NEARLY a fortnight after the University of Utah's sensational announcement, fusion power experts still do not know whether or not a Utah chemist and his British colleague have made the energy-supply breakthrough of the century. And the scientists doing the experiments say they do not fully understand what is happening either. The experimenters believe they are producing sustained hydrogen fusion reactions - the power source of the stars - at room temperature in a small jar. If true, the process could become a source of abundant energy that would supply the world's need for heat and electricity indefinitely.
Last Friday, B. Stanley Pons, chairman of the University of Utah Chemistry Department, told an audience at the university that his experiment ``cannot be explained by any known chemical process. ... I can conceive of no other process other than a nuclear process,'' he said.
Also on Friday, Steven E. Jones - who heads a team doing comparable experiments at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah - told a Columbia University audience in New York, ``I think we have a new approach to fusion.'' However, he said his experiment produces only about one ten-trillionth of the energy needed to run it. That contrasts with the University of Utah scientists' claim that their device produces four times as much energy as it consumes.
Both teams stress that other scientists must study and confirm their results before they can be sure of what they are doing. But for the many scientists who want to check it out, this has been one of the most tantalizing announcements of a possibly major scientific discovery ever made.
Dr. Pons and his co-experimenter (and former teacher) Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southhampton in England claim to have reached a goal that has eluded a small army of researchers for 40 years. They claim to have done it by a simple extension of a common high school experiment. Yet they have not provided enough detail for fusion experts to understand exactly what they have achieved.
In hydrogen fusion, the nuclei of hydrogen atoms fuse together to form a nucleus of helium, releasing energy in the process. The hydrogen nuclei each carry a positive charge. Since like charges repel each other, it is difficult for two nuclei to get close enough for the strong nuclear force that promotes fusion to overcome the electrical repulsion. This can happen under the high temperature, pressure, and density of the core of the sun and in other stars.
On Earth, fusion experimenters work with two forms of hydrogen that are heavier than hydrogen in ordinary water - namely, deuterium (doubly heavy hydrogen) and tritium (triply heavy hydrogen). They confine a mixture of these nuclei with powerful magnetic fields while heating it to several hundred million degrees. At such temperatures, the nuclei travel fast enough to smash together and fuse. Alternatively, experimenters compress the deuterium/tritium with laser beams.
Neither approach has yet achieved energy break-even - that is, produced at least as much energy as it takes to run the experiments, although that goal seems close at hand. But they have consumed some $20 billion.
Now Pons and Dr. Fleischmann claim to have run fusion experiments that produce net power. And they have done it at a cost of only $100,000 of their own money over the past half decade. They use a form of electrolysis. In the usual school experiment, two electrodes are placed in a jar of water and connected to a small battery, such as an automobile battery. This sets up an electric current that splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.
Pons and Fleischmann use electrodes of palladium and platinum, with the platinum in the form of a thin wire coil surrounding a palladium rod. They also use heavy water - that is, water composed of deuterium and oxygen. As the electric current splits the heavy-water molecules, the deuterium is absorbed by the palladium rod. Deuterium nuclei accumulate in the crystal structure of the palladium until they are packed closely enough for some of them to fuse, according to explanations by Pons and Fleischmann.
This is the story the Utah researchers first told at a hastily called press conference March 23. The university said it called the conference because news of the work was starting to leak out. But it held back details to protect its patent position. The researchers urge interested scientists to wait for publication of their scientific paper, which they submitted to the journal Nature the following day. Dr. Jones also submitted a paper on his team's work at that time. It will likely take take several weeks for Nature to publish the papers. It can take even longer if the editor rejects one or both of them or requests revisions after expert reviewers assess them.