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Claims of Cold Fusion in Utah Tantalize Scientists at Caltech

May 28, 1989|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

Cold fusion may turn out to be, as one East Coast physicist described it, the greatest discovery since fire. Or it could ultimately be dismissed as just another widely ballyhooed dud.

But regardless of the final judgment, at Caltech it will long be remembered as the source of a phenomenal burst of intellectual energy, sweeping chemists and physicists into an intense, sometimes giddy two-month search for the truth.

"It's like an incredible detective story," said electrochemist Nathan Lewis, the point man in Caltech's interdisciplinary effort to replicate the dramatic findings announced two months ago by the University of Utah.

Lewis' critique of the Utah findings at a meeting of physicists in Baltimore three weeks ago has generally been regarded as among the most devastating in a hail of critical studies. "We could find no evidence for anything other than conventional chemistry," Lewis said at the time.

Now that the roar of amazement is dying down, the Caltech team members are telling the story of how they launched into their own passionate quest for cold fusion, using newspaper articles and videotapes of news programs as their source material, jury-rigging experimental machines with borrowed equipment and working around the clock in their laboratories.

Momentous, If True

Consider the stakes here, Lewis and others said recently. If it's true, as claimed by B. Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton in England, that fusion can be achieved at room temperatures using little more than sea water and an electric current, then the solution to the world's energy problems could be at hand.

The Caltech scientists sputter to sum it all up. "The claim that you can make energy out of really simple things--it's one of the most amazing things to be recorded in decades," said graduate student Bruce Tufts.

Here, then, was the scene when Lewis got to work on March 24, the day after the cold fusion claims were announced.

About 20 of his students and postdoctoral researchers were in the lab on the second floor of the Noyes Chemistry Building, fiddling with palladium electrodes and beakers full of "heavy water," a solution of deuterium oxide.

"If nothing else," said chemist-researcher Michael Sailor, one of the tinkerers, "I wanted to be able to say that the day after it was announced, I went and did it in the lab."

What drove them? "Curiosity," said Lewis, 33, a fast-talking, energetic man who is liable to blurt out to a telephone caller: "I've only got a minute, so let's hustle."

"We were just curious," he said, dismissing a contention from Pons and Fleischmann supporters that schools, such as Caltech, had set out to debunk their work. "There's no credit in coming in second. It wasn't that. It was just curiosity."

Physicists' Huddle

Two blocks away, in the basement of the Physics Building, physics professor Charles Barnes was huddling with researchers Stephen Kellogg and T. R. Wang about what kind of a contribution they could make in verifying the phenomenon.

"We knew we had one of the best neutron detectors in the world and an absolutely state-of-the-art gamma ray detector," said Barnes, 68, who has been at Caltech for 36 years, "and we were wondering if we could do something to contribute."

All anybody knew, Lewis said, was that Pons and Fleischmann had built a device similar to a homemade battery, using palladium and platinum electrodes in a solution of deuterium oxide. (Actually about 10% heavier than water, deuterium oxide is a kind of water in which the hydrogen atom is replaced by deuterium, which has an extra neutron.) Run an electric current through the electrodes, said Pons and Fleischmann, and, under the right conditions, you will achieve fusion.

That would mean that, as with any atomic reaction, more energy would come out than went in. It would also mean fusion of subatomic nuclei--the same process that occurs on the surface of the sun, at temperatures measured in millions of degrees. Then telltale byproducts, such as extra neutrons, gamma rays and the hydrogen isotope tritium, could be detected.

Lewis' band of researchers propped copies of the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal, with accounts of the Pons-Fleischmann findings, on their lab tables and tried various approaches to the experiment. In the week or so after the announcement, some spent 24-hour days in the laboratory.

Secrecy an Obstacle

It was time-consuming research. Because of the Utah pair's secrecy about some aspects of their work, the Caltech chemists had to do a lot of guesswork, Lewis said . "What was the size of the flask? Where were the electrodes? Were they sticking out of the flask? And that does make a difference."

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