On March 23, chemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann stunned the international scientific community. They announced that they had duplicated the energy-producing process of the stars by passing an electrical current between a platinum coil and a palladium rod immersed in a flask of heavy water—water containing deuterium, a dense form of hydrogen commonly found in seawater. Because their report of cold nuclear fusion raised the possibility of a clean, cheap and abundant energy source, hundreds of scientists have since attempted to duplicate the experiment—but with little success. And in the face of increasingly heated criticism by their fellow scientists—including the Nobel Prize-winning American chemist Linus Pauling—Fleischmann acknowledged last week that the experimental results contained significant errors.
Originally, the two scientists said that fusion had occurred because their experiment ap-
peared to produce heat and neutron emissions, which are characteristic byproducts of the fusing of atomic nuclei.
Pons, a former professor at the University of Alberta and currently chairman of the chemistry department at the University of Utah, and Fleischmann, an electrochemist at England’s Southampton University, also said that the experiment produced four times as much energy in the form of heat as they used to initiate the reaction. Pauling and other scientists contended that the heat might have been the result of a chemical reaction involving the decomposition of the unstable compound palladium deuteride created in the experimental process—and not nuclear fusion. Facing a highly critical audience of
1,800 scientists at a meeting of the American Electrochemical Society Inc. in Los Angeles last week, Fleischmann acknowledged that a faulty neutron detector had registered inaccurately high neutron emissions.
At the same time, some support was growing for evidence of cold fusion presented by a rival, physicist Steven Jones of Brigham Young University in Utah. On March 31, Jones announced that he too had produced fusion in a test tube, citing evidence of neutron emissions as proof. Last week, physicist Steven Koonin of the California Institute of Technology said that experimental findings presented at the Electrochemical Society’s meeting tended to “confirm Jones, but they would not confirm Pons and Fleischmann.” And an official at the University of Alberta, who asked not to be named, said that Pons “was too fast on the draw. He didn’t do that extra experiment to verify.”
For their part, the embattled Pons and Fleischmann are persisting despite the
Fleischmann said that they still hope to confirm their original findings after completing further experiments with improved equipment and techniques.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.