Thanks to scientists, mostly physicists, who have raised questions, University of Utah professors fishing for solid-state fusion research dollars have temporarily hit a snag.
A state fusion advisory committee that controls $5 million of Utah taxpayer money that could go toward the experiments is likely a long way from granting its approval.And Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, said Tuesday the criticisms have "caused the bloom to go off the fusion rose" in Washington, D.C.
The state committee will meet again May 19, but some of its members say they are far from convinced that B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann have produced fusion in a beaker.
"We're going to have to have a lot more information before it's confirmed," said Randy Moon, state science adviser and a member of the committee. "It's going to take time - a lot more time than people originally thought."
Critics have raised questions the committee must have answered before it announces that fusion is confirmed and that the money will be spent. Committee members understand they are deciding more than just how to spend money. They are deciding whether to lend the state's seal of approval to the experiments.
Meanwhile, congressional leaders are wrestling with the same questions. The only difference is they are controlling $25 million to $50 million that might be given to the university.
Owens believes in the experiments and is optimistic once the science is proven Congress will appropriate money to create a fusion institute at the U.
A week ago, physicists meeting in Baltimore raked U. chemists Pons and Fleischmann over the coals for their experiments in solid-state fusion (what U. officials call "cold" nuclear fusion). Monday evening, the two met a more gentle, but still skeptical, reception before their peers in a Los Angeles meeting of electrochemists.
Members of the state's fusion advisory committee attended the L.A. meeting. The $5 million they control is earmarked to turn the experiment into a working reactor, capable of producing electricity from the scientists' breakthrough work.
If fusion is really taking place in the small table-top experiments - and a number of scientists are skeptical about that - then the discovery may revolutionize the world's energy use, providing cheap, safe, non-polluting energy for thousands of years.
Owens said the Utah congressional delegation agreed that a Washington, D.C., public relations firm expert in higher education issues, Cassidy & Associates, will write the federal legislation setting up the institute and allocating $50 million for initial research. "We haven't yet seen the draft. We're impatient, want to get going on this," Owens said.
He added that he'll ask for $50 million but will gladly accept $25 million or less to get the institute going.
The hesitancy felt now in Capitol halls "will quickly go away once the science is proven, and I think it will be," Owens said.
"What we're doing now, both here and in Utah, will protect Utah's interest in fusion when the science allows the political reality (of funding) to come about," he said.