Cold Fusion: Still Cold, or Is There New Promise?

Cold fusion? Limitless energy on a table top? Wait a minute. Wasn't that discredited 20 years ago?

It was, in fact, 20 years ago last month that two scientists, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, announced they had created nuclear fusion at room temperature. They created the popular equivalent of an H-bomb explosion -- an explosion that quickly was snuffed out when other scientists said no fusion had taken place.

But a few researchers continue to work on it.

A team of researchers, led by Pamela Boss of the U.S. Navy and Lawrence Forsley of the technology firm JWK International, reported evidence that they have seen high-energy neutrons, a possible side effect of nuclear fusion, in a laboratory experiment.

'Low Energy Nuclear Reactions'

The team published its findings in a German physics journal, and presented them at a meeting of the American Chemical Society -- 20 years to the day after Fleischmann and Pons made their announcement.

"I am confident we are seeing nuclear reactions," said Forsley by telephone from San Diego, where he now does much of his work in collaboration with the Navy. "We're seeing conventional nuclear reactions in an unconventional place."

A small New Jersey firm, Energetics, also has been trying to make cold fusion reactions at its laboratory in Israel. A former surgeon, Irving Dardik, heads the effort, and has generated enough buzz (if not electricity) to be featured this weekend in a "60 Minutes" piece.

Nuclear fusion is a high-energy process -- it's the reaction that powers the sun. The sun is so hot, and there are such pressures beneath its roiling surface, that hydrogen atoms collide, or "fuse," to make helium atoms plus tremendous amounts of heat and light.

Fusion has been replicated on Earth, but only violently -- in the form of a hydrogen bomb. (It is the opposite, by the way, of the fission that happens in an atom bomb or nuclear power plant, where atoms are split to make energy.)

Cold Fusion: Getting Warmer?

If nuclear fusion could be harnessed for peaceful purposes, scientists believe, it would solve many of the world's energy problems.

They have worked at it for decades, without success. They have built large, complex, expensive devices in the laboratory to mimic the reactions that happen inside the sun. They did create tiny reactions for tiny fractions of a second, but nothing remotely practical.

Budget cuts brought much of the work to a stop, and the 1989 debacle scared many researchers away.

'It's Still Cold'

Bob Park, a physicist at the University of Maryland who has spent much of his career warning against junk science, said he was surprised cold fusion got a hearing at the American Chemical Society meeting.

"Twenty years later, it's still cold," he wrote.

But it is not the same as it was when the subject first exploded publicly in 1989.

"These people, at least some of them, look in ever greater detail where others have not bothered to look," wrote Park. "They say they find great mysteries, and perhaps they do. Is it important? I doubt it. But I think it's science."

Forsley, for one, said he's flattered that Park gave him and his colleagues as much credit as he did.

"We've got a mechanism here," he said. "Nobody's been busting us about it.

"The story is just beginning," he added. "Let's put it that way."