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Research into the heart of the atom could hold the key for clean and plentiful energy supplies in the future, the top scientist at the world's largest center for nuclear research said here during this week's international conference on plasma science.

Nobel physics laureate Carlo Rubbia, who discovered several subatomic particles, said the step from laboratory to commercial nuclear fusion will unlock a new energy source that could free much of the world from dependence on oil and help efforts to curb pollution that causes global warming.

"Sooner or later, science has to pay off because we use so many resources," said the co-winner of the 1984 Nobel Prize in physics. "The same particle accelerators that you need to go deeper into the structure of matter may also be adapted to the more mundane matter of energy production."

The step from research accelerators -- the high-tech descendants of the "atom smashers" that first probed the structure of matter -- to large commercial power stations depends largely on the funding commitments made by the governments of the world, Rubbia and two other top atomic researchers agreed.

Many problems have been solved and much progress has been made over the past few years, Rubbia said during an informal discussion with reporters that also included James Mark, senior scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California and Rudolf Bock of the GSI research center in Darmstadt, West Germany.

Development of fusion -- a combining of atomic nuclei that produces huge amounts of energy with relatively clean byproducts, as opposed to the highly radioactive wastes of atom-splitting nuclear fission, depends on "how much money and how much effort" is put into research, he added.

"Energy is such a pressing issue," said Rubbia, who is the senior scientist at CERN, the European Organization of Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland. "I don't see how we can continue with a strong dependence on oil."

The "cold fusion" breakthrough announced this spring by two chemists is a "side alley, which I don't think gets very far," Rubbia added. "We prefer hot -- for example, the sun also runs pretty hot."

"Hot" fusion, using the high temperatures and pressures of electrically excited gases called plasmas to mimic the fusion reactions within the sun, has indeed been favored at the plasma science conference co-sponsored by the University at Buffalo, Calspan Corp. and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and ending today at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo. Many of the more than 400 top world researchers gathered here doubt that the "cold fusion" process is fusion at all. It may be interesting chemistry, Bock noted, but "it's not the future for energy production."

Rubbia is the top scientist at the facility with the world's largest particle accelerator, a research device that can only be surpassed by America's proposed superconducting supercollider. He supports the supercollider concept, which faces serious funding hurdles.

"I do think that America should go ahead on the supercollider, but they should be more realistic on the time schedule," he said, adding that the device would be just as valuable after 2000 as it would be in the 1996 target year.

Nationalistic arguments -- that America needs the supercollider to maintain world leadership in physics research -- are only valid to a point, he added.

"The important thing is not to win, but to participate," he said. "We need each other."

The physicists are concentrating on inertial fusion -- a series of micro-explosions strung into a self-sustaining reaction, much like the working of an automobile engine.

"These kinds of things are being done now with laser beams," Rubbia said. "We believe that particle accelerators could also offer an interesting way of producing similar effects."

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