NASA director James Fletcher will return to the University of Utah to direct the state's cold nuclear fusion commercialization program - a program that will be the subject of a special legislative session next week with the sole goal of allocating $5 million for such research.
Things can change quickly in government. Legislative leaders, who just Monday were saying they didn't want an April special session to put up $5 million for fusion research, set aside their concerns about the University of Utah's breakthrough discovery after a briefing Tuesday afternoon and decided they will meet April 7.In addition, U. President Chase N. Peterson told the Deseret News that Fletcher, the former U. president who has just resigned as head of NASA, will return to Utah and direct the U.'s program. "Jim will be here next week and we'll get started," Peterson said in a later interview.
In an interview in Washington, Fletcher said he's optimistic about the U. experiment.
"If they do (verify the experiment), it is really something gangbusters. That would be the best thing that's happened since I guess the atomic bomb - and that was bad, but in terms of breakthroughs it would certainly be a bigger factor than the transistor when that was built," he said.
"But the jury is still out. We still have to verify it. I don't know the people that were involved and what their competencies are, but as near as I can tell it's good."
Tuesday morning Gov. Norm Bangerter was looking for a way to carry fusion work through the summer because leaders were balking at an April session. But he didn't have to search for money following an afternoon meeting in which the leaders "were sold on the idea" by Peterson and others.
Fusion funding will be the only item on the agenda. Bangerter and legislators will wait until later this year to decide on a $19 million tax cut or any of a dozen other items that were already lining up for a special session.
Peterson admitted that the $5 million couldn't be spent right away. But he stressed in a press conference after the closed meeting that weeks and months matter in the race to build the best program to develop the fusion process.
Thursday, Peterson announced that U. chemistry professor B. Stanley Pons and British researcher Martin Fleischmann had created nuclear fusion - turning hydrogen into helium - with the accompanying release of energy in experiments at the U. The implications of such a discovery are enormous - nothing less than cheap, safe, simple electrical power.
"The $5 million is seed money," Peterson said. He added that such a sum is symbolic - a way of saying to other universities or energy-development companies: "We're going to put up some big money early on, so take a back seat to us."
Neither he nor Bangerter could say now if more taxpayer money would be requested later. "We have to stay at the forefront of industrial development," Peterson said. Bangerter said if the commercial use pans out, and a prototype cold nuclear reactor can be built that generates affordable electricity, he'd be in favor of more state funding.
Peterson said a number of leading scientists, some of whom he has already talked to but refused to name, may be asked to come to Utah to conduct research on making a working, commercial nuclear fusion reactor. Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, may visit the campus next week, U. officials said.
"It would make a great difference if I could tell them I have their salaries in the bank, that we have the laboratories, the research staff, all here for them if they will just join our effort," Peterson said.
The $5 million will go to the state's Centers of Excellence program. A center steering committee will be formed - complete with legislative leadership participation - to report to the Department of Community and Economic Development within 10 days to two weeks. Actual engineering work on a prototype reactor/-generator will begin soon thereafter, Peterson said.
If the cold nuclear fusion process can be used effectively in commercial energy development, it could means "hundreds of millions of dollars" to the University and state government through patent royalties, officials said.
But that is way down the road.