What if . . . ?

First reactions to the fusion reports were - what if? What if researchers at the University of Utah really did create room-temperature fusion that put out the energy they claimed? It's the end of the world energy crisis!But while fusion is often touted as "clean" energy, in its traditional form, at least, it would be no panacea. It's clean only relative to the dangerous and filthy fission reactors now used.

"If it's fusion that generates energy at the levels that the experimenters claim they're getting, the radiation would have killed those guys," said a skeptical University of Utah physics professor, George L. Cassiday.

"What they claim they've done is something that will get them two Nobel prizes - one, they've solved the controlled fusion process; two, they've found a new way to get it."

That's because University of Utah chemistry professor B. Stanley Pons and his colleague from England, Martin Fleischmann, only measured a little radiation while getting a relatively great amount of energy from their 100-hour experiment.

Pons puts the neutron output at 40,000 emitted per second. But under traditional physics, if fusion alone created that much heat, the number of neutrons should have been 10,000 billion per second.

In addition to neutrons, there'd be gamma rays. As Cassiday put it, "That's 100 curies of radiation getting out there."

If a normal fusion reaction took place, he said, the experiment should have been shielded with two kinds of material. Something with a low atomic number, like several feet of water, could protect those around it from neutrons. For example, material with a high atomic number, such as lead, would be needed to absorb the gamma rays.

The experiment was carried out in the basement of the university's Henry Eyring Chemistry Building. If it cooked up an ordinary fusion reaction with the kind of energy output reported, would that have been dangerous to others in the building?

"This is what overwhelms me," Cassiday said.

"They obviously did not believe they would get an enormous amount of fusion," he said. Most likely, he said, Pons and Fleischmann envisioned the sort of output that Brigham Young University researchers got - a few neutrons, a minor reaction, nothing exciting. Just scientifically interesting.

"They must have had that in mind. Otherwise, they would have surrounded their material with all this shielding, which they clearly did not do . . . which means they did not believe in the first place they were going to get a large amount of fusion."

Instead, Cassiday said, "All of a sudden what happens is they get this enormous energy output, which is a real shock to them. And I think they also ought to have been shocked that they are still alive."

What are considered ordinary fusion reactions are done elsewhere. "They do it at accelerators every day," Cassiday said. Researchers have done it briefly with huge devices that contain the reaction by magnetism.

In the latter case, scientists can get fusion, but it's not self-sustaining. It ignites, there's a tremendous burst of energy and then it burns out. "Much like when you ignite a match."

Many scientists are skeptical that the energy produced by Pons and Fleischmann is fusion. Maybe some fusion took place, they speculate, but the rest of the heat came from an expensive new kind of electrical battery.

Cassiday said the physicist's view is if they did succeed, they were extremely lucky; and if so, it involves a process that scientists simply don't understand.

The two researchers themselves were unavailable to discuss this. But Robert Parry, distinguished professor of chemistry at the university, said he didn't think there was any shielding.

Pons and Fleischmann measured gamma radiation - not at high levels, but it was detectable.

"There may be additional processes going on which take the thing all the way down to helium 4, using up the neutrons," Parry said. Or something else is happening.

If fusion became practical as a major energy source, would it be extremely dangerous?

"You can shield this. It would be less than the current fission process because you don't have a whole bunch of nasty (radioactive) products coming out," Parry said. Among the nasty material is radioactive strontium.

If the university's experiment had put out strontium, would it have been detected?

"No," Parry said. "It's not sure yet what's coming out. Speculation is that those things were not present."

What if the dream came true, of a cheap, clean and limitless energy source? Then mankind will thank Pons and Fleischmann.

But what if it's a cheap and dirty method? What if there were few neutrons because immediately after fusion squeezed molecules of hydrogen into helium, another reaction occurred? What if it's not just fusion, but something new and dirtier?