Two chemists, Stanley Pons at the University of Utah and Martin Fleischmann at the University of Southampton, England, startled the world this spring with an announcement that they had achieved nuclear fusion at room temperature. As evidence, they cited the production of "excess" amounts of heat in an electrochemical apparatus and the observation of neutron production.

While the production of heat in a electrochemical apparatus is not in unusual, the observation of neutrons is extraordinary. The presence of neutrons would indicate that nuclear reactions are taking place.Unfortunately, their announcement has led to widespread confusion. Measurements of the neutron production in an apparatus similar to that used by Fleischmann and Pons have been carried out at dozens of laboratories. These experiments have shown that the neutron production fails to support the Fleischmann-Pons assertion of having discovered a cheap source of fusion power.

In particular, independent measurements of the neutron production-rate suggest that the actual rate of fusion energy production probably does not exceed one trillionth of a watt. The neutrons reported by various laboratories may or may not represent an interesting discovery. In any case, they don't represent an immediate and cheap source of electricity.

Actually, Fleischmann and Pons acknowledged in their first press conference that there was a serious discrepancy between the observed number of neutrons produced and their claim of having produced useful amounts of fusion energy.

They explained this discrepancy by suggesting that the excess heat was due to a new kind of fusion reaction. However, they have presented absolutely no evidence that their excess heat is due to fusion reactions.

In fact, their evidence for any excess heat at all is very suspect. With few exceptions, attempts by reputable laboratories to duplicate the experiment have failed to find any evidence of excess heat. And no laboratory has produced evidence that fusion reactions are responsible for the heat.

What about the theoretical possibilities for cold fusion? Simple calculations show that the probability of fusion in a deuterium molecule is more than 50 orders of magnitude too small to explain the heat reported by Fleischmann and Pons.

On April 14 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said an associate professor of electrical engineering, Peter Hagelstein, had developed a theoretical explanation for cold fusion.

Professor Hagelstein proposes that two deuterons can fuse to form helium, with the energy released directly in the form of heat, but he proposes no physical mechanism to explain how this can happen.

Apart from whatever it is that Pons and Fleischmann may or may not have discovered, their behavior is deplorable. At any time in the past month, they could have submitted the electrodes in their apparatus for an independent analysis of their helium content. This analysis could have dispelled many doubts. Their failure to submit the electrodes for analysis leaves one wondering what is happening at the U.

All of this brings one back to the question of whether there really is any "excess heat." In 1823, a German chemist, Johan Dobereiner, discovered that palladium will spontaneously catalyze the oxidation of hydrogen. He used this discovery to make a device he called a Feuerzeug, a cigarette lighter. Several groups attempting to duplicate the Utah experiment have noticed that if the level of electrolyte drops too low, the palladium electrodes become red hot. Thus, it is possible that Fleischmann and Pons have rediscovered a 150-year-old German cigarette lighter.