Thursday, Jun. 18, 2009

Mimicking the Sun

March 23, Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S.

When a scientific discovery is billed as "right up there with fire, the cultivation of plants, and with electricity," it had better be pretty good. That's how Chase Peterson, the president of the University of Utah, sold an experiment by two chemists working at his institution, B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, on March 23, 1989. It was, sadly, a bust — one that set off a chain reaction in American scientific circles.

Nuclear fusion, the phenomenon that makes the sun burn, occurs when two atoms fuse together and release energy. The laws of physics — so everyone thought — held that it was impossible to sustain a fusion reaction, even briefly, without subjecting atomic nuclei to the kind of extreme temperatures and pressures found inside the sun or a thermonuclear bomb. But Pons and Fleischmann claimed to have achieved cold fusion at room temperature. By placing two metal electrodes into a beaker of water filled with the ions of deuterium (heavy hydrogen), the scientists said they had forced the ions to fuse to form helium, liberating large amounts of heat.

The discovery promised a cheap, almost inexhaustible supply of energy. All you needed to do, Fleischmann and Pons claimed of their rudimentary apparatus, was fill it up and plug it in.

When physicists pointed out that their claim was impossible, a culture war broke out. Chemists accused physicists of being territorial and jealously protecting their claim to fusion-research grants. At a special session of the American Chemical Society on April 12, Pons received a rapturous ovation. Shortly after, he told TIME that "chemists are supposed to discover chemicals. The physicists don't like it when they discover physicals."

The physicists didn't take that lying down. Some at MIT examined footage from a Utah TV station, freezing a frame that included Pons and Fleischmann's findings. When they ran calculations off this screen grab, they found several errors. At a meeting of the American Physical Society in Baltimore on May 1 (Pons and Fleischmann were not present), Steven Koonin of the California Institute of Technology summed up the mood: "We're suffering from the incompetence and, perhaps, delusion of Professors Pons and Fleischmann."

The public and media weren't sure whom to believe. Fleischmann had earlier discovered a photon-scattering effect that physicists had failed to predict, leading some commentators to accuse élite coastal institutions of trying to tear down pioneering researchers in the heartland. "It became a red-state, blue-state thing," says Charles Seife, author of Sun in a Bottle, the definitive account of the history of fusion.

Within a few months of the announcement, a 22-member federal panel of scientists laid out numerous problems with the Pons-Fleischmann experiment. Other researchers were unable to reproduce the pair's results, and Pons and Fleischmann faded into obscurity. But the allure of their "beautiful idea" survives. To this day, a small but dedicated number continue to work on cold fusion despite the evidence that it is impossible.

It would be nice to think that you could power the world from a beaker of water. But sadly, that's closer to alchemy than science.