Don't count on having a fusion car or home heater next year. Or the year after. Or before the turn of the century for that matter.
While one research institution after another confirms the heat-producing experiments of B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, commercial application of their work is still years away, experts warn.Despite the enthusiasm and skepticism that has met the experiment, which the University of Utah researchers believe is cold nuclear fusion, the potential benefit to mankind of cheap, clean energy is fairly far away.
Utah lawmakers last week gave $5 million to "jump-start" the U.'s commercial application of the work.
But don't expect anything soon.
"I can't imagine a working prototype (which produces electricity from the heat) for at least a year," said James Brophy, U. director of research.
That prototype, whether developed by the U. or one of its licensees, like General Electric, would require more years of research and development before going on the market, he believes.
That seems like quite a long time, considering U. President Chase Peterson, Gov. Norm Bangerter and others say Utah must act quickly or be left behind in the race to find a practical use for Pons' work. But the step from the laboratory to the Sears catalog is huge and time consuming.
"We have to conduct materials studies," said Brophy - scientific examinations on how the electro-cell used in Pons' experiment should be up-scaled.
"We certainly can't use glass, as the experiment did. Is palladium the best metal, or will nickle or some other metal work as well?" Pons and Fleischmann used palladium as the cell's core, driving heavy water nuclei into the metal's latice structure with electricity and producing more than four times as much energy as consumed.
"Palladium has gone up 20 times in price the last two weeks," Brophy noted.
"Engineers have to produce designs and devices that economically and efficiently transfer the heat. Heat engines are efficient only at high temperatures." Even though Pons and Fleischmann burned up one experiment, so much heat was generated "that doesn't tell us we can operate a larger model efficiently," said Brophy.
Brophy says the U. is committed to bringing jobs to Utah through the commercialization of the experiment. Through controlling licensing of the patents on the experiment, U. officials hope to require interested companies to locate at least research and development arms, maybe even manufacturing divisions, in Utah.
"We have to go forward with the basic science. Hey, we don't even understand how it works. Then we have to conduct the needed engineering studies. Finally, and this is years away, we have to look at the sociological impacts: What do we do if this does provide cheap, safe energy? What happens to the coal miners who mine coal for the electrical power plants? We want to go about all of this quickly, but prudently, as well," Brophy said.