An announcement by two scientists this week, one from Britain and the other a faculty member at the University of Utah, that they have succeeded in creating room-temperature nuclear fusion has set the world scientific community on its ear - and with good reason.
If the experiment, done on a small scale in the laboratory, can be verified by others and upgraded to larger devices, it could solve the world's energy problems at a single stroke.Fusion reactors using deuterium from sea water could provide the world with heat and electrical energy for millions of years.
In 1981, when controlled fusion was considered to be decades away, the hoped-for future success was described by one expert as "the most important step in the history of mankind, as far as energy is concerned."
Most fusion work up to now has involved multi-million dollar devices that try to fuse atoms together by means of heat like the interior of the sun, a technique loaded with a multitude of very tough problems.
The new "cold" fusion by B. Stanley Pons, chairman of the U. of U. chemistry department, and Martin Fleischmann of Southhampton University in England avoids all those problems. The fusion process apparently works in a laboratory flask.
However, a word of caution: There is a huge difference between a lab experiment and a useful commercial device. Some researchers elsewhere already are voicing skepticism that such a leap can be made because of the scientific principles involved.
But there also is evidence from other quarters that the discovery is substantial. Independent experiments at Brigham Young University take a different approach but reportedly have achieved some success. BYU scientists are not saying anything until their work is published in a scientific journal - the usual approach for new discoveries.
In any case, the work in Utah is likely to touch off a stampede of similar research elsewhere.
For non-scientists, some basic explanation is necessary. Controlled nuclear energy was first achieved by "fission," the splitting of atoms. This was done by bombarding complex atoms, like uranium, with subatomic particles. When an atom split, it released energy. Enough of them all at once was an atomic bomb.
Fusion, first used in the hydrogen bomb, takes the opposite approach. Instead of splitting atoms, it welds them together, which releases even more energy. Instead of complex atoms like uranium, simple ones like hydrogen are used. Because hydrogen atoms repel each other, huge temperatures have been thought necessary to weld them.
The startling success with fusion undoubtedly will bring federal research grants to the U. of U. to pursue the work. But the discovery itself is a strong argument for supporting institutions of higher learning and allowing professors the time for scientific research. In the long run, society gets back every penny of its investment - and then some.
The potential of the fusion breakthrough is remarkable and verifying work can be expected in other labs fairly quickly. If this discovery and the work at BYU can indeed be applied on a large scale, the University of Utah and BYU both may go down in scientific history.