Deciding when a University of Utah fusion breakthrough has been confirmed is something like a baseball umpire trying to make a quick judgment on a foul ball, says one of the people who will be making the call.
But much more than a game will be at stake Wednesday when a committee appointed by Gov. Norm Ban-gerter meets to begin deciding how to spend $5 million set aside for fusion research.The committee, a brainchild of state lawmakers, is prohibited from spending the money until it has confirmed that the cold nuclear fusion experiments that rocked the scientific world last month are genuine.
That's a tall order for the nine scientists and business representatives on the committee, considering scientific confirmation normally can take years to achieve.
"The confirmation will have to be based on several things," said Wilford Hansen, a Utah State University physics and chemistry professor and a member of the committee. Like other committee members contacted Monday, he was unsure how to decide when to give the all-clear signal to spend money.
"It's hard to say absolutely, unless we get one confirmation from which there is no doubt," he said.
Scientists worldwide have been successfully duplicating the experiments in recent weeks. Most recently, researchers at the National Agency for Alternative Energy in Frascati outside of Rome joined the list of labs announcing confirmation.
B. Stanley Pons, co-developer of the proj-ect, said dozens more have successfully duplicated it but are mum on their successes in order to protect patent applications.
While no one is disputing the experiment's results, some scientists still are not convinced the experiment really is creating fusion.
"I think most people would like to know it really is fusion before money is spent," said Randy Moon, state science adviser and a member of the committee.
"Normally, in smaller, non-earth-shattering experiments, it may take a year or two before people say you're right. But with something this hot it will have to go faster," he said.
Moon said he expects the confirmation question to top the committee's list of priorities. He also expects there may be a difference between what the committee considers confirmation and what the rest of the scientific world thinks. However, he expects the committee to be skeptical and level-headed when evaluating the claims.
The committee will have a legislative oversight committee and a U. steering committee to help it decide. But it will be independent of the U. and of Brigham Young University, which also has been aggressively researching cold fusion. The two academicians on the committee both are from Utah State University.
Hansen said confirmation of the experiments may end up being a matter of opinion - an evaluation of practical experiments and "just good science."
Meanwhile, one of the two key scientists behind the experiment Monday held his first press conference since the historic announcement March 23.
Although basically a rehash of information already reported in the media, some new data was presented by Pons and his colleagues:
- The experiment's heat output has been substantially increased. One experiment is yielding about 67 watts per cubic centimeter, as opposed to the 4 watts per cubic centimeter first reported. Scientists' practical goal: 1,000 watts per cubic centimeter.
- One controlled-fusion reaction has been sustained more than 800 hours.
- Nineteen new experiments are beginning.
- Large scale-up could take eight months to a year and a half.
- U. researchers have begun designs for a small cold-fusion reactor.
- Helium-4 has been detected.
As reported Saturday in the Deseret News, U. chemistry professors Cheves Walling and John Simons have submitted a theory supporting the revolutionary claim.
In a paper submitted to the Journal of Physical Chemistry, the chemists contend that in the palladium, two deuterium atoms fuse into a single atom of helium-4, or normal helium, which transfers its fusion energy to nearby electrons, which in turn give up energy as heat. This is known as "internal conversion."
The professors said detection of the helium isotope tends to reinforce the premise that a nuclear reaction, rather than a chemical one, is taking place.
"If you were a physicist, the thing I would keep saying is, `How can you get helium-4 without a nuclear reaction?' " Simons said. "Chemistry doesn't make helium."
Pons endorses the theory.
"I am still confident that we have a heretofore unrecognized, unstudied nuclear reaction," he said. "No chemical reaction known will explain that sort of excess heat generation."