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Cold fusion: searching for hidden helium.

Cold fusion: Searching for hidden helium

For 20 seconds on the night of May 11, the University of Utah went dark. A raccoon had crawled into a transformer, electrocuted itself and briefly killed the power, even in the cold-fusion laboratory of B. Stanley Pons and his British colleague Martin Fleischmann. The shutdown erased some of the computer data harvested by the researchers in their attempt to defend against the tsunami of skepticism from scientific peers.

At about the same time, the prognosis was brightening for Steven E. Jones of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and his cold-fusion research team. Though he withheld specifics, Jones told SCIENCE NEWS he has obtained new data to support his earlier claims of observing neutrons from seemingly low levels of fusion in metal electrodes immersed in heavy water at room temperature. Since April 28, Jones has supervised cold-fusion experiments at the Loas Alamos (N.M.) National Laboratory. Legal delays have short-circuited, at least temporarily, a similar Loas Alamos collaboration with Pons and Fleischmann, according to James J. Brophy, vice president for research at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Three days before the raccoon setback, Pons and Fleschmann admitted at a Los Angeles meeting of the Electrochemical Society that their earlier measurements of helium and neutrons -- two expected by-products of the alleged new type of cold fusion -- were mistaken. They also reported observing 50 times more heat emerging from their electrochemical cells than could be attributed to the electrical energy they put in or to chemical reactions. Several scientists reported evidence from their own experiments supporting Pons and Fleischmann; others retracted earlier tentative confirmations. The only critic allowed on the panel, chemist Nathan Lewis of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, repeated a damaging critique he first aired against the University of Utah work a week earlier.

Unlike Jone's team, which used actual--albeit controversial -- neutron measurements to argue that they have found a new fusion route, Pons and Fleischmann continue to defend their claims without reliable positive evidence. "If the amount of heat produced is so large that you cannot account for it in terms of a chemical process," Fleischmann told reporters at the Los Angeles meeting, "what else are you going to believe?" But without evidence of fusion products, critics say, simply observing heat doesn't necessarily imply fusion. Remarks Jones: "I light a match, and I get more heat than I put in with friction."

Stronger evidence may come from a search for helium, an expected fusion product that some theorists predict should accumulate inside Pons' and Fleischmann's palladium electrodies. Scientists at the British precious metals company Johnson Matthey, which supplied the palladium, are performing the tests.

"We will be doing an exhaustive analysis of the rods," says David T. Thompson, who is supervising the effort. Thompson says he obtained some rods during a visit to the University of Utah in early May and carried them to the British lab on May 15. The analyses will be performed over the next few weeks.
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Author:Amato, I.
Publication:Science News
Date:May 20, 1989
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