Cold fusion is offered a second look

Recent research to get review by science panel of Energy Department

March 25, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Cold fusion, briefly hailed as the silver-bullet solution to the world's energy problems and since discarded to the same bin as paranormal phenomena and perpetual motion machines, will soon get a new hearing from Washington.

Despite being pushed to the fringes of physics, a small group of scientists has continued to work on cold fusion, and they say their figures unambiguously verify the results of the original experiment in 1989, showing that energy can be generated simply by running an electrical current through a jar of water.

Last fall, cold fusion scientists asked the Energy Department to take a second look at the process. Last week the department agreed.

No public announcement was made. A British magazine, New Scientist, reported the news this week, and Dr. James F. Decker, deputy director of the science office in the Energy Department, confirmed it in an e-mail interview.

"It was my personal judgment that their request for a review was reasonable," Decker said.

For advocates of cold fusion, the new review brings them to the cusp of vindication after years of ridicule.

"I am absolutely delighted that the DOE is finally going to do the right thing," Dr. Eugene F. Mallove, editor of Infinite Energy magazine, said. "There can be no other conclusion than a major new window has opened on physics."

The research is too preliminary to determine whether cold fusion, even if real, will live up to its initial billing as a cheap, bountiful source of energy, said Dr. Peter Hagelstein, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has been developing a theory on how the process works. Experiments have generated small amounts of energy, from a fraction of a watt to a few watts.

Still, Hagelstein said, "I definitely think it has potential for commercial energy production."

Decker said the scientists, not yet chosen, would probably spend a few days listening to presentations and then offer their thoughts individually. The review panel will not conduct experiments, he said.

Fusion, the process that powers the sun, combines hydrogen atoms, releasing energy.

In March 1989, Dr. B. Stanley Pons and Dr. Martin Fleischmann, chemists at the University of Utah, said they had generated fusion in a tabletop experiment using a jar of heavy water, where the water molecules contain a heavier version of hydrogen, deuterium and two palladium electrodes.

A current running through the electrodes pulled deuterium atoms into the electrodes, which somehow generated heat, the scientists said. Fleischmann speculated that the heat was coming from fusion of the deuterium atoms.

Other scientists trying to reproduce the experiment found the effects fickle and inconsistent. Because cold fusion, if real, cannot be explained by current theories, the inconsistent results convinced most scientists that it had not occurred. The signs of extra heat, critics said, were experiment mistakes or generated by the current or, perhaps, chemical reactions in the water, but not fusion.

Critics also pointed out that to produce the amount of heat reported, conventional fusion reactions would throw out lethal amounts of radiation, and they argued that the continued health of Pons and Fleischmann, as well as other experimenters, was proof that no fusion occurred.

Some cold fusion scientists now say they can produce as much as two to three times the energy in the current. The results are also more reproducible, they say. They add that they have definitely seen fusion byproducts, particularly helium, in quantities proportional to the heat generated.

After a conference in August, Hagelstein wrote to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, asking for a meeting. Hagelstein; Dr. Michael McKubre of SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif.; and Dr. David J. Nagel of George Washington University met Decker, the deputy director of the department's science office, on Nov. 6.

"They presented some data and asked for a review of the scientific research that has been conducted," Decker said. "The scientists who came to see me are from excellent scientific institutions and have excellent credentials."

Scientists working on conventional fusion said cold fusion research had fallen off their radar screens.

"I'm surprised," Dr. Stewart C. Prager, a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin, said. "I thought most of the cold fusion effort had phased out. I'm just not aware of any physics results that motivated this."

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