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Cold fusion keeps its head just above water.

Cold fusion keeps it head just above water

In the 1955 Alfred Hitchcock film "The Trouble with Harry," Harry's corpse just won't stay buried, recounts Robert L. Park, executive director of the American Physical Society's Office of Public Affairs. "We seem to be having the same trouble with cold fusion."

That's a skeptic's view of two cold fusion symposia held last week. Yet other researchers say they are more convinced than ever that strange things really occur in cold fusion experiments.

Over 40 scientists assembled in Washington, D.C., for a three-day, closed-door workshop that now is attracting attention as much for its breach of normal scientific conduct as for the research presented. The Workshop On Anomalous Effects In Deuterated Metals. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Electric Power Research Institute, was by invitation only and included an unorthodox gag order from its organizers barring participants from telling the press what they had learned. "The entire cold fusion episode has been played out against a backdrop of academic misconduct," Park says.

Although workshop organizers held a press briefing at the end of the meeting, the panel members refused to reveal details of any report and confined their remarks to generalities and prepared statements. Avoiding the term "cold fusion" both in naming the meeting and at the briefing, workshop co-chairmen John Appleby of Texas A&M University in College Station and Paul C.W. Chu of the University of Houston said some scientists had reported evidence potentially supporting the two chemists, B. Stanely Pons of the University of Utah and british co-worker Martin Fleischmann, who last March claimed to have developed an electrochemical method of forcing atomic nuclein to fuse with an accompanying release of heat.

Hundreds of labs have since tested those claims. By May, a handful had reported measuring inexplicable surges of heat in experiments or detecting tririum or neutrons, possible products of nuclear reactions. Similar observations reported in Washington, D.C., and at a meeting of the Electrochemical Society in Hollywood, Fla., come largely from the same handful of scientists, who now express more confidence their observations are not experimental artifacts.

Joining this small cadre of yeah-sayers is chemical engineer Richard A. Oriani of the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis-St. Paul. Like Pons and Fleischmann, he placed palladium electrodes caged by another electrode in containers of heavy water and lithium ions. When a current passes between the electrodes, the water molecules break apart and spectacular amounts of deuterium nuclei (a heavy hydrogen isotope) cram into the palladium metal, where Pons and Fleischmann continue to argue fusion occurs. At both meetings, Oriani reported that two such cells in his lab consumed less energy as electricity than they yielded as heat.

The most energetic cell contained a palladium rod used by Texas A&M chemist John O'M. Bockris, who has reported detecting excess heat and intermittent signs of tritium -- the heaviest hydrogen isotope -- in a number of experiments. Another Texas A&M group, led by physicist Kevin Wolf, reported tritium appearing in their ongoing experiments. He says contamination remains a possible but unlikely source of the tritium. More vexing is the lack of gamma rays or neutrons that shower from the known tritium-producing fusion reactions.

Although the meeting bolstered the optimism of researchers who have reported positive results, they failed to sway many scientists who feel some people too readily believe experimentally questionable results that defy accepted science. In an interim report released in July, a Department of Energy cold-fusion advisory panel stated that "the evidence for the discovery of a new nuclear process termed cold fusion is not persuasive. "Says John R. Huizenga, a nuclear chemist at the University of Rochester (N.Y.) and co-chairman of the panel: "I don't think things have changed so much."
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Author:Amato, I.
Publication:Science News
Date:Oct 28, 1989
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