Two scientists announced Thursday that they have achieved nuclear fusion at room temperature, a breakthrough that if confirmed by other scientific experiments could move the quest for nuclear power into an entirely new arena.
The scientists have produced an incredibly simple, table-top device that they say uses a small electric current to produce slightly more energy than it takes to run the experiment. If they are right, they have reached a goal that has eluded scores of other scientists who have had at their disposal fusion research reactors costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
“The breakthrough means the world may someday rely on fusion for a clean, virtually inexhaustible source of energy,” the University of Utah said in a press release announcing the dramatic development.
B. Stanley Pons, chairman of the department of chemistry at the University of Utah, and his former professor, Martin Fleischmann, professor of electrochemistry at the University of Southampton, England, announced the results during a press conference on the university campus.
Their work follows a course that is so different from conventional wisdom on fusion research that many of the leaders in the field were not even familiar with it. Others were very skeptical, but several who were aware of the research said it could not be dismissed. The two scientists have been working on the project for more than five years, and they have spent $100,000 of their own money on it.
“We thought the idea was so stupid that we decided to finance it ourselves,” Fleischmann said.
Beginning in May, however, the two men will have the support of the U.S. Department of Energy, which said Thursday it will fund their work for 18 months with a grant of $322,000.
Pons and Fleischmann claim to have succeeded where so many others have failed by trying a totally different approach that involves a glass flask and an electrode.
“It’s one of those ideas that hasn’t occurred to other people,” said one Department of Energy scientist who is familiar with the research. “I have no other explanation.”
“If it’s true, it’s wonderful,” said Robert Conn, director of the Institute of Plasma and Fusion Research at UCLA. He said, however, “it would be surprising” if the work is confirmed.
That is partly because the physics of fusion is believed to require the presence of extremely high temperatures--millions of degrees--before fusion can occur.
Unlike fission, which releases energy when atoms are split, fusion releases energy when atoms are welded together. Fission is the nuclear reaction in atomic weapons; fusion produced the hydrogen bomb.
A fusion power plant would produce enormous amounts of energy with very little fuel, and it is believed that it would be less hazardous and produce fewer dangerous byproducts than today’s fission plants.
The high temperature for a fusion reaction is necessary for positively charged atomic nuclei to have the energy to fuse together in a process that releases enormous amounts of heat.
Conventional wisdom also holds that the fuel for a fusion reaction must be extremely compressed, forcing hydrogen atoms close enough together for fusion to occur. In most major research projects, that is done by subjecting the fuel--in the form of a pellet or a dense gas--to either a strong magnetic field or intensely powerful lasers. That is done with huge instruments costing many millions of dollars.
Pons and Fleischmann used none of that, however. Their apparatus consists of a flask about the size and shape of a round-bottomed drinking glass with a fitted glass plug at the top. Inside the flask is a cylinder made of the metal palladium, about six inches long, wrapped in a platinum coil, creating an electrode.
The flask is filled with 99.5% heavy water, which is water made of one part oxygen and two parts deuterium, a form of hydrogen that is about twice as heavy as ordinary hydrogen. Deuterium is the most common fuel for fusion experiments and is easily obtainable from seawater.
A six- to eight-volt current was applied to the apparatus, causing deuterium from the water to concentrate in the palladium. That, in turn, caused the closely packed deuterium atoms to fuse together at room temperature, the scientists said.
“The deuterium is simply driven (from the heavy water) into the metal rod and fused, with a considerable release of energy,” Pons said. The energy released from the reaction is in the form of heat.
That amount of heat “can only be accounted for by nuclear reactions,” Pons said during the press conference.
The scientists first suspected that they were beginning to get a fusion reaction in their experiment “one day when we turned up the power and the electrode melted,” Fleischmann said. “We’ve been running at much lower power since then.”
Furthermore, the byproducts were what one would expect from fusion--neutrons and tritium.
Perhaps most significant, the researchers claim that they have run the device for periods as long as 100 hours and continued to produce more energy than it took to run the experiment. If confirmed, the results mean the two men have done something no one else in the world has been able to do, despite the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars: They have passed the “break-even” point at which more energy is produced than consumed.
And they think that with further refinements in the experiment, they should be able to get “1,000%" more energy out than they put in.
Ordinarily, results such as these are first announced in professional journals so that other experts can study the experiments before the findings are publicized. It is unusual to hold a press conference before a formal presentation to scientific peers, and the procedure followed by the University of Utah and the two researchers was of some concern to other scientists.
The university decided to hold a press conference because the results were “so exciting that we were beginning to have a lot of rumors,” according to Jim Brophy, the university’s vice president for research. The scientists said their findings will be published in May in a professional journal, but they declined to identify the publication.
Repeatedly, other experts said they could not comment extensively on the report because they knew nothing about it. Those who would comment were generally skeptical, but several familiar with the work said they expected it to spawn a vast amount of research.
With the possible exception of scientists in the Soviet Union, no one outside the state of Utah is believed to be working on the same concept. Physicist Steven Jones of Brigham Young University in nearby Provo is widely recognized for his work in a similar field which involves the use of subatomic particles called muons to create a fusion reaction. That generally is regarded as a promising area of research, but Jones indicated in a telephone interview Thursday that he has switched his research to the same area now being studied by Pons and Fleischmann.
Jones, who was reluctant to even discuss his work until a formal paper is published in May, said that after several years of frustration, “we’re seeing something significant.”
“It’s a scientific success,” he said of his own work. “But if you’re talking energy, that will have to wait for a lot more research.”
Pons was considerably less reticent.
“It would be reasonable to build a power plant within a short number of years,” he said.
“What we have done is to open the door of a new research area,” Fleischmann said. “Our indications are that the discovery will be relatively easy to make into a usable technology for generating heat and power, but continued work is needed, first, to further understand the science, and secondly, to determine its value to energy economics.”
Not everyone is so optimistic.
“Don’t put any money on it,” said UCLA fusion physicist Burton Fried.
But if Pons and Fleischmann are right, most scientists would agree, they have probably pulled off one of the great scientific coups of all time.
Thomas H. Maugh II reported from Salt Lake City and Lee Dye from Los Angeles.
In nuclear fission, the current method of producing nuclear energy, a free neutron is used to split the nucleus of a heavy element, such as uranium. The reaction releases heat energy as well as atomic fragments, neutrons and such nuclear radiation as gamma rays.
In nuclear fusion, two lightweight nuclei unite, rather than split, releasing energy and a neutron. This principle, repeated many times, produces the hydrogen bomb, but scientists have been unsuccessful for decades in trying to harness the process for energy production.
THE FUSION ELECTRODE
By using an electric field to drive the deuterium atoms into an electrode, researchers can get a very high concentration of deuterium atoms. The electrodes enable them to achieve a fusion result at room temperature that would require incredible pressure (10 to the 27th power of atmospheric pressure) and temperatures with conventional attempts at fusion.
The new method uses a very low voltage and current to contain atoms so closely that they react with one another without the massive magnetic fields necessary for containment in more mainstream methods.