Only time will tell if a breakthrough in nuclear-fusion energy by a University of Utah chemist and his British colleague will find its place in history alongside Newton's apple and Bell's telephone.
But some scientists are already calling the "school-level" chemistry of Martin Fleischmann and B. Stanley Pons the greatest scientific accomplishment of the 20th century. The optimism is sufficient at the Department of Energy that the pair will receive federal funding.DOE spokesman Jeff Sherwood said Friday that a $322,000 grant has been approved to enable the scientists to continue their research. The grant, expected to be awarded in May, is for an 18-month period.
Like many scientists, DOE officials were reserved in their judgment, taking a wait-and-see attitude about the local experiments that could have international impact.
During a press conference Thursday, the scientists confirmed that they have successfully created a sustained nuclear fusion reaction for 100 hours at room temperature in a simple electrode in the basement of the Henry Eyring Chemistry Building on the U. campus.
The breakthrough, which could solve one of the most confounding scientific problems of the past 35 years, could mean that the world may someday rely on fusion for a clean, virtually inexhaustible source of energy.
A Brigham Young University scientist, Steven E. Jones, has also studied cold nuclear fusion since 1985, and, according to Sherwood, over the years has received $1.9 million in DOE grants. But Jones is not prepared to say if his research will have any commercially useful results.
BYU spokesman Paul Richards said BYU has been pursuing fusion research independently from the U. "Both groups (have) made simultaneous discoveries, but BYU is not planning any public announcement until reports appear in scientific journals."
Richards said BYU and the U. had an agreement to submit their papers back to back and those papers were to be sent out Friday.
Despite the U.'s press conference Thursday, BYU officials said they could not release their similar findings because the research had to appear in scientific journals first.
Dr. James Brophy, U. vice president for research, said the Pons' and Fleischmann's findings will appear in scientific literature in May.
The announcement, he said, was made first to the press "frankly because the results were so exciting there were beginning to be rumors . . . and we decided it would be better to set the record straight" about their exciting discovery.
Brophy said both humans and the environment could benefit from nuclear fusion, which could free the world from problems associated with such pollutants as burning coal and oil. Using fusion for energy would reduce or even eliminate major causes of acid rain, the greenhouse effect, and let the fossil fuels be used for plastics and other petrochemicals.
"What we have done is to open the door of a new research area," said Fleischmann, a professor of electrochemistry at the University of Southampton, England. "Our indications are that the discovery will be relatively easy to make into a usable technology for generating heat and power.
"We don't know what the implications are. The science base has to be established as widely as possible to challenge our findings," he said. "But it does seem there is a possibility of realizing sustained fusion in a relatively simple device."
However, both Fleischmann and Pons, chairman of the U.'s department of chemistry, cautioned that more research is needed to determine if the process will work on a large scale.
Scientists worldwide have sought a practical application of fusion for about 35 years. In nature, the energy of stars, such as the sun, is supplied by fusion. All fossil fuels presently used on the earth are storehouses of stellar nuclear fusion energy.
Brophy said that before the Utah breakthrough, imitating nature's fusion reactions in a laboratory has been difficult and expensive. In the Utah research, the electro-chemists created a surprisingly simple experiment - equivalent to one in a freshman-level college chemistry course.
The two explained that during the simple and cheap process electrochemical techniques are used to fuse some of the components of heavy water, which contains deuterium and occurs naturally in sea water.
An electrical current is used to drive deuteron particles through a lattice, forcing positively charged particles to fuse together and create a new atom.
Unlike more traditional fusion techniques that require tremendous heat, the electrochemical process is carried out at room temperature in a fragile glass flask.
Chase Peterson, U. president, simplified the explanation saying: "The fuel is heavy water, driven by electric force into enormously compact concentrations in the holes inside this metal (palladium)," and the resulting fusion reaction heats water in the surrounding container.
"You boil water, and when you boil water you make steam, and when you make steam you run a turbine, and if you run a turbine you can create electricity," Peterson said.
One cubic foot of sea water, the scientists said, contains enough deuterium to produce the same amount of energy as burning 10 tons of coal.
In addition to funding by DOE, the researchers' apparent success will likely be financially rewarded by the state of Utah. Gov. Norm Bangerter has offered the state's resources "to ensure that the university and our state get full benefit from the great efforts of the U. of U. in this area."
Peterson said the school has applied for patents to cover the techniques in the United States and internationally. "Everything we know about it says it ought to have commercial application," he said.
Meanwhile, other nuclear scientists said the experiment will have to be duplicated independently before the findings of Pons and Fleischmann can be accepted. The pair said they look forward to their peers' scrutiny.
But Peterson believes the full story of the research may not be known for months or years as others confirm, challenge and enlarge their ideas and data.
"What's likely to happen? There's no way of knowing. A lot of good ideas come along and something stops them from ever materializing. We have no idea that this will ever materialize. But everything we know about it suggests it should be relatively easy to add this commercial application," Peterson said.
"It that occurs and if the court of science in the world approves it, the University of Utah will do everything possible to have this exploited for the benefit of cheap energy with little cost to the world ecology."