25 years ago a dream caught fire — and died

Published: Sunday, March 23 2014 10:00 p.m. MDT

Dr. B. Stanley Pons, left, and Dr. Martin Fleischmann at a press conference announcing their nuclear fusion discovery March 23, 1989

Paul Barker, Deseret News Archives

SALT LAKE CITY — Twenty five years ago, University of Utah scientists announced a discovery that touched off a worldwide sensation.

"Basically, we've established a sustained nuclear fusion reaction by means which are considerably simpler than conventional techniques," said Professor Stanley Pons on March 23, 1989. He was describing an experiment on the Utah campus that sent waves of optimism around the globe. Some thought so-called "cold fusion" would solve the world's energy problems and lead to widespread peace and prosperity.

But it wasn't long before those hopes crumbled. At least one prominent scientist later denounced it as "the scientific fiasco of the century."

A few scientists around the world are still committed to "cold fusion" research. But the Utah episode a quarter-century ago is now viewed by many as a classic case of "pathological science" in which the hopes and biases of researchers lure them into a misinterpretation of data.

On that spring day 25 years ago, Pons and fellow chemist Martin Fleischmann became instant science celebrities. "We have tried very hard to prove ourselves wrong, all the way down the line," Fleischmann said that day. "We have to now wait and see."

From the beginning, it did seem too good to be true. The table-top apparatus of Pons and Fleischmann took common elements found in seawater and used an electric current to squeeze them into a crystal lattice. Astonishingly, it seemed to produce excess heat by triggering nuclear fusion, the same process that's kept the sun burning for billions of years.

Scientists immediately predicted far-reaching results if Pons and Fleischmann turned out to be right.

"The significance of energy production from this technology is mind-boggling," said Dr. Philip Ross, then a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley. "It would be the most significant technological discovery since man discovered fire."

Pundits dreamed about unlimited, cheap, clean energy as well as economic prosperity and the end of international tensions over oil supplies.

But sitting in the audience at the news conference that day, young physicist David Kieda spotted a red flag. In a recent interview, Kieda, who is now dean of the University of Utah Graduate School, said: "Well it sounded rather fantastic and I reserved my judgment."

If nuclear fusion was going on, he thought, why didn't Pons and Fleischmann detect bursts of neutrons or gamma rays?

"I did the back-of-the envelope calculation later on that night," Kieda recalled, "and realized they would have received a fairly heavy dose of neutrons. They could have been killed by it. So at that point I wondered whether this was real or not, that something else could have been going on."

As researchers around the world tried to duplicate the excess-heat experiment of Pons and Fleischmann, they ran into frustration and mixed results.

"Now and then they'd see some heat," Kieda said. "Now and then they wouldn't."

It wasn't long before mainstream science turned a cold shoulder to cold fusion.

"Eventually it corrected itself," Kieda said recently. "There was a cold fusion institute that was founded. They did work on it for about four or five years. They concluded the result is not as strong, if at all, (or) does not exist. If it exists, it's at a much smaller level and it's probably not viable for an energy source."

Almost from day one, scientists criticized University of Utah officials for allegedly pushing Pons and Fleischmann into a news conference. Some say the scientific peer review was rushed because of worries about patent rights and fears that a BYU scientist would publish something similar first.

A few weeks after the 1989 announcement, Nobel Prize winning chemist Dr. Glenn Seaborg said, "It would have been better, of course, if the Utah work could have undergone that (peer review) process before it was revealed."

Twenty-five years later, there's a strong scientific consensus that Pons and Flesichmann added too much hope to their table-top recipe.

"I believe they really wanted it to be true," Kieda said. "It would have been fantastic if it was. But the universe is what it is. You have to bend to the rules of the universe. And just because you want something to happen doesn't mean it's going to happen."

Email: jhollenhorst@deseretnews.com

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