DOE Withdraws "Cold Fusion" Grant

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

In an embarrassing retreat, the Department of Energy (DOE) has nixed a controversial $100,000 grant that critics charged would support a "cold fusion" study. The recall represents a stumble for DOE's new $19 million Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (NERI), which officials had pledged would use top-notch external reviewers to pick the best projects.

The grant, to George Miley, a nuclear engineer at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, was intended to fund tabletop experiments on the feasibility of converting nuclear waste to harmless byproducts, using electric fields and thin metallic films to produce "low-energy nuclear reactions." It was one of 45 NERI awards announced in May for studies on everything from lightweight reactors to new radioactive waste cleanup technologies.

But in June, DOE officials revealed that they were reconsidering the award after physicist Edwin Lyman of the nonprofit Nuclear Control Institute in Washington, D.C., and some DOE researchers questioned the science behind the concept. They said Miley's proposal resembled failed cold fusion experiments, which seek to spark energy-producing nuclear fusion at room temperature (Science, 23 July, p. 505). Miley, however, has insisted that his experiment is not cold fusion. It is "radically different--we have trouble getting the cold fusion people to understand what we are doing," he said in July. The difference, he explained, is that whereas cold fusion focuses on fusing deuterium atoms, his work involves proton-metal reactions.

Such distinctions, however, were not enough to persuade six new reviewers to recommend that DOE back the project. Earlier this month, they sent the agency "six 'do not fund' responses," says NERI manager John Herczeg. Miley couldn't be reached for comment on the cancellation. But the episode will prompt changes in the NERI review process, Herczeg promises: "We'll be taking a closer look from now on."

Posted in Policy, Physics