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Tuesday, March 23, 1999 Published at 17:58 GMT


Sci/Tech

Should the cold fusion dream die?

High temperatures are required before nuclei will fuse

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

For a while, it seemed that the world was about to change for ever. One scientist said: "By the year 2000, every household will have a cold fusion power source."

But it never happened.

Exactly 10 years ago on Tuesday, the world was introduced to the concept of cold fusion at a press conference at the University of Utah.

Dr Stanley Pons and Professor Martin Fleischman from Southampton University in the UK said they had achieved fusion in a test tube.

Fusion is the energy source of the stars - the energy that is liberated when atoms combine. In stars, and in prototype fusion reactors, this requires enormous temperatures, hundreds of millions of degrees.

Dirty technology

Yet these scientists said it could be achieved in a test tube at room temperature. They claimed their fuel cell produced four times more energy than went into it.

A new era of energy was at hand. It was a discovery on a par with that of fire, said a scientist at the time.

Only hours later, a supertanker called the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William sound in Alaska. It spilled 11 million gallons of oil. It was a powerful juxtaposition - pollution from currently-used energy sources and the promise of a clean, new future.

In the weeks and months that followed, it became clear that the cold fusion effect that was claimed was not as simple and as straightforward as it seemed. Whatever it was, it was erratic and far from understood. Some said it was not there at all.

Now, a decade later, many scientists and commentators have dismissed it entirely. There are cold fusion conferences, but they attract only enthusiasts and rarely the media.

Impoverished science

This is a pity. Cold fusion researchers feel outsiders in the scientific effort. Mainstream scientists ignore them. The result is that neither camp talks to each other and science is the poorer because of it.

Millions of dollars are still being spent on it and large labs still hope to explain and develop the technology. Cold fusion has had only a tiny fraction of the effort and resources that have been lavished on "hot" fusion research. And we have had virtually no return on that investment.

We should give the cold fusion camp time and encouragement.

We live in a fusion universe. The Sun shines because of fusion at its heart. Likewise the stars are visible at night because of the distant fusion fire.

Our coal will not last forever. Neither will the oil or gas, and there will never be enough wind and wave power for us. Nuclear power based on splitting atoms has its problems and disturbs many.

So sooner or later, we will simply have to tame the power of the stars.



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