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Cold fusion claims disputed

@ByName:By Niraj S. Desai

In late March, Fleischmann and Pons told a press conference that they had achieved nuclear fusion at room temperatures with a relatively simple apparatus.

The announcement immediately caused an international sensation, holding out as it did the promise of a clean, limitless source of energy. Fleischmann and Pons went so far as to assert that, if commercialized, their technique could produce enough heat and electricity virtually to eliminate oil, coal and nuclear power.

The initial reaction in the scientific community was one of skepticism, but research laboratories throughout the United States and in foreign countries sought to confirm the results. Their efforts were hampered, however, by the reluctance of Pons and Fleischmann to release details of their experiment.

The lack of independent confirmation did not deter the Utah team and their university from pressing Congress for financial support for the cold fusion research. At an April 26 hearing, the two researchers and University of Utah President Chase Peterson called on the Congress to appropriate $25 million to commercialize the purported discovery.

This prompted Associate Professor Ronald G. Ballinger SM '82 to charge the University of Utah and others with stampeding the scientific review process. He called on the Utah researchers to make their experiments public.

Even as experimentalists failed to confirm the Pons/Fleischmann results, Associate Professor Peter L. Hagelstein '76 worked out a theoretical explanation for cold fusion. He submitted four papers describing his theory to Physical Review Letters

, and MIT applied for patents in connection with his theoretical model of cold nuclear fusion.

But by early May, the failure of independent teams to repeat the cold fusion experiment all but ended the initial excitement over cold fusion. MIT scientists were among the most vocal critics of the method.

Plasma Fusion Center Research Scientist Richard D. Petrasso said that PFC researchers had dealt a heavy blow to claims of cold fusion, failing to find evidence that a nuclear process was at work. No other MIT teams detected signs of nuclear fusion in the Pons/Fleischmann method either.

Despite indications in the fall that there may be some basis for the cold fusion process, most of the scientific community has by now dismissed the cold fusion controversy as an example of pathological science.

Copyright 1990 by The Tech. All rights reserved.
This story was originally published on Tuesday, February 6, 1990.
Volume 110, Year in Review
The story was printed on page 7.

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