Energy from nuclear fusion? Utah has been there, not done that

News of ‘hot’ fusion success recalls Utah’s infamous claims of ‘cold’ fusion 33 years ago.

(Doug Pizac | AP) Martin Fleischmann, left, of the University of Southampton, England, talks to reporters about cold fusion as University of Utah chemist B. Stanley Pons listens in Los Angeles, May 9, 1989. The pair of scientists claimed they achieved nuclear fusion, but that claim could never be proven and the university was widely ridiculed.

A nuclear fusion experiment that generates more energy than it consumes?

For old timers in Utah, news that scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have produced such an experiment harkens back to 1989, when the University of Utah made a claim that jolted the world.

Livermore scientists are announcing Tuesday that they have created a “hot” fusion experiment using lasers that put out more energy than is put in. That would be a first after more than 50 years of research to try and reproduce on earth the energy that fuels the sun.

In a March 23, 1989 news conference at the university’s Henry Eyring Building, chemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann claimed that they had produced gobs of heat from a tabletop electrolysis experiment – so much heat that it could only be explained if nuclear fusion were occurring. And if fusion energy can be produced from such a simple device, it had the potential to redefine energy on the planet.

The world was ready for so-called “cold fusion.” Coming the day before the oil tanker Exxon Valdez spilled its load across a wide swath of the Alaskan coastline, the reaction to the U. announcement was massive and global.

And because Pons and Fleischmann had not yet published their findings, scientists worldwide were trying to duplicate the experiment with the university’s news release as their only source of information.

There was no world wide web in 1989. There was only “bitnet,” the earliest iteration of the internet that linked several universities together to share text-only discussions. U. officials were so overwhelmed with requests for the news release that they bought a handful of extra fax machines to send it worldwide.

University of Utah President Chase Peterson – convinced that his school had a gold mine – immediately began pursuing patents. The Utah Legislature jumped in with an investment of $5 million, which was spent on patent lawyers and on opening the National Cold Fusion Institute at the U.’s Research Park.

In the end, it was a fiasco. While a small number of laboratories claimed to reproduce the experiment, the major players in academia and industry could not duplicate it. And with the university refusing to give details to protect potential patents, the conversation turned toward incompetence and fraud.

The scientists left the university to work in France with funding from Toyota, but that project ended in 1998, also without success. Fleischmann died in 2012, and Pons reportedly stayed in France and became a French citizen. Peterson died in 2014.

No patents were ever granted, and the National Cold Fusion Institute closed in 1991 without ever having reproduced Pons and Fleischmann’s results.