tube at room temperature.
The claim set off a race by thousands of scientists around the world to duplicate the experiment in the hope that they could develop a new source of safe, cheap and virtually limitless energy. But the lack of independent proof eventually caused most of the cold-fusion efforts to collapse.
Now, a new book by a respected scientist says the crucial evidence in the original claim was so skewed as to be "invented."
The book, "Too Hot to Handle," to be published in May by Princeton University Press, is by Dr. Frank Close, a physicist with top posts at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the Rutherford Laboratory in Britain.
In a telephone interview, Dr. Close said that publication of the Utah data with no hint of its dubious origin was a "serious error of judgment" that violated the scientific code of ethics. Other scientists with intimate knowledge of the affair have come to similar conclusions.
Nuclear fusion is the force that powers the sun, the stars and hydrogen bombs, fusing atoms rather than breaking them apart as nuclear reactors do in creating energy.
All types of nuclear fusion produce a variety of byproducts, including heat, neutrons and gamma rays. Heat is ambiguous as proof of a nuclear reaction, since chemical devices like batteries also produce heat.
Critical "signatures" of fusion are neutrons of a particular energy and the gamma rays produced when the speeding neutrons strike surrounding material.
The Utah researchers published a scientific paper showing a gamma-ray reading at an energy level that was exactly right if the process was indeed fusion, and the finding was interpreted by many scientists as strong backing for their assertion.
But the data measured in the laboratory differed significantly from the data published in the original scientific paper.
In a telephone interview from his home in Britain, Dr. Fleischmann denied any impropriety and said the data presented were perfectly legitimate for a first paper.
"We didn't do anything wrong," he said. "It was a preliminary note that didn't contain details."
But he conceded that he now considers the disputed data "rubbish," although he still believes in cold fusion.
The whereabouts of Dr. Pons is not known.