BALTIMORE — The dispute over cold fusion reached the boiling point Tuesday as scientists assembled here said they were prepared "to sign the death certificate" for the fusion-in-a-flask experiment and one Nobel Laureate said the head of the University of Utah, which backed the research, "ought to be fired."
But a university official defended chemists B. Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton in England and fired back with charges of "hand waving" and "Eastern elite" bias.
The 40 papers submitted for presentation at an American Physical Society meeting here variously ridiculed, questioned and doubted the Utah group's conclusion that they were able to produce more energy than was consumed in their simple fusion cell and traced a litany of purported errors in their research. The errors, they said, included failure to stir the liquid in the flasks and possible radon seepage into the experiment.
Few of the assessments were delicate.
Caltech physicist Steven E. Koonin summarized the feelings of many researchers here when he concluded that their results were based on "incompetence, and perhaps delusion."
And an indignant Leon Lederman, director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., said that University of Utah President Chase Peterson "ought to be fired" for his role in promoting Pons' and Fleischmann's claims.
James J. Brophy, the university's vice president for research and development, dismissed the charges as "a lot of waving of hands." He said that such criticisms are to be expected "because of the obvious importance of the technology" and said that the physicists, particularly the "Eastern elite," have a vested interest in protecting their own fusion research funds. He added that supportive evidence would be presented next week at a meeting of the Electrochemical Society in Los Angeles.
The consensus of most observers was that, unless Pons and Fleischmann can produce some dramatic new evidence to support their contentions, their claims are likely to fade into obscurity along with polywater, N-rays and other highly publicized scientific "breakthroughs" that were subsequently discredited.
The University of Utah also drew fire for unabashedly hyping Pons' and Fleischmann's findings, its failure to ensure that their results were scientifically sound and its effort to obtain $25 million from Congress for a cold fusion research center before the work had been replicated. Several researchers said that the university has been greatly embarrassed by its role in promoting the cold fusion fever and bypassing normal scientific channels in an effort to obtain research funds.
Visit to White House
Meanwhile, the principals in this monthlong scientific saga, perhaps oblivious to the latest torrent of criticism, prepared to meet today with Bush Administration officials at the White House.
A University of Utah spokeswoman said that Pons and Fleischmann were in Washington preparing for the meeting and that they would have no comment on the charges. They were invited to appear at the Physical Society meeting, but declined because of their speaking and research commitments.
The panel also said that it could not yet render a verdict on the claims by physicist Steven E. Jones of Brigham Young University that he had observed a much smaller level of cold fusion than Pons and Fleischmann. Jones has made no claims of excess energy production and has repeatedly argued that his results offer no immediate hope of commercial energy production.
Pons and Fleischmann startled the world March 23 when they announced that they had discovered a hitherto unknown fusion reaction that worked at room temperature and produced more energy than it consumed--a feat that has eluded physicists and their multimillion-dollar fusion machines for decades. They said that the extra heat could be obtained by simply applying a small electric current to palladium and platinum electrodes immersed in deuterium oxide--the so-called heavy water in which each hydrogen atom is replaced by deuterium, which has one extra neutron.
They said deuterium ions would be forced by the electric current to enter the palladium electrode, where they would fuse to form helium, releasing heat in the process. Their results held forth the promise of unlimited, inexpensive energy that could be produced from the deuterium in seawater.
Other scientists were immediately skeptical of their claims because the simple fusion cell produced only extremely small amounts of the radiation that should have resulted from a fusion reaction. Nonetheless, scientists throughout the world rushed into their laboratories to attempt to reproduce the Utah findings, working 16- to 20-hour days seven days a week.