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Of Fusion and Confusion: Does It Really Work?

Times Science Writer

Scientists at widely scattered laboratories thus far have been unable to duplicate the efforts of two scientists who claimed last week to have produced fusion at room temperature with a simple apparatus, various sources said Monday.

The lack of success was blamed partly on a shortage of information about exactly how the experiment was conducted. The scientists, with the full backing of the University of Utah, announced their findings Thursday, several weeks before a technical paper with details of the experiment is to be published.

Despite the fact that no one else has been able to duplicate what has been described as a very simple exercise, physicist James J. Brophy, vice president for research at the University of Utah, insisted Monday that the experiment is easy to carry out, once you know how.

“They (the two scientists) have reproduced it a dozen times,” Brophy said. “There is no doubt it works.”

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But it does not work quite the way some physicists would expect, Brophy said Monday as he revealed new details that are sure to create even greater confusion. The experiment produces heat that could only come from fusion, he said, but it does not produce the radiation that physicists would expect fusion to generate. It is, he said, a new type of fusion that no one understands fully.

Numerous laboratories plan to continue their efforts to either validate--or repudiate--the work of electrochemists B. Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton, England. Some laboratories, however, are abandoning the effort.

“We have basically decided that we don’t know enough about how it was done,” said electrochemist Charles Martin of Texas A&M.; “It would not be productive for us to continue.”

Martin reflects the frustration of many scientists who are trying to determine whether Pons and Fleischmann really have discovered something that could revolutionize the world. Much is riding on these attempts to confirm the findings.

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The scientists claim their work could lead to a virtually endless source of clean, inexpensive energy through fusion--the welding of atoms together in a process that releases enormous amounts of energy. Many scientists have spent billions of dollars in that quest, yet fusion power remains an elusive goal. Pons and Fleischmann, however, claim to have reached it with about $100,000 of their own money.

The claim sounds too good to be true, and there was precious little emerging Monday that would suggest otherwise. There was, however, much confusion.

Steve Dean, president of Fusion Power Associates, a trade group headquartered in Germantown, Md., said he understood that Lawrence Livermore Laboratory had kept three versions of the experiment operating over the weekend “without success.” Brophy said he understood Pons had explained to the scientists at Livermore what they were doing wrong, but as of late Monday, the lab still had not been able to duplicate the experiment.

Don Correll, a physicist at Lawrence, said scientists there will continue working on the experiment “while anxiously awaiting further details.” He said news of the experiment was “wonderful,” even though no one is sure just what it means.

“Something is there,” he said of the Utah findings. “Something is happening. But whether it’s fusion. . . ?”

Correll said Pons and Fleischmann are reputable scientists and their claims cannot be ignored. “Neither one of them just popped out of the woodwork,” he added.

Brophy also said he understood that Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico had carried out the experiment successfully, but a spokesman at Los Alamos denied that. The lab is working on the experiment, the spokesman said, but he added: “Nothing yet.”

News accounts of the experiment alarmed some scientists familiar with fusion because if the table-top apparatus demonstrated in the press conference actually produced the amount of energy that the Utah scientists claimed, then it should have posed a severe radiation hazard, according to experts.

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“You can’t do that unshielded,” said Robert Conn, director of the Institute of Plasma and Fusion Research at UCLA. “You will fry the people” who are working on the experiment, he added.

For every watt of power generated by the apparatus, Conn said, 100 billion high energy neutrons should be emitted every second. That would make it an extremely dangerous source of radiation.

But Brophy said Monday he has personally watched the experiment, and no shielding was necessary.

That is because the experiment generates heat that the scientists insist could only come from fusion, but it does not produce the number of neutrons that the current understanding of physics would demand.

“The amount of neutrons is much smaller than would be expected,” Brophy said. “There is some physics going on that we don’t fully understand.”

What sets the experiment apart from all other work in fusion is that it produces more energy than it takes to run it, a goal no other scientists anywhere in the world have been able to reach. The University of Utah has applied for patents.

The scientists said earlier that they would not be surprised if it took other laboratories some time to duplicate the experiment. Pons and Fleischmann said they worked on the project for more than five years, and it took many trials before the correct result was attained.

So as of Monday night, it was still impossible to say whether Pons and Fleischmann had achieved something that could revolutionize the world.

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“These are two very respected people,” Brophy said. “The data is overwhelming. I have absolutely no doubts about it.”

Dean, of the fusion trade group, probably reflected the more common opinion Monday:

“I’m hearing more and more people who think the data was misinterpreted.”


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