A new MIT scientific journal paper splashes water on the cold fusion phenomenon, saying the heat generated in table-top experiments is just energy released from cracks in the metal rods.

Ali F. AbuTaha, a Washington, D.C., scientific consultant and metals engineer, presented the paper in May 1989 at a workshop in Santa Fe, N.M. But "Cold Fusion - The Heat Mechanism," wasn't published until the Fall 1990 edition of Journal of Fusion Energy. A second paper by AbuTaha, "Cold Fusion - Engineering Perspectives," is printed in the winter 1990 issue of the same journal.AbuTaha contends the palladium rods in B. Stanley Pons' and Martin Fleischmann's experiments are weakened and cracked by deuterium, a heavy form of hydrogen used in the cold fusion experiments. The cracking, or embrittlement process, releases heat. He says Pons and Fleischmann "bet the farm" and based a principle of heat generation that is a basic law to metal engineers.

Reaction to the paper was generally positive, although not everyone agreed with AbuTaha's conclusions.

- Fritz Will, director of the University of Utah's National Cold Fusion Institute, called AbuTaha's work a "nice paper" but said it didn't appear based on experimental studies.

"The question is: Are there big surprises in this? And my answer would be: `No.' "

- Steve Jones, a physicist at Brigham Young University who has been conducting cold fusion experiments for several years, said AbuTaha's theory would be an interesting non-fusion explanation for the heat that is generated through the experiments.

- Kevin Wolf, a physicist at Texas A&M University's Cyclotron Laboratory, said AbuTaha's paper appears reasonable. "The work makes a lot of sense to me. I'm not a metallurgist, but quantitatively it explains some of the claims."

Wolf said the theory is consistent with fusion experiments that report heat production depends on how the metal is worked. According to AbuTaha's explanation, when metal is rolled or forged or thinned, it retains internal stress that can be released, as heat perceptible to the touch, through cracking or etching.

While AbuTaha debunks the Pons/

Fleischmann theories, he respects them for exploring the phenomenon they observed in the laboratory.

"What happens when a crack opens up?" AbuTaha said. "You release surface energy. What would surprise a number of physicists is that you will release a tremendous amount of surface energy.

"In simple terms, when palladium rods are plunged into hydrogen, deuterium or another corrosive environment, the metal begins to break down," he said. "This process of breaking down is nothing but doing work in physics. And work, by definition, is a force times a distance. So each time a crack forms within the metal, it does a small amount of work. And work is energy and energy is heat."

But Will counters with the results of experiments conducted by a group of metallurgists, led by Milt Wadsworth, dean of the University of Utah's College of Mining Engineering, who conducted the fusion institute.

"Their ongoing studies have taught them that these are very complex, exceedingly complex interrelated phenomenon with no simple explanation at hand.

"What we know is fracturing of metals does produce low levels of nuclear energy. Some low levels of heat can be explained. The amounts of heat produced in cold fusion experiments is larger, I believe, then what can be explained by a fracture model."

Electrochemists Pons and Fleischmann ignited the scientific world in March 1989 when they announced they sustained nuclear reaction in a tabletop experiment that produced more energy in the form of heat than was used to run it.

According to the team's experiments, their simple reactor produces electrochemically induced pressure that forces deuterium nuclei closer together. The lattice structure of the palladium, used in the core of the reactor, may play a role in producing nuclear energy.

But AbuTaha and others disagree that fusion results. They say the fervor ignited after the Utah announcement because the experiments appeared to offer cheap, clean source of energy. "Everyone ran to the laboratories, if you recall, and no one cared to stop at the library," AbuTaha said.

"If you go back, cold fusion was looked at primarily by physicists and chemists. As such, mechanical processes are not usually in their domain. I think the excitement of the moment is what might have led many astray, especially with a story that seems to promise solving our energy problems," AbuTaha said.

James Intrater, vice-president of Advanced Technology, Inc., in San Jose, Calif., thinks the cracking theory sounds so simple that many experts wouldn't consider it a valid explanation. Intrater has written his own unpublished paper on the same theory, based on AbuTaha's work.

"If I explain this to a class of junior (college level) materials students, they would sit back and say, "People thought this is fusion. This is so clear,' " Intrader said.

Intrater said cold fusion "is an example of an intensely non-multidisciplinary project," he said.

"There is a hierarchy. Physicists look down on chemists. Chemists look down on engineers. Engineers look down on machinists."