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COLD-FUSION CONFUSION GENERATES SKEPTICISM AT SCIENTIFIC GATHERING

A top nuclear-reaction researcher threw cold water on cold fusion Monday during a report delivered to an international conference on plasma science in the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.

Weeks of experiments at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have failed to turn up any evidence of nuclear reactions in the controversial "cold fusion" breakthrough announced this year by a team of chemists, the top research scientist at MIT's Plasma Fusion Center told delegates to the conference.

"At this point, there's no evidence of nuclear-reaction products," Stanley Luckhardt said during discussion of the University of Utah announcement that seemed to open the door to development of safe, cheap nuclear energy.

The MIT experiments, which were done in an attempt to duplicate the Utah work, turned up no clear sign of fusion in a number of different tests. But Luckhardt noted that the effort already has proven valuable in stimulating multidiscipline research and developing a number of spin-off ideas.

His conclusions were welcomed in what amounts to the camp of the enemy -- a meeting here focusing on plasma science, a field closely tied to the high-energy, high-temperature approaches that have consumed the bulk of research money and efforts in the search for nuclear fusion.

Fusion researchers were stunned March 23 when a University of Utah chemistry professor, B. Stanley Pons, and Martin Fleischmann of Southampton University in England announced that they had achieved fusion at room temperatures, using a chemical process known as electrolysis.

Pons and Fleischmann said they used a palladium electrode in a solution of deuterium, or "heavy water," and found that electrolysis produced more energy than was put into the experiment -- excess heat they said could only result from a nuclear reaction.

They theorized that deuterium atoms pulled into the atomic lattice of the palladium had been squeezed into fusion, a combining of atomic nuclei that is the opposite of atom-splitting, or fission.

Laboratories around the world have attempted to duplicate the experiment, with mixed results. Reaction has ranged from cautious support to charges of incompetent experimentation.

While the results of the Pons-Fleischmann experiment remain unexplained -- partly because the team has not disclosed all the details of their methods and findings -- Luckhardt said Monday that it may be a chemical reaction rather than tabletop fusion.

"What they may have is 'hot' electrolysis," speculated Luckhardt, who will repeat his report later this week during a major conference in Santa Fe, N.M.

Attempting to reproduce the experiments proved surprisingly difficult and involved a number of different departments at MIT, Luckhardt told participants in the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers' 16th annual Conference on Plasma Science.

MIT researchers found "essentially no evidence of any excess heat," none of the predicted buildup of another water isotope known as tritium, no evidence of predicted helium production beyond normal background levels, no sign of gamma ray "capture" of the freed neutrons that would be produced by fusion, and no evidence of the neutrons themselves, Luckhardt said.

If fusion were involved in the electrolysis experiment, he added, "it's actually very easy to observe -- a lethal amount of neutrons would be coming out of these cells if you were getting this type of reaction."

Like "literally hundreds of other labs across the country," Luckhardt said, MIT rushed to try to duplicate the experiment.

A first attempt was discontinued when, "after doing this experiment for about three weeks or more at this rather crude level, nothing seemed to be happening." The more intensively measured experiments that followed ran for more than 200 hours.

Luckhardt presented his findings to many of the world's top plasma researchers during the conference. Serving as hosts for the conference are the society, Calspan Corp. and the University at Buffalo.

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