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Cold Confusion


ALAN LIGHTMAN is right. There's more than puzzling science involved in the continuing confusion over cold fusion. In a recent lecture at the Concord, Mass., Free Public Library, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology astrophysicist explained that such factors as personal and professional rivalries, resistance to a novel idea, and the lure of possible profits have tended to overshadow the search for scientific truth.

It now is clear that, of these factors, concern about patents has been a major inhibition to free and open sharing of information and to collaboration among scientists.

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The US Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory has dropped plans for collaborative research with the original cold fusion claimants at the University of Utah. It accused the university of ``foot dragging.'' James J. Brophy, who heads the university's research, has explained that, while the scientists want to tell all, patent attorneys recommend they say nothing.

That's unfortunate. The Los Alamos collaboration was to have been a key effort to determine if University of Utah chemist B. Stanley Pons and his British colleague Martin Fleischmann really managed to get hydrogen fusion - the power source of the stars - running at room temperature in a jar. More to the point, it was to try to determine if their claim that the jar produces more energy than the experiment consumes is true.

This leaves us still with the tantalizing - and what Dr. Brophy himself calls ``frustrating'' - situation of not knowing exactly what is going on more than three months after the startling Pons and Fleischmann announcement at a press conference last March 23.

As scientists around the world have tried to study the phenomenon in their own laboratories, they have gotten some evidence that cold fusion may occur at very low levels. But most of the experts now are deeply skeptical that it will provide the abundant source of useful energy that Pons and Fleischmann envision.

To recapitulate, fusion of deuterium (doubly heavy hydrogen) atomic nuclei is supposed to take place inside palladium (or similar metal) electrodes when an electric current runs through a cell containing a deuterium solution in which the electrodes are immersed. Up to now, such fusion has been known only in complex machines at temperatures of tens of millions of degrees and in the hot, high-pressure interiors of stars.

Besides Pons and Fleischmann, Steven E. Jones and co-workers at Brigham Young University have been studying cold fusion for several years. But Dr. Jones claims no net energy output. He has said he doubts cold fusion will ever be a useful energy source.

Unlike his University of Utah rivals, Jones has freely shared both the details of his experiments and their results. He also has responded to offers of collaboration. Some resulting experiments, including some at Los Alamos, have found evidence that supports - but does not prove - Jones's claims.

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These and many other results were discussed during a Los Alamos-sponsored workshop that reviewed the subject in detail last May. Jones attended. Pons and Fleischmann did not. Except for supporting Jones's claim, the main conclusion of the workshop was that no one seems to know what exactly is going on in any of the experiments. That's where things stand now.

If this leaves you with a sense of ``cold confusion,'' don't be concerned. The lust for gold has partly derailed orderly scientific investigation. It's no wonder that even the experts are baffled.