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British Give Up, Brand Cold Fusion a 'Mad Idea'

June 16, 1989|LEE DYE | Times Science Writer

In a move that virtually buries hopes for cold fusion, the British Atomic Energy Authority said Thursday it has abandoned efforts to replicate a controversial Utah experiment and branded claims of achieving fusion-in-a-flask "a mad idea."

The decision by Britain's Harwell Laboratory is particularly significant because one of the scientists who made the startling announcement in Salt Lake City last March is a consultant to the lab and made materials he had used in the Utah research available to his British colleagues. In addition, the scientist, Milton Fleischmann, worked with the Harwell team in an effort to repeat the results he claimed to have achieved with fellow electrochemist B. Stanley Pons of the University of Utah.

Ten scientists worked full time at the lab, located near Oxford, and more than 100 others participated from time to time, according to David Williams, who headed the effort. In all, they tried 125 variations of the experiment over a three-month period and spent more than $486,000.

But in the end, their highly sophisticated instruments detected no excess heat, which would have demonstrated the energy-producing potential of the experiment, and they found no neutrons, which would have proved that fusion was taking place.

It all added up to a devastating blow to cold fusion enthusiasts, because it was widely believed that Harwell, with Fleischmann's full cooperation, had the best chance of confirming the Utah experiment, which had held the promise of ending the planet's energy woes.

"We simply have to stop because we can't think of anything else to do at the moment," Williams told reporters Thursday.

But he added that the experiments "clearly documented" that cold fusion was not taking place.

In a reference to Fleischmann, he added: "When brilliant people have mad ideas it can come down on them like a ton of bricks. What's happened here is that a brilliant man has had a mad idea."

Fleischmann was "out of town" for a couple of days and could not be reached, according to a man who answered the phone at his London residence. Pons could not be reached in Salt Lake City, either. The University of Utah said he is in London.

But James J. Brophy, vice president for research at the University of Utah, said the university continued to support the claims of Pons and Fleischmann. Brophy said he was "at a loss to explain" why Fleischmann's colleagues in England could not repeat the experiment even though they had a palladium electrode supplied by Fleischmann. The electrode was part of a simple table-top experiment that the University of Utah had claimed offered a "clean, virtually inexhaustible source of energy."

Disappointment in Utah

"It is disappointing that they have not been able to do the experiment properly," Brophy said in a telephone interview.

The startling announcement last March sent shock waves through the scientific world. Thousands of experts around the globe dropped whatever they were doing and turned their attention to the experiment, although most scientists were skeptical from the beginning.

Oddly, a number of laboratories and institutions worldwide reported partial confirmation of the Utah experiment, although no one was able to duplicate all the results claimed by Pons and Fleischmann.

Why some have claimed partial success while many others have failed remains a mystery.

Some, such as the Georgia Institute of Technology, reported confirmation of the experiment, only to have to back off days later and admit failure.

But others, including scientists and engineers at Texas A&M and Stanford University, have reported results that so far have defied explanation.

"We are getting positive results," said A. John Appleby, director of the electrochemical center at Texas A&M. But the results are not always the same, adding more mystery to what will surely rank as one of the most unusual chapters in the history of science.

Sometimes, Appleby said in a telephone interview Thursday, the electrodes produce tritium--a byproduct of fusion--but other scientists with identical electrodes on other parts of the College Station campus are unable to get the same results. Some experiments at Texas A&M have also produced excess heat, but other experiments on the same campus have not.

"Something seems to be happening" that does not conform to conventional understanding of either chemistry or physics, he added.

"I'm not saying I believe in cold fusion," he said, "but we have heating we can't explain by normal means."

Other research institutions, including the Los Alamos National Laboratory, have reported some evidence of fusion in electrodes like those used by Pons and Fleischmann, but not nearly on a scale that would suggest that the process has any application in the production of energy. Instead, the Los Alamos results tend to support the far less extravagant claims of another Utah scientist, Steven E. Jones of Brigham Young University.

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