Clandestine NSF Panel Warms To Cold Fusion

WASHINGTON—Four months after one federal agency killed the prospect of government support of cold fusion, a second agency has brought it back to life. The strange phenomenon of low-temperature nuclear fusion, announced at the University of Utah with great fanfare March 23 by two chemists, took another bizarre turn last month when a self-described “upbeat, enthusiastic” panel of experts assembled by the National Sci ence Foundation’s engineering division concluded tha

Christopher Anderson
Nov 12, 1989

WASHINGTON—Four months after one federal agency killed the prospect of government support of cold fusion, a second agency has brought it back to life.

The strange phenomenon of low-temperature nuclear fusion, announced at the University of Utah with great fanfare March 23 by two chemists, took another bizarre turn last month when a self-described “upbeat, enthusiastic” panel of experts assembled by the National Sci ence Foundation’s engineering division concluded that the effects of cold fusion are real and “cannot be explained as a result of artifacts, equipment, or human errors.” Besides contradicting a preliminary report issued by another panel of experts convened by the Department of Energy in July, the October workshop was vehemently opposed by physicists and chemists at NSF. In seeming testimony to the audacity of their effort, the sponsors tried to keep the meeting secret, initially planning to transport the participants by bus to an undisclosed location for their three-day meeting. Then, after news of the event was leaked to the press, NSF agreed grudgingly to hold an informal “media opportunity” rather than a public press conference to declare the panelists’ support for further research.

Informal or not, the media event had all the signs of a classic cold fusion press conference: secrecy, confusion, and disputed claims. At one point, a gaggle of attending scientists literally distanced themselves from a statement written by Edward Teller, one of the fathers of both the hydrogen bomb and the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Teller, who attended the three-day workshop at NSF headquarters but not the press conference, hypothesizes “an as-yet undiscovered neutral particle” as the catalytic agent for the cold fusion reaction. But in front of the press, one scientist after another declined to read the statement. One of the sponsors of the workshop, NSF’s Paul Werbos, says, “I didn’t want to appear on TV saying what Teller had written. Out of context, it might look like I was saying it.” Finally, Teller’s statement was read by Harold Szu, a scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory.

While divisions within the panel remained evident, its conclusions were clear: Cold fusion deserves further exploration. But that stance will likely do little to resolve the issue, given the DOE’s previous findings. On July 13, a group of experts put together by DOE’s Energy Research Advisory Board released an interim report that said “the evidence for the discovery of a new nuclear process termed cold fusion is not persuasive.” The panel said there was no reason the federal government, faced with a proposal from Congress to allocate $25 million for a research center in Utah, should spend any money on the phenomenon being promoted by Utah chemist B. Stanley Pons and his British colleague, Martin Fleischmann. And, despite last month’s conclusions to the contrary, a lot of scientists still think the DOE panel’s preliminary findings are sound.

NSF Physicists Protest

“It seems unfortunate that an NSF office is now appearing to encourage such discredited work,” wrote Marcel Bardon, director of NSF’s physics division, in an electronic mail message to 500 NSF employees when he heard that the engineering division was planning to sponsor a meeting on cold fusion. “A critical review including conflicting points of view might perhaps be appropriate, but not very useful at this time.” Adds Karl Erb, program director for nuclear physics, “None of us [in the physics division] sees the need for this workshop,” a position echoed by officials in the chemistry division as well.

Why is NSF so divided on the subject? And how could two distinguished panels reach such divergent conclusions? The answers to both questions lie in the fact that scientific appraisals of cold fusion, even more so than most fields of science, have been propelled as much by politics as by findings in the laboratory.

“It’s fair to say that DOE went out of its way to get people [for its panel] who are sensitive to political nuances,” says Werbos, head of NSF’s Emerging Technologies program and a chief organizer of last month’s workshop. “We went out of our way to get people who are politically naive.” Other NSF officials suggest that DOE feels threatened by a discovery that, if proven to have practical use in generating large quantities of low-cost energy, would jeopardize the agency’s 40-year “tokamak” program, which relies on extremely high temperatures at enormous pressures to achieve fusion. “DOE has a stake in [tokamak] fusion that is put at risk if the public senses that there is an alternative,” says one NSF administrator in the engineering division.

Other scientists say that DOE has even tried to suppress the results of research done at its Los Alamos National Laboratory because some lab results support the possibility of cold fusion. Werbos, for example, says that the two Los Alamos scientists who attended the meeting, Howard Menlove and Carol Talcott, have asked him not to talk about results that Werbos believes “are very impressive.” And he adds: “the First Amendment [to the U.S. Constitution, which provides for free speech] doesn’t seem to work at QOE.”

Although Menlove denies that his work is being repressed, he acknowledges a reluctance by Los Alamos to discuss cold fusion work. “The lab doesn’t want to claim success until it’s confirmed,” he says.

Beyond the contrasting styles of the two agencies, the difference between the DOE and NSF panels may simply reflect the growing sophistication of cold fusion experiments. “Since July 13 the evidence has become more persuasive,” says Texas A&M fuel-cell researcher John Appleby, one of the co-chairs of the NSF workshop. “The phenomenon appears to be real enough that it merits another look,” adds NSF engineering division director George Hazelrigg.

But John Huizenga, co-chairman of the DOE panel, believes that little has changed since his group’s interim report. “I think the evidence is still not persuasive,” he says. Indeed, he expects that his panel’s final report, due out by the end of this month, will be even more pessimistic than its predecessor. “Looked at as a whole, the picture is no brighter [than it was at the time of the initial report]; indeed, it may be less bright,” he says.

Dissent between the two groups may come to a head in the next few weeks, when both release their final reports. As usual, charges of bias will likely be the ammunition of choice.

“I see a [NSF] panel that is loaded with believers,” says California Institute of Technology theorist Steven Koonin, who declined an invitation to participate. NSF’s Werbos admits that the panel was not as representative of all views as he had hoped. “We did the best we could to get a balanced ratio,” he says. “But a lot of people who were ‘nonreplicators when we invited them showed up as ‘replicators,’ “ he says, referring to those who had recently reproduced critical cold fusion experiments.

Even within the panel, signs of acrimony were quick to emerge. Although co-chair Appleby says the meeting was not argumentative (“The loudest shouting was the news. that the men’s room was overflowing”), others paint a less rosy picture. Caltech chemist Nathan Lewis, who attended the first two days, refused to take part in preparing the written statement and declares that “it is not the opinion of the full body.” The document was drafted at the end of the meeting, only two hours before the press conference and after many participants had already left. Lewis says that he retains strong doubts about the phenomenon and says that he does not know of anyone who has replicated the results that Pons and Fleischmann say they have achieved.

$3 Million At Stake

The dispute is not merely an academic one between rival camps. Although NSF officials emphasize that they have no current plans to support cold fusion experiments, they confirmed that substantial funding could become available quickly. “We certainly don’t have a block of money labeled ‘cold fusion,’ “ says Werbos. “But we do have various contingency funds around the foundation so that, if management wanted to, we could commit funds on the order of $1 million. If the recommendation from the [expert panel] is for significant research,” Werbos adds, “I hope the higher-level officers [within NSF] will consider it.”

Last month’s workshop at NSF was cosponsored by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a consortium of utility companies that funds research on a variety of subjects of interest to their members. EPRI plans to spend $800,000 this year on cold fusion-related work, according to a spokesman for the institute, and as much as $2 million next year.

In an atmosphere still murky with unsubstantiated claims, some say the NSF/EPRI conference signaled a perceptible shift in momentum toward some limited acceptance of real effects that cannot otherwise be explained. Without a clear consensus, however, cold fusion continues to fuel conflict among government agencies, scientific disciplines, and opposing labs. And until December, by which time both reports should be out, all bets remain off.