As mysteries go, it's as alluring as the fountain of youth, as devoutly sought after as the Holy Grail and as elusive as the Loch Ness monster.
It's cold nuclear fusion.More than 200 scientists from around the world have traveled to Salt Lake City this week to obtain the most sought-after recipe since Mrs. Fields Cookies - up-to-date results and how-to-do data from scientists who've tried to duplicate the experiments of electrochemists B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, Utah's fusion gurus.
A year ago, Pons, a University of Utah chemistry professor, and Fleischmann, of Southampton University in England, announced that they had sustained nuclear fusion - the power that makes the sun burn - in a flask of deuterium oxide, or heavy water, using a palladium electrode wrapped in platinum wire.
By running electricity through the two metals, they discovered that the device put out more energy than they put into it - a trick that holds the promise for inexhaustible, safe, cheap energy.
The discovery, astonishingly simple, has kept the scientific community in a frenzy - one that didn't lose its force Thursday as the researchers and dozens of reporters gathered at the University Park Hotel for the Conference on Cold Fusion.
Their focus Thursday was on Pons and Fleischmann, who during the past year have conducted more than 2,000 calibrations on more than 200 new experiments to confirm their initial findings - in hopes of quieting critics in the process.
Stand by results
"We stand exactly where we did a year ago with a great number of additional experiments and techniques to be reported. Our results are almost identically the same as then," Pons said in a Deseret News interview Thursday.
"We are much more convinced now (that we've discovered cold nuclear fusion). If we were 99 percent sure, we are now 100 percent sure. We have made no mistakes in our calorimetric measurements. No one has ever convinced us that we made a mistake. We stand by that. As Martin says, `We are unrepentive.' "
In his presentation Thursday morning, Pons said their latest palladium-in-heavy-water cells - like their original ones - produce excess heat.
In fact, some cells have produced "twice the energy output that you would expect in a water-cool nuclear fission reactor - over 100 watts per cubic centimeter," Pons said.
In the calorimeters where they measured it, the heat was sustained only for short periods of time because the cells began boiling - ending the experiment.
The scientists said they intend to reassemble such electrodes in devices designed to sustain this heat.
Meanwhile, they continue to make radiation measurements in the cells, and, according to Pons, still monitor low levels of fusion products - evidence that nuclear processes are happening in the cells.
Pons said the three scientific papers they submitted for publication have been accepted. One to be published by the Journal of Fusion Technology was released to conference participants who Thursday morning heard Pons explain his revolutionary process, which more than 20 labs have replicated.
Fusion bashers to attend
Many more have dismissed the phenomenon as a "fusion illusion."
Two of the most outspoken fusion bashers - John R. Huizenga, co-chairman of a U.S. Department of Energy committee that nixed any major new DOE grants for fusion research, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist Richard Petrasso - have concluded that Pons and Fleischmann's "spectacular claims" are just that.
Yet Huizenga is registered to attend the conference, which U. officials hope will vindicate fusion and fusionists - and attract fusion investors to Utah.
State center has hopes
The director of the state-funded National Cold Fusion Institute, which is sponsoring the conference, believes there will be a positive turnaround in cold-fusion research in the next one to two years.
"The multitude of results obtained by so many different groups can no longer be explained away as experimental artifacts," said Fritz G. Will. "Research into the intriguing phenomena of cold fusion must and will continue."
Will said: "It will continue because dedicated scientists will not rest before the phenomena of cold fusion are fully understood and because sponsors with vision will continue to support the progress of science. The scientific process of seeking understanding must not be interfered with. The freedom of science is just as basic as the freedom of speech."
40 papers on tap
More than 200 scientists and dozens of reporters from around the world converged Thursday on Salt Lake City, hopeful of obtaining the much sought-after recipe for cold nuclear fusion - which if proven workable could give the world a limitless supply of energy.
The international conference, sponsored by the state-funded National Cold Fusion Center, features 40 scientific papers from researchers who have successfully duplicated some aspect of the experiments of U. chemists B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann. Nay-sayers are attending but are not giving presentations.
Journal takes another swat at U. chemists
Nature magazine, which has had a long-standing feud with University of Utah chemists B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, has delivered another blow to the scientists' cold nuclear fusion claim.
In its March 29 edition, released on the eve of a cold fusion conference in Salt Lake City, the magazine features a paper by U. physicist Michael H. Salamon, who maintains "not an iota" of nuclear energy was measured in the fusion gear in the Pons-Fleischmann lab.
But Pons says the article is full of untruths. Salamon's experiment, he insists, was poorly performed and done to please physicists who were unhappy such an important discovery had been made by a chemist.
"I was asked by Nature to review the paper, but refused since I was too personally involved with the matter," Pons said. "I did, however, point out to the editors several serious shortcomings, omissions of fact, and untrue points in the paper. These points were nonetheless ignored by the editors, and we plan to publicly correct these matters."
Salamon measured the nuclear output of Pons cold fusion equipment for five weeks last May and June. His findings, and Pons' reaction to them, were released to the press - and submitted to Nature - shortly thereafter.
Eight months later, Salamon says he believes his findings are still true.
Pons calls that bunk and accuses Nature and Salamon of dirty politics.
"It is shameful and incredible that Nature has embargoed the publication of this paper until today with the obvious intent of trying to discredit the cold fusion meeting in Utah," Pons said.