Until a Utah chemistry professor announced March 23 that he had fused the power of the H-bomb in a beaker of electrically charged heavy water, Sen. Orrin Hatch's closest involvement with fusion was uniting with rival Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., after a heated battle on the Senate floor.
But fusion took on an entirely new meaning for Hatch on Monday - the day he visited the University of Utah laboratory of B. Stanley Pons.Hatch was the first member of the Utah delegation to get a firsthand look at fusion experiments at the U. and Brigham Young University, where physicist Steven Earl Jones said he has been conducting research on cold nuclear fusion - he calls it "piezonuclear" - since 1986.
- See fusion comment by LaVarr G. Webb on Page A2.
Also Monday, Department of Energy spokesman Jeff Sherwood said Energy Secretary James Watkins has directed the department's national labs to intensify efforts to duplicate the U's cold nuclear fusion experiment. Watkins also created an independent panel to review cold nuclear fusion.
The government's Los Alamos National Laboratory, at the forefront of energy research, has yet to duplicate Pons' results. But scientists there, energized by its potential, are reviewing possible contracts with the U. to pursue the development of room temperature cold nuclear fusion.
Back in his home state, Hatch spent most of the day visiting with officials and the scientists involved in fusion work at the two universities.
"This could make Utah one of the wealthiest states in the world, plus give us a never-ending supply of clean energy," Hatch said. "We have a tendency to sit back and let others take the lead. We can't wait on this."
Hatch told Pons, "We are impressed with what you have done and want to help in any way. We'll knock down walls for you."
Hatch had originally planned to come to Utah this week because the Senate is recessed. Among other things, he had scheduled a town meeting and a senior citizen's conference.
"Then the fusion story broke. It made it a great opportunity for him to see both U. of U. and BYU," said Paul Smith, Hatch's press aide. "He is so interested in learning all there is to know about these projects that he has had some Navy scientists brief him. But it isn't the same as getting the project from the scientists who know exactly what it is."
Fusion is the sun's source of energy. If it could be harnessed, researchers believe fusion promises a cheaper, safer alternative to the nuclear power plants that operate on fission, the splitting of atoms.
It could also promise a more secure economic future for the state that takes the experiment out of the lab and puts it into practical use.
It's no wonder that politicians, like patent attorneys, are scurrying to ensure Utah's lead in fusion research and development.
Wednesday, Pons and co-discoverer Martin Fleischmann, from England's Southampton University, will meet government officials on their turf during a hearing of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in Washington, D.C.
Committee Chairman Robert A. Roe said the hearing will be a prelude to discussing formation of a National Research Center at the U.
"If the center could be established, it could make Utah the intellectual idea capital of the world," Hatch said.
Before leaving for Washington, D.C., Monday, Pons told the press that he'd like to see Congress make a firm commitment to more basic science.
Pons and Fleischmann are now spending more time cooperating or collaborating with the best scientific minds that have been befuddled trying to duplicate the seemingly simple experiment. They're spending less and less time listening to critics.
Earlier this month, Texas A&M, Stanford University and Washington State University subdued some critics by confirming at least part of the Utah experiments.
Top scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced they were abandoning their effort to replicate the experiment because they had been unable to validate any of the Utah claims. But when a colleague announced that he had a theory for how the experiment works, MIT did an about-face and said it was going to patent the theory for a process that other scientists there said wouldn't work.
Meanwhile, U. engineers, working with BYU engineers, are underplaying efforts to confirm the experiment. Instead, they are trying to scale it up - the first effort to capitalize on the research.
Points Pons confirmed:
- The purity of the palladium core used in his experiment may be a factor in the experiment's outcome.
- The possibility of a chemical reaction causing the extraordinary heat of the experiment "has been absolutely excluded."
- Four new experiments are under way; 10 will start within the next few days, and nine more will begin next week. The largest will be five times the size of the original one.
- The U. chemistry department has voted to make Martin Fleischmann a full research professor.