He was ballyhooed and then discredited and then largely forgotten. But cold fusion pioneer Dr. Martin Fleischmann still holds the secret to a cheap energy source for the world, says a California company that plans to produce prototypes of a cold fusion-powered home heater, with Fleischmann as "senior scientific adviser."
The announcement came on the 17th anniversary of the day that Fleischmann, then a chemistry professor at the University of Utah, and his colleague B. Stanley Pons stunned the scientific world with news that they had discovered a room-temperature way to create nuclear fusion. The announcement immediately led to predictions that the world's energy problems were over. The Utah Legislature appropriated $5 million so the U. could perfect the technique and pursue patents.
But when other scientists around the world had trouble replicating Fleischmann's and Pons' work, the method was dismissed as a pipe dream.
Eventually, though, "when truth and justice are done," says David Kubiak, the University of Utah will bask in the glory of its association with cold fusion. Kubiak is communications director of D2Fusion of Foster City, Calif., and Los Alamos, N.M., which will be hosting Fleischmann and is setting up a lab using his "recipe."
These days, Kubiak says, the term "cold fusion" has generally been replaced by "solid state fusion," "low-energy nuclear reactions" or "nuclear reactions in condensed matter." But the principles are still the same a fusion reaction produced at normal temperatures using hydrogen-loving metals such as palladium or titanium.
To start with, D2Fusion plans to produce a 2,000-3,000 watt heater that would never need refueling. Then the process could be ramped up to produce 30,000 or 300,000 watts, Kubiak says. That would eventually mean whole communities powered by this cheap, efficient, non-polluting, radiation-free energy source that would end America's dependence on oil imports.
"It's an extraordinary vista," he says, sounding much like the cheerleaders of cold fusion in 1989.
The inventor of all this sci-fi technology lives in the English countryside near Stonehenge, where according to Kubiak he doesn't have e-mail. "He's an old-school genius."
Kubiak says scores of labs around the world are pursuing cold-fusion techniques, some of them originally inspired by Fleischmann's work in Utah. Fleischmann and Pons originally built their device for $100,000 in the basement of the Henry Eyring Chemistry Building.
"There are a lot of variables in this process," Kubiak says to explain why many of the original attempts at replication of the pair's work met with bad results. It turns out, he says, that the quality of the metals used makes a big difference. "That wasn't understood at the time. So some pronounced it a fraud."
The researchers now working on the technique "are not tin-pot inventors working out of a garage," he says. "They're top-notch scientists, including a couple of Nobel laureates."
"Instead of arguing any more about the theoretical basis of it," he says, "we're saying 'this works, this is where we should be putting our attention.' "
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