DOE Reviews "Cold Fusion" Grant

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is reconsidering a grant that critics say will fund "cold fusion" experiments. DOE officials this week announced that a special review panel will take a fresh look at the science underpinning the $100,000 project, which proposes to test a new method of transforming radioactive waste into harmless byproducts.

The grant, to George Miley, a nuclear engineer at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is intended to fund tabletop experiments to test the feasibility of treating nuclear waste using low electric fields and thin metallic films to produce "low-energy nuclear reactions." It's one of 45 awards from DOE's new $19 million Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (NERI), chosen from among 308 proposals and announced in May.

In an abstract (neri.ne.doe.gov/awardlist.html), Miley noted that preliminary experiments in which nickel, palladium, and titanium films were "highly loaded with protons" and then energized with electricity had produced reactions that appeared to transmute radioactive elements into safer byproducts and produce "excess energy." But the project's apparent similarity to controversial cold fusion experiments--which have unsuccessfully sought to use electrochemical reactions to spark energy-producing nuclear fusion at room temperature--has raised eyebrows.

A DOE official first raised questions about the project in early June, according to NERI program manager John Herczeg. DOE officials decided that Miley's proposal should have been handled by the agency's Office of Science, which arranged reviews of NERI's basic research proposals, and not by the Office of Nuclear Energy, which oversaw the program's engineering grants. In late June, nuclear office chief Bill Magwood asked the science office to take a look at the grant, for which funds had not been disbursed. That office is currently assembling a three-member review panel, which is expected to issue its opinion next month.

One group, however, says DOE should act immediately. "The credibility of DOE and the NERI program will be irreparably damaged unless funding for this cold-fusion proposal is immediately withdrawn," Edwin Lyman, scientific director of the Nuclear Control Institute, a Washington-based arms control group, wrote in a 6 July letter to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. The award, he told Science, "raises questions about the adequacy of DOE's peer review."

Miley says the turnabout "came as a complete shock." The proposal "is speculative but based on extensive experimental data," he says. And although his work has been depicted as cold fusion, he says it is "radically different--we have trouble getting the cold fusion people to understand what we are doing." The difference, he says, is that whereas cold fusion experiments focus on fusing deuterium atoms, his works involves proton-metal reactions.

Posted in Physics