The Tempest In A Test Tube: How Cold Fusion Fell From Grace

BALTIMORE—It was quite a show while it lasted, they all agreed, but toward the end the magic had started to wear thin. “Cold fusion,” at least to many of the 1,400 scientists who streamed out of the American Physical Society’s May 1 marathon debunking session, ended as it had begun—in a theatrical performance before a packed house. The difference was that this time, organizers claimed, the smoke and mirrors behind Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann’s unpr

By | May 29, 1989

BALTIMORE—It was quite a show while it lasted, they all agreed, but toward the end the magic had started to wear thin. “Cold fusion,” at least to many of the 1,400 scientists who streamed out of the American Physical Society’s May 1 marathon debunking session, ended as it had begun—in a theatrical performance before a packed house. The difference was that this time, organizers claimed, the smoke and mirrors behind Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann’s unprecedented room-temperature fusion discovery lay exposed like a novelty parlor trick.

“The experiment is wrong,” proclaimed Caltech theorist Steven Koonin from the podium after delivering a blow-by-blow discrediting of the chemists’ experimental technique. “We are suffering from the incompetence and perhaps the delusions of professors Pons and Fleischmann.” And with a roar, the gathered physicists celebrated the death of cold fusion.

While Pons and Fleischmann continue to defended their results, it is clear the tide has turned. Supporters have nearly vanished and countless labs have given up verification experiments in failure. Short of another breakthrough as striking as the first appeared to be, the University of Utah discovery seems destined for a wry footnote in history.

Six weeks after their startling announcement, and five days after they were lionized at a congressional hearing, how could Pons and Fleiscbmann’s fortunes have changed so rapidly? If, indeed, this was “crackpot science,” how did it manage to command worldwide attention for over a month when equally nonsensical proposals from other scientists are routinely dismissed? The answer, it now appears, is that the Pons and Fleischmann experiment incorporated just enough of the key elements—big stakes, reputable researchers, tantalizing scraps of information, and a grain of scientific possibility—to be irresistible.

“The experiment is more difficult than it looks at first,” says University of Maryland physicist Edward Redish, who organized the APS session. “You get some apparent positives quickly.” The Utah scientists were proposing physical processes that were many orders of magnitude away from conventional theory, but under close investigation, Redish says one can almost imagine how such vast chasms might be crossed.

“There’s tremendous leverage in the equations,” he says. “You change one thing slightly and you’re 106 closer. I had an idea in the shower, ran in, and found a factor of three. It was close enough to possibilities to be very tempting.”

Even so, most scientists 10 years ago might have resisted the urge to go public with such speculative findings. But if the 1986 discovery of high-temperature superconductivity proved anything, it was that pooh-poohing basement breakthroughs is not always wise. As Redish puts it, “Superconductivity opened the scientific shell to exotica.”

Furthermore, Pons and Fleischmann were considered reputable researchers.. “It’s not so easy to disregard things from people who should know what they’re doing,” says Robert Park. a condensed-matter physicist who heads the APS ‘s Washington office.

Yet another factor that kept hope alive was the piecemeal way in which the Utah scientists released the details of the experiment. There was no aspect so absolute it couldn’t be modified when other labs failed to confirm it. “It almost seemed deliberate,” says Park. “Any time someone did the experiment with no result, they would say, ‘You didn’t do the experiment right,’ and offer up another tidbit.”

Initial reports from Utah suggested that the reaction would begin working in a matter of hours. But when labs began calling in without results, Pons and Fleischmann said that some configurations required five days before fusion commenced. As labs around the country continued to monitor stone-cold experiments, the Utah scientists upped their estimate of how long was needed to measure a reaction first to a week, then to as much as 20 days in troublesome cells.

If the APS meeting was the nadir for cold fusion,then a congressional hearing—held only 50 miles away and five days earlier—was its apogee. The extravagant opening comments of House Science Committee Chairman Rep. Robert Roe (D-NJ.) set the tone at the packed session, which was flooded by the lights from (television cameras. “Today we may be poised on the threshold of a new era,” Roe intoned. “If so, man will be unshackled from his dependence of finite energy resource.”

Other committee members were equally effusive in their praise of the two men, who appeared as conquering heroes in the battle to free the world of its reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear fission. “Gentlemen, the world awaits the crucial details of your amazing claim,” said Rep. Marilyn Lloyd (D-Tenn.), who heads the committee’s energy research subpanel. “We all want this to work.”

The stark contrast between the two meetings illustrates more than just the difference between researchers and politicians, or physicists and chemists. In the joyful tumult at the APS meeting that followed each criticism of the Pons and Fleischmann experiments, the gathered scientists seemed to be releasing a huge sigh of relief. The pressure that had been building for five long weeks of unrelenting worldwide clamor following the March 23 announcement of the discovery at a news conference in Salt Lake City was gone. The Baltimore celebration, organizers crowed, signaled the defeat of scientific opportunism, symbolized by flashy headlines and 30-second sound bites, and the vindication of the scientific method. It was an extraordinary public display of a subtle yet iron rule of science: When the unwritten laws of scientific decorum are broken, the retribution is merciless.

For the politicians who had invited the Utah researchers to their April 26 hearing, the sheer magnitude of the claim appeared to be a proposition that they could not ignore. Mter funding conventional, high-temperature fusion research for 38 years at a cost of more than $8 billion the lawmakers felt anything that promised a short cut was worth a look. "Those of us who are laymen tend to get very enthusiastic about new things that come forward,” admits Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pa.), ranking minority member and a former teacher.

In fact, anything less than enthusiasm would have seemed almost unpatriotic. The scientists had come to ask for $25 million in federal funds for a fusion research center in Utah. The Utah congressional delegation, led by Democrat Wayne Owens, was preparing to introduce a bill that would send $25 million, various tax benefits, and other perks to the Utah fusion researchers. Walker had proposed transferring $5 million from existing fusion funds within the Department of Energy. And Sen. Jake Gain (R-Utah) was taking reservations from his fellow lawmakers for a special chartered flight to Salt Lake City to meet with the governor and with officials from the University of Utah.

At the hearing, Fleischmann explained that federal funding would be required “in units of $10 million.” The time scale for commercializing the process “is limited by the cash flow. You cannot do scale-up engineering on the cheap,” he said. By the time Utah president Chase Peterson had left the stand an hour later, there was talk of an eventual federal contribution of as much as $125 million.

Several of the witnesses who followed the Utah chemists—including Brigham Young University physicist Steven Jones and Princeton Plasma Lab head Harold Furth—painted a more critical picture of the scientific merits of cold fusion. But by then only a handful of committee members were still in the room, and much of the media coverage had packed up and left. Jones, who had brought a tiny plant in a small jar to the witness table with him, pointed to it and warned those who remained that “adding too much fertilizer at this point would be detrimental. Some would say that this will become a great tree that can supply all our energy needs. But give it a few months; it may only be a rose.”

Only a week later, after the Baltimore APS meeting, Jones’s words appeared prophetic. Careful work by Caltech’s Koonin and electro-chemist Nathan Lewis had discredited many of the findings of Pons and Fleischmann. “You’re going to be shocked,” Lewis warned the assembled physicists. Among the errors, he said, were the fact that the Utah scientists had failed to stir the water in their cells, confused fusion emissions with atmospheric radon radiation, attributed naturally occurring helium in their lab to fusion reactions, failed to measure correctly the voltage potential between the electrodes, and. underestimated the energy produced by chemical reaction within the palladium. Any one of the errors were enough to give a false reading of fusion, said Lewis.

In Washington, the attack on the Utah results changed everything. - Gain dropped his chartered flight to Utah. A meeting at the White House in which Pons would have met with top aides of President Bush was canceled. Owens’s bill for $25 million in fusion funds was being delayed as staffers waited for a sign of hope from the Utah researchers. Walker says that his proposed transfer of $5 million from conventional fusion is “not on a fast track. Maybe it should be $2 million. Even if the Utah thing doesn’t pan out, there may still be some need for cold fusion.”

The mood within the Utah delegation was decidedly somber. “I don’t even want to think about what it might mean [for the state] if cold fusion doesn’t work,” said one staffer, in a Lone that suggested he was already thinking about just that. While Pons and Fleischmann continue to travel in support of their work, Congress is wary of being twice burned. Funding for a state fusion center will be decided in the next several weeks and can only be called unlikely at this point. Remaining congressional support seems contingent on verification from the Los Alamos National Lab, which was to have a workshop on the subject this week.

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