'Tabletop Fusion' Research Under Review

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 9, 2006

Purdue University is launching a review into concerns raised by members of its nuclear engineering faculty about highly publicized "tabletop fusion" experiments conducted by one of their colleagues, officials said yesterday.

Purdue's review of Rusi Taleyarkhan's work came as the journal Nature reported in an online news report yesterday that his colleagues and others had made allegations about the credibility of the research. Taleyarkhan attracted widespread attention in 2002 when he said in the journal Science he had triggered nuclear fusion -- the kind of energy that drives the sun -- in a device the size of a coffee maker. Despite numerous attempts, other researchers have not been able to verify his findings.

"The research claims involved are very significant, and the concerns expressed are extremely serious," Purdue Provost Sally Mason said. Nature reported that two faculty members had charged that Taleyarkhan had kept them from seeing his data and from publicizing their negative findings.

University spokeswoman Jeanne Norberg insisted the review was not an investigation: "We are not starting with the assumption that anyone has done anything wrong, but we do think what has taken place needs to be unraveled."

Taleyarkhan's work has drawn intense attention in part because of fears that it could end up like the "cold fusion" experiments of Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, who claimed in 1989 to have produced tabletop fusion -- work that was later debunked.

Taleyarkhan defended himself in a brief interview but said he could not discuss the case while the university's review was underway.

"We stand by the technical material," he said. "I cannot defend the nontechnical human issues like competition and jealousy."

Lefteri Tsoukalas and Tatjana Jevremovic, who reportedly raised questions about Taleyarkhan's work, could not be reached for comment. Purdue's Norberg said officials have been unable to verify the accuracy of Nature's account.

Taleyarkhan said his device had fused hydrogen atoms and released energy in a reaction produced by sonoluminescence, the process of passing sound waves through certain liquids to create bubbles that pop with a flash of light and bursts of high temperature.

"I don't think this was fraud," said Lawrence Crum, a researcher at the University of Washington at Seattle and a co-discoverer of single-bubble sonoluminescence, who nonetheless feels Taleyarkhan's conclusions are wrong. "I think he misinterpreted the results."

Tapping nuclear energy from hydrogen would instantly solve the world's energy problems. Nuclear physicist Fred Becchetti, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, blamed high expectations and intense competition for funding and prestige for the spate of charges and denials that have accompanied Taleyarkhan's work since 2002.

"What should be a scientific curiosity gets thrown out of proportion," he said.

The editor in chief of Science, Donald Kennedy, said the charges against Taleyarkhan are serious, and the journal will await the results of Purdue's review: "There was some disagreement among peer reviewers, but the majority opinion of some very smart people was it was an interesting result and should be published," he said of the 2002 article that set off the firestorm. "We had every expectation that this would be controversial."


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