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Nuclear Fusion Experiments Were Started 'for the Fun of It'

March 24, 1989|LARRY B. STAMMER and THOMAS H. MAUGH II | Times Staff Writers

SALT LAKE CITY — The dramatic finding that could propel two virtually unknown chemists into scientific history began to take shape five years ago on a hike up Millcreek Canyon on the outskirts of Salt Lake City and culminated in a fateful decision in a family kitchen.

On that day, Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton in England and B. Stanley Pons of the University of Utah, who for years had been intrigued by what they termed inexplicably "odd" data from separate research efforts, sat down in the kitchen of Pons' Salt Lake City home and agreed to embark upon an experiment "for the fun of it."

"We like to talk about things that people ought to have done but haven't and whether we can do them," Fleischmann said in an interview here. "Sometimes we like to talk about the impossible just for fun.

"We thought the idea was so stupid that we decided to finance it ourselves," he added at a press conference. They invested $100,000 of their own money in the research.

Now, they say they have accomplished something that has eluded researchers for more than 30 years--the successful creation of a sustained nuclear fusion.

Although their findings have yet to be confirmed by independent researchers, Fleischmann and Pons may have opened an unexpected threshold in fusion research that could usher in a new age of limitless, safe and pollution-free energy.

The two researchers are virtually unknown among the cadre of physicists who have been pressing costly government-funded research programs into controlling fusion reactions.

But Fleischmann and Pons said they believed that it was their expertise in chemistry--augmenting their knowledge of physics--that led to the discovery.

"Without our particular backgrounds, you wouldn't think of the combination of circumstances required to get this to work," said Pons, 46, a slightly graying, immaculately tailored man with a Julius Caesar haircut.

'Combination of Knowledge'

"We realize we are singularly fortunate in having the combination of knowledge that allowed us to accomplish a fusion reaction in this new way," Fleischmann said.

The path to the discovery began in the late 1960s, said Fleischmann, a native of Czechoslovakia and naturalized British subject who will celebrate his 62nd birthday on Wednesday. Fleischmann was conducting research on the separation of hydrogen and deuterium isotopes at the University of Southhampton.

In the course of enriching deuterium, Fleischmann noticed what he termed "odd" reactions.

Pons, who studied under Fleischmann in 1975 as a graduate student in England, noticed similar oddities years later in separate research on isotopic separation in electrodes.

It was during one of Fleischmann's annual visits to Utah to compare notes and to conduct joint research that the two began to seriously focus on the unusual findings. Hiking into Millcreek Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains, both researchers said they became increasingly excited about the possibilities. Discussion during a subsequent drive across Texas to attend a scientific conference settled the issue.

A month later they met in Pons' family kitchen and drafted plans for the experiment that led to Thursday's announcement.

'We Had to Try It'

"The stakes were so high with this one, we decided we had to try it," Fleischmann said. "It had a one-in-a-billion chance of working, although it made perfectly good scientific sense."

Almost immediately, they reported, there were strong indications that they were onto something important. But they also realized their approach was unorthodox. Rather than apply for a government grant, they used their own money.

During the next five years they improved, tested and retested the procedure on weekends and at night in Pons' lab at the University of Utah.

What they achieved, they said, was the first nuclear fusion reaction at room temperature, a reaction that they said they sustained for hundreds of hours. In a phrase, they were getting back more energy than they were putting into the system.

If confirmed, the discovery could lead eventually to the use of nuclear fusion for the world's energy needs. Many believe that it could replace fossil fuel like coal, gas and oil, which is being depleted and is a major cause of such environmental problems as urban air pollution, global warming and acid rain.

240 Articles

During his 40-year career, Fleischmann has written more than 240 articles in the electrochemical, physics, chemistry and electrochemical engineering fields. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of England and was awarded a medal for electrochemistry and thermodynamics by the Royal Society of Chemistry in 1979, the Olin-Palladium Medal of the Electrochemical Society in 1985 and the Bruno Breyer award by the Royal Australian Chemical Society in 1988. In 1951 he earned the doctorate in chemistry at London University.

Pons, an American born in Valdese, N.C., has written more than 140 articles and holds a doctorate degree in chemistry at the University of Southampton earned in 1979. He is a member of the International Society of Electrochemistry, the American Chemical Society and the Canadian Institute of Chemistry.

Both Fleischmann and Pons are married. Fleischmann has four children and three grandchildren. Pons has six children.

Assisting Pons and Fleischmann with the project was Marvin Hawkins, a University of Utah graduate student from LaJara, Colo.

Thomas H. Maugh II reported from Salt Lake City and Larry B. Stammer from Los Angeles.

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