Without a doubt, the biggest setback to fusion research in the past quarter of a century was the scandal over "cold fusion". Dr Stanley Pons, a professor of chemistry at the University of Utah, and his colleague Dr Martin Fleischmann, of the University of Southampton in England, touched off a furore by claiming to have achieved nuclear fusion in a jar of water at room temperature. Two months after the March 1989 announcement about experiments done six years earlier, members of the American Physical Society furiously denounced the research in two days of meetings in Baltimore.
A stream of angry fusion experts denounced Dr Pons and Dr Fleischmann as "sloppy" and "incompetent", and complained that they had withheld details needed for experiments to duplicate the results. Scores of laboratories in the US and Europe had failed to reproduce the unexpected surges of energy reported from the Pons-Fleischmann experiments, leading other scientists to conclude the bursts were results of investigation rather than natural results, or worse, that the claims were fraudulent.
The vilifications by hot fusion experts continued for years, with the few remaining supporters of Dr Pons and Dr Fleischmann counter-claiming that their intensity was due to billions of dollars of research funding being at stake. In 1992, the two hounded scientists relocated to France to continue their work at Technova, a subsidiary of Toyota, and to escape the barrage of attacks that labelled their research junk science.
The supposedly debunked cold-fusion hypothesis proposes that the molecular lattices of certain metals such as palladium can trap hydrogen nuclei in close enough proximity for fusion to occur when a modest electric current is applied at room temperature. The debate was further undermined when South Korean experiments reported in 2002 in the prestigious, peer-reviewed journal Science were proved fraudulent.
But in 2007, 50 researchers and investors gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology heard that 3,000 published studies suggested "promising amounts of energy" could be generated using the Pons-Fleishmann bench-top apparatus. Last November, the US National Intelligence Authority reported on civilian and naval experiments on low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR), concluding they had produced evidence that nuclear reactions may be occurring under conditions not previously believed possible.
* The National