Fifteen years after the University of Utah made the now infamous announcement that two of its chemists had produced "cold fusion" in their lab, the U.S. Department of Energy will review a new batch of claims by other researchers.
Even though most mainstream scientists consider cold fusion literally cold as in dead cold and at least one prominent critic thinks the DOE will be wasting its time, a band of researchers who have refused to give up are delighted by the review.
Although the DOE has received no proposals for new studies or provided new funding in the controversial field, research by what James F. Decker, deputy director of DOE Office of Science, calls some "excellent scientific institutions" the past 15 years deserves a look.
His interest was apparently sparked at least in part by a story in the Wall Street Journal on research results being reported at the 10th International Conference on Cold Fusion.
U. chemists B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, announced March 23, 1989, that they had captured the process that powers the sun in a small apparatus working at room temperature.
The hope of limitless, cheap, electrical power faded quickly, even with a $5 million appropriation from the Legislature, as scientists around the world raced with mixed outcomes to duplicate the results. Eight months later, a special DOE review panel concluded that the research was almost surely an illusion.
Some scientists had announced they could not reproduce the results. A few believed they were achieving cold fusion. Others pointed to what they considered flaws in the Utah work. Critics became increasingly vocal, with some denouncing Pons and Fleischmann's findings as "pathological science." "A group of scientists requested a meeting with the Office of Science," Decker said in an e-mail. "I met with them sometime last fall. They told me about a lot of research on cold fusion that has been done since the last review that was conducted about 15 years ago. "They presented some data and asked for a review of the scientific research that has been conducted." These were from "excellent scientific institutions and have excellent credentials," Decker wrote. "It was my personal judgment that their request for a review was reasonable." The office will pass along the material they provided, to reviewers with the expertise to evaluate it. He expects the reviewers will spend a couple of days hearing presentations, then will individually offer their opinions on the science. Brigham Young University scientist Steven F. Jones, whose own research preceded the announcement by Pons and Fleischmann, said of the new DOE review, "I think it's high time, actually," adding that "there's a lot going on" in the field.
Jones, a professor of physics and astronomy, never claimed impressive energy outputs in his own studies. He has been looking into unusual findings. He was the lead speaker at the conference last August in Cambridge, Mass., where new findings were announced.
He said he wants to make a clear distinction, and always has, "between the nuclear work which we pioneered" and the claims of excess heat production. "I think those are the two camps, and those camps persist to this day, actually," he said. "I'm a bit disappointed that the physics community has by and large overlooked this work and denigrated it," Jones said. But some physicists expressed interest in the field, he added.
Eugene Mallove, editor of New Energy magazine and a supporter of fusion research since 1989, is excited about the DOE review.
"It turns out that the phenomena we're talking about are far broader than the original discovery," he said in a telephone interview.
What Pons and Fleischmann came upon should not be called fusion, he thinks. Instead, it is "a new form of energy" with mysterious nuclear aspects.
"There undoubtedly is fusion going on of some kind, but it was not plasma fusion," he said. Pons and Fleischmann themselves said it was not plasma (hot) fusion, he added. Perhaps the best term for what is happening is "low-energy nuclear reactions," he said.
Mallove hopes the DOE review will turn policy toward funding the new areas of research and away from the multibillion-dollar chase after hot fusion. The country and the world have paid dearly because the 1989 discovery was not properly followed up, he believes.
"There should never have been a war against cold fusion, but there was one," he said. "And it's coming to an end, a screeching halt."
Among the discoveries Mallove cites are Japanese experiments that seemingly border on alchemy. Elements are changing into other elements in these experiments, he said, and the research has been published in a prestigious Japanese peer-reviewed physics journal.
John Huizenga, a retired professor of chemistry at the University of Rochester, N.Y. and co-chairman of the DOE 20-member panel that reviewed cold-fusion claims in 1989 is against having a review.
Huizenga, author of the 1994 book "Cold Fusion: The Scientific Fiasco of the Century," believes "it's been laid to rest, and I don't see why they're looking at it again," he said in a telephone interview from Rochester. "We looked into the subject very thoroughly. I don't think much will come of it," he said of the review. Without clear-cut results, it's "rather worthless to continue plowing that ground." A great deal of follow-up occurred, but "there have been no positive results that have come along since then which were worthy of establishing another committee," he said.
Some of the researchers who claimed they had substantiated the findings 15 years ago are still claiming results but without any evidence, he said.
Pons and Fleischmann reported enormous amounts of excess energy emanating from their apparatus, he said. If that were true, "that would produce an equivalent amount of fusion products (such as neutrons) and those fusion products should be very easy to see. And we do not see them. The Pons and Fleischmann announcement was "outlandish quite different from that of Jones," Huizenga said.
Jones and company are "working near the background" level of nuclear material in the environment. "It's very difficult to say one way or another."
If Jones' results hold up, Huizenga said, "they would be very interesting from a scientific point of view but would have no interest in terms of producing energy." "So one has to keep these two claims very separate."And Jones is working so near background it's hard to refute his results," Huizenga said, "and on the other hand it's very hard to prove."