University of Utah officials were to announce Thursday a breakthrough in fusion energy that reports say could provide virtually unlimited, clean and inexpensive energy.
University officials refused to release information on the research before a 1 p.m. press conference - after the Deseret News' Thursday deadline. But articles on the experiment appeared in Thursday's Times of London and Wall Street Journal.Meanwhile B. Stanley Pons, chairman of the University of Utah chemistry department, confirmed Thursday that he and Professor Martin Fleischmann of Southampton University in England have carried out the fusion through an inexpensive and relatively simple electrochemical process. Pons said they developed the technique after 5 1/2 years of research.
"Yes, we did it," Pons told the Associated Press.
Scientists, who since 1952 have spent millions of dollars to achieve controlled hydrogen fusion, have generally believed that it could take place only under the millions of degrees of heat and density that exist on the sun.
But the Utah experiments apparently show that fusion can be triggered electrically and under conditions that exist naturally in the earth.
The Wall Street Journal reported that experiments believed conducted at the U. show that hydrogen atoms can be forced to fuse together inside a solid material rather than in the superhot gases that fusion researchers have used before.
In this type of fusion reaction, the fusion fuel would be deuterium, a "heavy" form of hydrogen that can be extracted from sea water.
The deuterium in a gallon of sea water could produce as much energy as 300 gallons of gasoline. There's enough deuterium in the world's oceans to supply the world energy needs for several million years.
University spokeswoman Barbara Shelley said the researchers expect their research to be greeted with skepticism - but said it would withstand the scrutiny of scientific review.
"We are anticipating much skepticism from physicists and are welcoming that kind of skepticism," she said. "The electrochemical process is working."
The skepticism is due to the fact that Pons and Fleischmann have followed a line of research generally thought to have little chance for success.
Nuclear fusion is regarded as science's next great frontier in developing nuclear energy but has generally been considered to be years away from commercial exploitation. It differs from conventional processes in that it fuses atoms, rather than splits them. Previous efforts to fuse atoms consumed more energy than they produced.
Dr. Mick Lomer, head of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority's fusion laboratory, said, "We're approaching it with a skeptical but open mind. We shall be doing our utmost to reproduce the experiment."
The Financial Times said the two scientists "have apparently done in a simple laboratory what has not been achieved by gigantic projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars."
Unlike nuclear fission, which powers existing nuclear reactors, fusion produces little radioactive waste. Its material, deuterium, is abundant in sea water. Fusion reactors are expected to be safer than fission reactors because fusion would shut down if anything went wrong.
The paper said the Fleischmann-Pons experiments technically "are no more complex than the practical work done by chemistry undergraduates. They use electrochemical techniques to achieve fusion of deuterium nuclei trapped inside an electrode made from palladium, a metal similar to platinum."
"What we have done is open the door to a new area of research. Our indications are that the discovery will be reasonably easy to make into a usable technology for generating heat and power, but a lot more work is needed to prove its validity further and then to develop practical generating devices," Fleischmann said.
"The nature of the experiment is ridiculously simple, yet in a way so far-fetched, that we decided not to raise money from external sources but to finance the early work ourselves," he said.
"Stan (Pons) and I often talk of doing insane experiments. We each have a good track record of getting impossible experiments to work. In this case, the stakes were so high that we just had to try out the idea," Fleischmann told the Times.