Purdue professor cleared, his work debated

February 11, 2007|By Jeremy Manier | Jeremy Manier,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Accusations of research misconduct have roiled the school of nuclear engineering at Purdue University over the past year, stemming from one professor's claims to have discovered a potential source of cheap energy through tabletop nuclear fusion.

The target of those allegations was exonerated last week in an academic report. But the inquiry's end is unlikely to quell the rivalries and professional trash-talking spurred by Purdue engineering professor Rusi Taleyarkhan's work.

Taleyarkhan, who led the research in question at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was co-author of a 2002 paper purporting to show "bubble fusion" brought about by intense implosions of bubbles in a liquid bombarded with sound waves. Others have struggled without success to replicate the results, though Taleyarkhan says two little-recognized groups have done so.

The controversy escalated in March, when the journal Nature published a news report quoting scientists at Purdue and the University of Illinois who questioned the authenticity of the bubble fusion results.

That Nature report led Purdue officials to appoint a scholarly committee to investigate claims of wrongdoing. The university announced on Wednesday the panel's finding that "the evidence does not support the allegations of research misconduct."

But Ken Suslick, a professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois, said the panel appeared not to have considered an analysis by a UCLA physics team that suggested some of the fusion data might have been manipulated.

Neither Suslick nor other outside experts have directly accused Taleyarkhan of fraud. Taleyarkhan said last week that he considers himself vindicated.

"It was an extremely thorough review of the allegations," Taleyarkhan said of the inquiry. Of his methods, Taleyarkhan said, "We reported our data just the way it came out."

But Purdue nuclear engineering professor Lefteri Tsoukalas, who recruited Taleyarkhan when Tsoukalas headed Purdue's school of nuclear engineering, still has questions.

Tsoukalas said Taleyarkhan claimed in 2005 that Tsoukalas' team confirmed the fusion findings. In fact, Tsoukalas said, his team failed to replicate the results.

Some of the strongest claims against Taleyarkhan's work came from a team at UCLA led by physicist Seth Putterman. The UCLA group analyzed the claim that the tabletop fusion device had emitted neutrons - a potential signature of a fusion reaction.

But Putterman's group concluded that the neutrons' properties indicated they were not produced by fusion.

Jeremy Manier writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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