New scientific ideas are always met with skepticism, but the University of Utah's claim of cold nuclear fusion is doubly doubted.
In an effort to explain the strange reactions in their experiment, a U. official told the Deseret News that perhaps a brand-new helium isotope is being created in their experiment - an isotope whose life is so brief that it is yet unmeasured but whose existence could explain the large amount of heat - and low levels of radiation - the experiment reveals.The first issue in the experiment of U. chemistry professor B. Stanley Pons and British researcher Martin Fleischmann is the traditional scientific question: Does it work, that is, can it be repeated?
Second, a less traditional question must be answered: What the heck is it?
There is a growing number of physicists who say even if the experiment does work and the great amounts of heat Pons and Fleischmann have seen are repeated, they believe it isn't nuclear fusion taking place but some strange form of chemistry.
Thusly, the scientific battle lines are being drawn between chemists and physicists.
Both groups have good arguments. Both agree painstaking experiments by other scientists will ultimately decide the issue.
Pons and Fleischmann's technologically simple experiment uses an electrical cell to force heavy water - deuterium - into a metal (palladium) core. The molecular makeup of the palladium traps the deuterium atoms. The electrical charge forces the deuterium nuclei so close together that two deuterium atoms fuse into one helium atom.
This "fusion" creates a great deal of energy, measured by Pons and Fleischmann as heat.
The sun is a huge fusion reactor, where great gravitational forces combine with million-degree temperatures to cause fusion. Before Pons and Fleischmann's claim, it was generally thought that nuclear fusion at room temperature, without the heat generated in the sun, wouldn't work.
An important aside is that such a nuclear reaction should also create a great deal of radiation - especially neutron emissions, according to traditional nuclear physics.
Here is the real arguing point because Pons and Fleischmann's experiments clearly don't give off a lot of neutrons.
Pons and Fleischmann aren't really trying to measure neutrons. They're chemists, and chemists usually measure heat with a calorimeter in their experiments. They've measured the heat very carefully. They have, however, done calculations and crude measurements of neutrons.
"We figure there are 40,000 neutrons emitted per second (in the experiment)," said Pons. That's above background, or natural radiation.
Again, under traditional physics theory, to account for as much heat being given off by the experiment there should be 10,000 billion neutrons each second. Such huge amounts of radiation would be easily detectable and would be fatal to any experimenter who didn't shield himself well from it.
So with that question left unanswered, here's another: How much heat does Pons and Fleischmann's contraption generate?
"For every watt that goes in (through the electrical charge), more than 4.5 watts comes out," says Pons. In one experiment, Pons said so much heat was created that "we ignited the experiment, uh, it burned up and melted down."
Complementing Pons' claims are experiments conducted by Brigham Young University physics professor Steven E. Jones. Jones has also been working with cold nuclear fusion and has tried an electrical cell, deuterium and a metal core (Jones uses titanium as well as palladium).
Jones doesn't get the same thermal reaction as Pons but he isn't using the same configuration either.
Jones, a physicist, has been trying to prove fusion in his experiments by measuring the neutron emissions, not heat. A colleague of his, Bart Czirr, has developed a neutron counter for that very purpose. Jones' experiments gets very few neutrons and no heat. In other words, his fusion is very slow and certainly couldn't be used for commercial energy production.
Pons hasn't seen Jones' experiment, only a quick view of Jones' electric cell on TV reports. "I could tell (from the TV) why it doesn't work. You have to have the right mass, the right electrodes, the palladium, everything just right. We've recreated our experiment numerous times in our lab; students we sent in can do it."
Pons doesn't have an explanation for the high energy outputs and low radiation. Perhaps a new helium isotope is being created. "That is one idea that could explain the great heat and low neutrons."
Perhaps the traditional hot fusion process - watched and measured far from the sun by scientists - is modified in a cold fusion process. Perhaps cold fusion is a completely different - yet undiscovered - type of fusion.