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Epitaph Written to Cold-Fusion Follies

REMEMBER the National Cold Fusion Institute? The University of Utah set it up in Salt Lake City a couple of years ago with $4.5 million seed money from the Utah state legislature. It was hailed as a world center for research into cold fusion - a purported wondrous phenomenon that could revolutionize energy supply.The institute quietly passed into history June 30. Its seed money ran out. Expected sustaining grants from federal agencies and industry never materialized. And some of its most ardent original boosters have fallen from grace. Former University of Utah president Chase Petersen has resigned following the scandal that erupted when he transferred $500,000 of university funds to the institute under the guise of an "anonymous" donation. Cold fusion's scientific "parents Utah electrochemist B. Stanley Pons and his British colleague Martin Fleischman - have lost prestige in the scientific community. Dr. Pons has exchanged his tenured professorship at Utah for a nontenured research post. Dr. Fleischman still studies cold fusion, though he no longer leads the field. The institute's demise, symbolically, ends the most bizarre and confusing science story of recent years. Announcement by press conference took precedence over normal research reporting through scientific journals. Scientific objectivity was lost in the turmoil stirred by a greedy pursuit of patent rights and the angry reaction of skeptics. Pons and Fleischman startled the world March 23, 1989, when they announced in a university press conference that they had found the Holy Grail of energy research - sustained nuclear fusion that produces more energy than the apparatus consumes. Working without the multimillion-dollar machines and 100-million-degree temperatures used by traditional fusion researchers, they claimed to have done this at room temperature in a table-top container. They immersed two electrodes - a palladium rod surrounded by a platinum coil - in a bath rich in the doubly heavy form of hydrogen called deuterium. They suggested that some form of fusion reaction, such as the fusion of deuterium atoms absorbed by the palladium rod, took place. The claim evoked widespread skepticism, especially among nuclear physicists. The reluctance of Pons and Fleischman to give details of their work while university lawyers sought patent rights further inflamed the skeptics. When several laboratories failed to reproduce the Utah result, many scientists charged that these results represented faulty measurements. Similar fruitless studies since then have reinforced the belief among many interested scientists that cold fusion is a myth. However, there has also been a trickle of positive results in laboratories in China, India, Italy, Japan, the Soviet Union, Spain, and the United States. No one knows exactly what is going on. But further research seems warranted. Science by press conference, where hype poisons dialogue among researchers, has proved to be a bankrupt policy. The announcement of the National Cold Fusion Institute closing is its epitaph. Perhaps, now, the normal pursuit of scientific research will reveal whether or not there is anything to cold fusion after all.