Federal scientists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory will take sensitive scientific instruments to Utah next week to help analyze an experiment there that has been touted as a breakthrough in the effort to produce energy through nuclear fusion.
Los Alamos is one of nine laboratories across the country trying to duplicate the experiment. Although no one has reported significant progress, the effort has continued unabated, because if the experiment is confirmed, it could lead to an inexhaustible supply of cheap energy, with seawater supplying the fuel.
Scientists remain skeptical about the claim, but scores are eagerly trying to duplicate the experiment. There is a growing conviction that something must be there, even if it is not what the Utah team believes.
B. Stanley Pons, chairman of the University of Utah’s department of chemistry, and Martin Fleischmann, professor of electrochemistry at the University of Southampton, England, announced at a Salt Lake City press conference last week that they had succeeded in producing nuclear fusion with a simple apparatus that generated far more energy than it took to run it.
Holy Grail of Research
It is the latter part of the claim that has tantalized other scientists. A nuclear fusion device that produces more energy than it consumes is the Holy Grail of energy research. It is the long-sought goal of scores of researchers spending billions of dollars over the past three decades.
There is some evidence now that the Utah scientists were correct in insisting that they had achieved nuclear fusion, but some scientists are convinced that something else--possibly a chemical reaction--must also have been at work if the experiment produced more energy than it consumed.
The strongest boost Pons and Fleischmann have received since their initial announcement has come from a physicist at Brigham Young University in nearby Provo.
Physicist Steven Jones has carried on parallel research at Brigham Young, but he has refused to discuss it publicly until his research is published in a professional journal in May. He has, however, just made copies of his report available to other scientists.
UCLA physicist Robert Conn reviewed Jones’ work and concluded that the Brigham Young professor had caused fusion to occur in a simple device similar to the one used by Pons and Fleischmann.
“The fusion rate is higher than you would expect,” Conn said of Jones’ work, but not nearly high enough to generate more energy than it takes to run the experiment. Jones has never claimed that his experiment led to a net increase in energy, and he described his work earlier as merely of “scientific interest.”
Conn described Jones research as “carefully done, good, accurate, solid stuff.”
Jones’ research would appear to be a partial confirmation of the work done by Pons and Fleischmann, in that it does indicate that some fusion is possible with the simple, table-top experiment, but it falls far short of suggesting that the world’s energy woes may soon be at an end.
What puzzles many scientists is the claim by Pons and Fleischmann that they got more energy out than they put in. Some of the scientists at Los Alamos have worked with both men, and both are held in high esteem.
“The people who are involved (Pons and Fleischmann) are very good chemists,” one Los Alamos scientist said in a telephone interview. “One thing they know how to do is to measure the power in and the power released (from the experiment). They are uniquely good at that.”
The relative simplicity of that measurement, plus the reputations of Pons and Fleischmann, have made it difficult to dismiss the claim. If the chemists have erred, they have erred repeatedly over the past five years, and their announcement would represent a blunder of staggering proportions. That, according to scientists who know them well, does not seem likely.
It is one of the reasons scientists across the country set out immediately to duplicate the experiment. Some smaller labs have given up, but several of the nation’s most prestigious laboratories are working intensely on the experiment.
Some scientists were so intrigued that they spent last weekend setting up their own versions of the experiment at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, sources at the lab said. However, no one knew exactly how Pons and Fleischmann had carried out their experiment, so none of the hurried attempts led to success.
The Utah team is withholding details until their work is published in a professional journal, a decision that has left other experimenters with little guidance.
Apparently, it takes some time for fusion to begin to occur after the experiment is started, partly explaining the delay in results. But the biggest problem has been the lack of specific details concerning how the experiment was carried out.
That situation has changed at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, because Edward Teller, a legendary figure in nuclear research, stepped in and tried to fill some of the gaps.
In a telephone interview, Pons said he talked personally with Teller, who is the lab’s director emeritus, in an attempt to help scientists at Livermore duplicate the experiment.
Livermore scientists are now trying to verify the experiment, but there have been no reports of success.
Meanwhile, the Harwell Laboratory in England, a research facility operated by the British atomic energy authority, is also trying to duplicate the experiment, and Fleischmann is personally helping in that effort. Fleischmann is a consultant to the lab, and he reportedly even provided the apparatus for scientists there to use in their efforts at verification.
Asked if an announcement there was imminent, one official said: “There’s no scoop here yet.”
Meanwhile, the debate continues, both over the potential significance of the experiment, and over the way it was revealed to the world.
The Utah team chose to hold a press conference rather than wait for publication in a professional journal, because news of their work was leaking out, according to James J. Brophy, vice president for research at the University of Utah. Brophy also said during a telephone interview that a research paper by Pons and Fleischmann had already been accepted by the journal Nature before the press conference was held.
But Nature, published in England, denied that.