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Helium Find Gives Lift to Fusion Chemists : Discovery Backs Controversial Claim of Nuclear Reaction in Simple Experiment

April 18, 1989|LEE DYE | Times Science Writer

Two University of Utah chemists announced Monday that they have detected a rare form of helium in a "cold fusion" experiment, offering the most compelling evidence to date in support of a colleague who claims to have achieved fusion in a flask.

"This is the kind of evidence the physicists have been waiting for," Cheves Walling, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the university, said in a telephone interview.

Walling and fellow chemist John Simons detected helium-4 in one of several fusion experiments that are producing heat.

"At first, it seemed too good to be true," Simons said. "But I don't believe you can produce that much helium without something nuclear going on."

Although he has not seen the data and was guarded in his comments, UCLA nuclear engineer Robert Conn agreed.

"The telltale signature (of fusion) is helium," Conn said. "It's hard to imagine helium produced chemically."

Furthermore, the amount of helium-4 corresponds to the amount that should have been there if the heat was coming from nuclear fusion, Walling added.

Walling and Simons used one of the same experiments that produced heat for electrochemists B. Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton, England. The two men set off a fierce controversy after they announced on March 23 that they had achieved fusion in a jar and had produced more energy than the experiment consumed.

If confirmed, the Pons-Fleischmann experiment could solve the Earth's energy woes because the fuel would come from the sea, so the supply would be inexhaustible.

In the three weeks since the March 23 announcement, scores of laboratories around the world have attempted to replicate the experiment with only scattered claims of partial success. Experts in the field of nuclear fusion have derided the announcement because the claim went counter to the understanding of nuclear physics.

More recently, a few scientists have come up with theories explaining how it might be possible to achieve nuclear fusion at room temperature, although most scientists have remained extremely skeptical of the Pons-Fleischmann claim.

Their experiment yielded a very low rate of neutrons, and many scientists find that extremely troubling because according to conventional wisdom the experiment should have emitted enough neutrons to have endangered the experimenters if it was actually producing the amount of energy claimed by Pons and Fleischmann.

One theory was advanced by Pons a few days after the controversial Salt Lake City press conference, and a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Peter L. Hagelstein, recently voiced the same speculation. That theory argues that the process mainly produces a rare form of helium called helium-4, which does not emit neutrons. Thus it would be possible to generate heat by nuclear fusion, and a very low number of neutrons, if there is a significant production of helium-4.

And that, Walling and Simons said Monday, is just what they found when they put the experiment into a "mass spectrometer," a device that detects which elements are present.

The apparatus used by Walling and Simons was one of several in the Utah lab that is producing heat.

"This supports the idea that the heat comes from fusion," said Walling, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and one of the most respected names in chemistry.

Walling, 73, pioneered the study of nuclear reactions. He edited the Journal of the American Chemical Society and has served in a wide range of governmental, scientific and industrial posts.

He said the helium-4 produces the heat by transferring its energy to surrounding electrons.

That process, according to the theory advanced by MIT's Hagelstein, would account for heat from nuclear fusion in the absence of the number of neutrons that physicists had expected.

The Pons-Fleischmann claim must await further verification by other laboratories, because the essence of the scientific process is reproducibility. If the claim is true, anyone with the proper equipment, and following the right procedures, should be able to repeat it.

However, only a few laboratories have claimed any degree of success.

One claim came Monday from Italy. The National Agency for Alternative Energy in Frascati, just outside Rome, said it has verified the experiment. An announcement was scheduled for today, and no further details were released.

Pons said Monday that he was leaving immediately to meet with government scientists at Los Alamos, N.M., to discuss their efforts.

In addition, the University of Utah is starting "18 or 19 new experiments to look at other matters, other measurements," he said. "We're trying to scale it up. Two of those experiments will be slightly larger. We're just going to go on doing our own work."

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