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SCIENCE / MEDICINE : Cold-Fusion Faithful Still Fan the Flames of Research : Energy: More than 200 researchers at a cold-fusion conference share the latest results and offer each other support.

April 09, 1990|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

SALT LAKE CITY — To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of cold fusion are somewhat premature--at least according to its proponents.

Just over a year ago, University of Utah electrochemists B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced to a stunned world that they had discovered a simple desktop reaction, carried out at room temperatures, that produced energy in the same way as the fiery furnace of the sun. When they applied a small electric current to platinum and palladium electrodes immersed in deuterium oxide, a "heavy" form of water, they said, deuterium atoms fused together, forming helium atoms and releasing large amounts of energy.

Their announcement promised something that researchers have been dreaming of and seeking for decades--an inexpensive source of energy that is produced from highly abundant materials and that produces no polluting byproducts.

But despite subsequent reports of partial successes elsewhere, most chemists and physicists around the world were unsuccessful in their hurried efforts to reproduce the unexpected results. And, within four months, the unorthodox concept had seemingly been relegated to the dustbin of history.

At the end of March, however, more than 200 staunch advocates of cold fusion from the United States, Italy, Japan, India and Taiwan gathered here for the First Annual Conference on Cold Fusion to compare notes on their research, to encourage one another in their lonely quest and generally to shout their defiance of the physics community at large.

The physics community, for its part, took little public notice of the affair--except for Robert Parks of the American Physical Society, who derisively termed the meeting a "seance of true believers."

That community also sent a handful of self-appointed "skeptics-at-large," most notably Stephen Kellogg of Caltech, Richard Petrasso of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Douglas Morrison of CERN high-energy physics lab near Geneva, Switzerland, who apparently took unseemly delight in puncturing each speaker's presentation with highly pointed questions.

And after three days of presentations and debate, an independent observer was left with several conclusions:

* That some new evidence has accumulated in the last year supporting the reality of cold fusion, particularly from the prestigious U.S. Department of Energy laboratories.

* That most observers outside the field are still not ready to accept that evidence.

* And that another year or two is going to be necessary for cold fusion to be either vindicated or finally discredited.

Fusion, which has been hailed as the energy source of the future for at least two decades, must normally be carried out at very high temperatures and pressures. Those conditions are essential to overcome the large repulsive forces that normally keep the nuclei of atoms separate.

Most fusion schemes involve isotopes of hydrogen, which normally has only a single proton in its nucleus, deuterium (which has a neutron as well) and radioactive tritium (which has two neutrons). In the most commonly considered reaction, two deuterium nuclei slam together at high speed, fusing into an unstable helium atom--helium-4--and releasing energy.

Pons and Fleischmann devised what they believe to be a clever way to get around the need for high temperatures and pressures. They knew that palladium metal (and some others) readily absorb hydrogen or deuterium, packing the atoms into the small spaces between metal nuclei.

They reasoned that application of a modest electrical field would increase the metal's absorption of deuterium from deuterium oxide (heavy water)--perhaps to the point where two deuterium nuclei would be forced into the space normally occupied by one. In that confined space, the repulsive forces between nuclei might be overcome and they would fuse, releasing energy.

And that is what they reported at their momentous press conference last March: that, over long periods of time, their simple electrochemical cell produced more energy than they put into it and, for brief periods, produced bursts of much more energy than they put into it.

That energy, they said, was much greater than could be accounted for by any known chemical process, and thus must be nuclear in origin. Unfortunately, their cell did not seem to produce any of the nuclear debris that should have been associated with a fusion reaction: no neutrons, no tritium, no detectable helium-3 and no significant radiation of any other sort.

This lack of nuclear debris, along with other labs' difficulty in reproducing their results, has been the primary stumbling block in persuading physicists to accept their conclusion.

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