Mar 18, 2024 - News

The University of Utah claimed it achieved cold fusion 35 years ago this week

Chemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann speak about their cold fusion research at the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee in 1989. Image via Getty Images

This week 35 years ago, scientists at the University of Utah claimed to have achieved cold fusion — an advancement "as important as the discovery of fire," observers said.

Except it wasn't true.

Welcome back to Old News, our weekly blast from the past.

What happened: On March 23, 1989, chemists Stanley Pons of the U and Martin Fleischmann of England's University of Southampton announced they had created nuclear fusion in a room-temperature jar of water.

  • They said a steady electrical current would allow the hydrogen atoms in water to be absorbed by a cathode made of the rare metal palladium.
  • The palladium would squeeze the hydrogen, causing fusion — a result they said was proved when the jar's temperature suddenly rose.

Why it mattered: The fusion method claimed by Fleischmann and Pons would have enabled the world to produce unlimited energy from seawater, without greenhouse gases.

  • The announcement quickly became an international spectacle.

How it works: Nuclear fusion — the energy released from combining atomic nuclei, as occurs in the sun — is more powerful than fission (i.e. splitting the nucleus) and creates less dangerous, radioactive waste.

  • But fusion has only been accomplished on Earth under extremely high pressure and temperatures — like a waste-producing fission bomb (à la "Oppenheimer"), or experimental reactors that require impractical amounts of energy.

What they said: If the process were to be confirmed, the Financial Times reported, "their discovery will transform the outlook for the world's energy supplies in the next century."

  • Then-Gov. Norm Bangerter sought $5 million from the legislature to continue the research, and the U asked Congress for $25 million.
Headline reads "U. Hits 'Home Run' With Fusion Pitch
A headline from the Salt Lake Tribune on April 27, 1989, as the U. sought federal funding for fusion research. Image via Utah Digital Newspapers, University of Utah
  • The other side: Lab after lab tried to replicate the findings during the following weeks — but all fell flat.
  • At a May meeting of the American Physical Society, scientists gave the research a vote of no confidence and one accused the team of "incompetence and delusion."

Follow the money: NewScientist reported in 1990 that the U in August spent $4.5 million to create a "Cold Fusion Institute," despite the broad rejection of its research.

The intrigue: Pons and Fleischmann had agreed to submit their findings on the same day as a BYU physicist who also was researching cold fusion — but they reneged and sent their paper early.

  • University of Utah administrators then staged a press conference before the paper was published in order to protect patent claims the U had made earlier that month, sociologist Bart Simon wrote in a 2002 retrospective.

The bottom line: The 1989 announcement is now considered a case study of how excitement can cause a breakdown in scientific norms.

Previously in Old News:

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