Given the urgency of the situation, Gov. Norm Bangerter was right in calling a special session of the Legislature April 7 to provide an immediate $5 million to the University of Utah. The school would use the money to develop its startling scientific room-temperature fusion discovery.
There was resistance at first from leading Republican legislators who said they didn't know enough about the U. of U. project and didn't want a special session now when another already is planned for July or August.While not opposed to the $5 million grant, they wanted more time to understand the project. They also feared a special session agenda might get out of hand and suggested the governor could dip into other state funds as a temporary step.
But after a meeting with Chase N. Peterson, U. of U. president, uncertain legislators apparently were turned into enthusiastic supporters of a special session.
State money will be used for development and commercialization once the science has been verified. That could take weeks or months. Federal funds for further scientific research at the U. already are on the way.
It is imperative that Utah be ready to get involved in the development side when the time comes. The fusion discovery has the whole world excited about its potential. It could mean cheap, almost unlimited energy.
That kind of a possible reward already has touched off a scramble all over the world. If the Utah experiment can be verified by other laboratories, some still-unanswered scientific questions solved, and a crude laboratory model upscaled to a working reactor, it would be what some scientists have called the "discovery of the century."
University of Utah chemist B. Stanley Pons and his British colleague, Martin Fleischmann, have fired the starting gun in what could be a scientific and technological race of unprecedented size. It would be ironic and very sad if Utah were left in the dust while others seized the work of these pioneers and ran away with it.
As James Brophy, University of Utah vice president for research, says: "It is important that Utah be a player in the game. Funds from Utah as seed money would be beneficial in attracting corporate funds."
Those could be significant since more than 200 corporations already have contacted the U. of U. about possible commercialization of the scientific breakthrough.
The U. of U. already has applied for patents. The state money could help lure some world experts in making the lab experiments into a money-making enterprise. If the fusion process does indeed work, it could be a bonanza for the state.
A plan for managing the project will be developed within the next two weeks by the university and the state Centers for Excellence program, which allocates money to develop research that has commercial potential.
Right now, Utah has the jump on the world, and as Peterson says, even a two-week lead is vital.
Some of the money also could help fund an international conference in Salt Lake City within a few weeks, bringing together top scientists and engineers to delve into the problems and potential of fusion. That kind of gathering would keep Utah as the center of fusion attention instead of having it drain away to other places.
One legislator has proposed that voluntary taxpayer contributions be allowed in exchange for future tax breaks instead of the state providing the $5 million. But this is not a business venture, at least not yet. Besides, that would take too much time.
Utah is extremely fortunate to have the cold fusion discovery happen within its borders. Let's not allow a once-in-century chance slip away by failing to exploit the opportunity or by quibbling over a mere $5 million.