Utah's $5 million investment in cold fusion experiments purchased nine patent applications, sparked feuds between researchers and pinned Salt Lake City back on the scientific map.
Nearly two years after speculating in energy futures, state officials admit they're still not quite sure what they bought with taxpayers' bucks."I really never have gotten a crisp answer from the University of Utah," said state science adviser Randy Moon. "If you were to speak to the attorneys, they would say we have purchased nine patent applications. The value of the patent applications is really uncertain."
Utah's high-profile search for cold fusion, hoped to be a cure-all to the earth's energy problems, is profiled in a Nova special scheduled to air at 7 p.m. Wednesday on KUED, Channel 7. It will be broadcast again Jan. 20 at 6 p.m., and on Jan. 21 at 10:35 p.m. (See story, C6.)
Marking the second-year anniversary of the state's flirtation with fusion, the program chronicles the U.'s March 1989 announcement that electrochemists B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann had tamed fusion, recreating the same process that generates the sun's energy, in a test tube.
The program contends that something interesting is happening in Pons' and Fleischmann's glass beakers, but proclaims that science can't be rushed. That's exactly what university officials say.
"I think the science and engineering did not develop as rapidly as anticipated," said James Brophy, U. vice president for research.
"It's worth the investment, but what we've learned in the two years is it's going to take more time than we had originally thought."
And, according to another state science watchdog, more money.
"The research is worth pursuing, but it is going to take a tremendous amount of resources to prove or disprove it," said Mitchell Melich, who sits with Moon on the state oversight committee, the Fusion/Energy Advisory Council.
"When you consider the federal government program on Star Wars, we spent billions and billions and still are spending. The same was true developing nuclear energy so we could create the bomb and have nuclear power plants.
"Until we have unlimited resources, I don't know if we can prove or disprove fusion."
At this point, the science appears to be bubbling over on the back burner. Politics has iced research at many universities, while stifling progress at the U.
The director of the university's National Cold Fusion Institute isn't communicating with star researchers, Pons and Fleischmann. State money is buying scientific reviews and paying rent, while state advisers are demanding accountability.
All but $922,000 of the state's investment has been spent. Fritz Will, institute director, says fusion research has a "black eye" in the scientific community, which limits outside funding sources.
Pons said Will and former institute director Hugo Rossi can take part of the blame for that.
"Had it had adequate, first-level administration, it (the institute) would have been successful. But they are squandering it (money) away up there now," Pons said in a telephone interview.
Pons negotiated an agreement with the U. that will enable him to do research there and elsewhere.
As a research professor, Pons said he'll continue normal research in the chemistry department. He would also like to conduct fusion research there.
"We are going to continue the (fusion) work even if we have to finance it ourselves. We would prefer to do it in Utah but we want the option to do it elsewhere, just to protect ourselves. We can't spend our lives undergoing external reviews," he said.
Pons appeared in Utah for an independent scientific review of institute experiments in December. Now Wilford Hansen, a Utah State University chemist/physicist and state fusion council member, has been charged with conducting yet another exam of Pons' data.
Pons said he's cooperating with Hansen; he sent data to Hansen this week.
Moon thinks that review will map how the rest of state funds should be spent.
"What I think would be nice would be full disclosure of Stan's data, then use the rest of the money to focus on experiments that would build on his successful experiments," Moon said. "If we can get them (Hansen and Pons) together and decide what experiments should be run, that would be the best for the state."