Scientist Killed, 3 Hurt in Explosion at Research Facility

TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

A metal canister used in a cold-fusion experiment at a major research institution near Stanford University exploded Thursday, killing one scientist and injuring three others.

The explosion at SRI International in Menlo Park was described as a mechanical or chemical explosion--not nuclear--and occurred when one of the scientists was releasing pressure in a six-inch-tall cylinder, according to Menlo Park Fire Department spokesman Rick Reed.

Two of the survivors, identified as Stuart Smedley, 48, and Michael McKubre, 43, were listed in stable condition at Stanford University Medical Center with face and arm injuries. The third survivor was treated and released. The scientist killed in the blast was not immediately identified.

Damage from the explosion, which was described by company officials as sounding like a gunshot, was confined to a single laboratory, one of about 100 at the sprawling private research facility.

The cylinder was one of four being used in cold-fusion experiments. The other three cylinders are to be buried at SRI until an investigation determines when they can be safely removed from the premises, Reed said.

The experiment involved passing an electric current through palladium that was immersed in deuterium, a form of hydrogen known as "heavy water." The experiment was one of many carried out by various institutions after two University of Utah researchers claimed two years ago that they had achieved "fusion in a jar."

The claim promised to end the planet's energy woes by making cheap electrical power available in abundance, but no other scientists were able to duplicate the experiment and it has been widely discredited. Only a handful of research labs continued to work in the field, among them SRI International.

Company officials said that they were uncertain what caused the explosion, but that they believed hydrogen and oxygen gas had been produced by the experiment. Those two gases can be highly explosive when mixed together, and they would have to be bled out of the canister to keep the concentrations at a safe level.

"We didn't think this was particularly dangerous," said SRI Vice President Dennis Maxwell. "We don't have an explanation for why it exploded."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°