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MIT prof voices doubt about cold fusion claims

By Niraj S. Desai

Before starting his talk yesterday on developments in cold fusion, Associate Professor Ronald G. Ballinger SM '82 warned the audience that there would be a quiz on the subject afterwards. But he told them not to worry because "no one can tell if you're wrong."

That is the problem with the claims made by University of Utah researchers to have produced nuclear fusion at room temperatures. The researchers -- Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann -- announced they had made a breakthrough in the decades-long quest for fusion energy at a press conference last month.

But since then, Pons and Fleischmann have failed to provide the scientific community with adequate information about their experiment, Ballinger said. He charged that the University of Utah and others are stampeding the scientific review process in the rush to obtain support for the Pons/Fleischmann method.

Ballinger's comments came the day after he testified before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Earlier in the day, witnesses had called on Congress to appropriate $25 million to commercialize the purported discovery.

University of Utah President Chase Peterson and productivity specialist Ira C. Magaziner joined Pons and Fleischmann in pressing congressmen to fund work on "table-top" fusion, saying that if the United States did not act now, other countries would overtake it in the field.

"If we fall behind at the beginning, we may never catch up," Magaziner said. Fleischmann estimated that commercial uses for the Utah device would be possible within one or two decades.

But other witnesses at the hearing, including Ballinger, voiced deep skepticism about the claim, and about whether Pons and Fleischmann had really achieved nuclear fusion in their laboratories.

The Utah scientists have said that their experiment produces neutrons and excess heat -- indicating that a fusion reaction is indeed taking place. But so far, there has been no clear-cut scientific confirmation that neutrons or excess heat is produced by the Pons/Fleischmann device, Ballinger said at his talk yesterday.

Research teams worldwide began trying to repeat the Pons/Fleischmann results within days of their announcement. MIT in particular has had many people working on the problem, Ballinger said.

"Our experiments here at MIT are at least as sophisticated as those at Utah," Ballinger, who holds a joint appointment in the Departments of Nuclear Engineering and Material Science, said. But the MIT teams have seen no evidence of either neutron or heat production.

The Boston Globe reported that an observation of heat production by Stanford's Robert A. Huggins SM '52 is considered the strongest confirmation at this time of the Utah results. But Huggins told the House committee on Wednesday that he was "not in a position to discuss" what the mechanism producing the heat is.

Pons and Fleischmann have claimed that other groups have confirmed their results, but have refused to give names, according to Ballinger.

More disturbingly, Pons and Fleischmann have avoided answering questions about their discovery, Ballinger said. He noted that they withdrew a paper on their experiment that they had submitted to the British journal Nature because they were unwilling to respond to criticism by the journal's reviewers.

Part of the Utah researchers' reticence may be due to the fact that they have applied for several patents for their work. "Pick up the phone to Utah, what you get is the Office of Technology Transfer," Ballinger said.

While he declined to speculate on the Utah scientists' motivations, Ballinger said he was disturbed that Pons and Fleischmann seemed to be ignoring the peer review process. As academic scientists with a potential breakthrough, Pons and Fleischmann have a duty to share their information with their colleagues, Ballinger said. He did not think such cooperation would jeopardize the Utah scientists' claims to any patents resulting from the discovery.

Such a review must take place before the United States commits to spending millions of dollars on the cold fusion technique, Ballinger said.

Pons and Fleischmann have agreed to let scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory have a duplicate of their experiment for confirmation purposes. If this does actually take place, it will be very important, Ballinger said. But in the cold fusion debate, nothing should be taken for granted, he added.