If the University of Utah's solid-state fusion experiment turns out not to work, U. President Chase Peterson says he'll call a press conference and say just that: "It doesn't work."

But he doubts he'll have to say it. "Every day (the experiments) look better and better," Peterson told a packed audience at the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics Thursday.He defended chemists B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, saying the two are conducting so many experiments now - as are other U. scientists - that all the data can't be compiled.

Earlier this week in a Los Angeles conference of the Electrochemical Society, the presence of helium in the Utah experiment's palladium rods became a major issue when critics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Caltech, who have been unable to replicate the U. fusion experiment, challenged the Utah researchers to let them test the palladium rods for the presence of helium.

Pons and Fleischmann refused to talk about any helium that has been detected in their experiments other than to say a test is being done on the rods at an independent laboratory that they were not at liberty to name.

Their decision surprised many Utah researchers at the conference.

The "helium-4 theory," submitted by U. chemistry professors Cheves Walling and John Simons, had been discussed in detail at a U. press conference April 18.

Walling and Simons had, in fact, submitted a paper to the Journal of Physical Chemistry supporting the revolutionary "internal conversion" claim, which Pons said he supported. Yet Pons and Fleischmann, who presented new calorimetry (heat measurement) information at the Los Angeles meeting, made no mention of the helium experiments.

Peterson defended that decision. "They've been criticized for thin publication (of their work). And it is thin. To talk now about the helium would also be thin. We want more data to back up our theories."

Simply put, traditional physics says that large amounts of neutrons or protons - subatomic particles - should be given off in true fusion - the combining of two hydrogen atoms into one helium atom. Fusion occurs naturally in the sun, giving off tremendous energy.

Pons and Fleischmann believe fusion is taking place in the electrically charged palladium rod at the center of their table-top experiment, but little neutron activity has been measured.

They and U. physicists believe helium-4, an isotope of helium previously considered unstable, is being created. Traditional theory says that helium-4 would quickly break down into tritium (a radioactive isotope of hydrogen), and neutrons or protons be given off in the form of radiation, said Peterson. To account for the amount of heat measured by Pons and Fleischmann, so much radiation would be given off that the experimenters would have been killed.

They're not dead, and their new theory says the helium isotope remains intact in the lattice of the palladium, giving off its energy through heat instead of breaking down and giving off radiation.

Peterson calls this "a new nuclear path," and believes it will be confirmed by other experiments and theorists within weeks. "If we can measure the helium-4, it's true fusion."

The autopsy report on the rods by the independent lab is expected to be released within the next two weeks.

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U. president says:

- The national/Eastern press has partly dismissed the Utah experiments because they feel no such breakthrough could come from Utah.

- A major part of the friction of fusion is between "big science," the major research institutions with traditional theorists, and "little science," small, independent researchers like Pons and Fleischmann.

- Utah researchers are "only days" ahead of other scientists in the solid-state fusion work. "Have you noticed how quiet the Japanese are about this? Our consultant did some checking and he believes experimentation and research is going on 24-hours-a-day in Japan. They may already be ahead of us."

- Former NASA director James Fletcher brought to Peterson earlier this week a research paper from a Rome university that shows neutron counts increased 50 times when the Pons/Fleischmann experiment started to work for the Italians.

- Helium-4, a tale-tale sign of fusion, has been detected in the U. experiment.