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The Bubble Bursts
18 July 2008 (All day)
A Purdue University nuclear engineer who claimed to have carried out tabletop nuclear fusion is responsible for two instances of scientific misconduct, a report made public today concludes. Both cases centered on efforts by physicist Rusi Taleyarkhan to make experiments carried out by members of his lab appear as independent verification of his work. The charges mark the first time the university has formally faulted Taleyarkhan, yet the panel behind the report did not attempt to evaluate the original scientific claims of "bubble fusion."
The new report brings near closure to a case that has wracked the scientific community for 6 years. Taleyarkhan first gained notoriety after reporting in Science that sound waves can collapse bubbles in a liquid with enough force to generate fusion and liberate excess energy. The result raised the promise of limitless energy and spurred numerous early attempts to replicate the work, all of which failed (ScienceNOW, 11 May 2007).
In 2005, Taleyarkhan claimed just such an independent confirmation after two researchers in his lab, postdoctoral assistant Yiban Xu and master's degree candidate Adam Butt, published bubble fusion results in Nuclear Engineering and Design (NED) and in a later conference proceeding. But in its review, the committee--composed of six members from five institutions--concluded that the work did not constitute independent verification of the original results because Xu not only carried out the research in Taleyarkhan's lab and used his sonofusion equipment but also relied heavily on consultations with Taleyarkhan, whose name did not appear as an author of the paper. The committee also concluded that Butt's name was added to the paper after the work had been completed, largely to deflect a referee's criticism that more than one person should have taken and overseen the data. Adding the name constituted scientific misconduct, panel members concluded. The report says that the second such misdeed occurred when Taleyarkhan published a subsequent paper in the 27 January 2006 issue of Physical Review Letters referring to the NED paper as an "independent" confirmation.
Kenneth Suslick, a chemist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and a longtime critic of bubble fusion, calls the report "some kind of vindication." Suslick says he was disappointed the report didn't more squarely address questions of possible scientific fraud that have been raised about the research (Science, 17 March 2006, p. 1532). The report states that although such allegations were made to a previous panel investigating Taleyarkhan's work, they were not forwarded to be made part of the current panel's investigation, but it does not explain why.
The panel's report comes in response to an inquiry request last year from the Office of Naval Research, which helped fund some of Taleyarkhan's experiments. In a letter yesterday to Purdue's research integrity officer Peter Dunn, ONR officials formally accepted the report, calling it "prompt, thorough, and objective." Purdue spokesperson Joseph Bennett says Taleyarkhan has 5 days to appeal the panel's findings. If he does, that appeal must be concluded within 30 days. The ONR letter states that the funding agency will keep the case open until Purdue takes corrective action to prevent similar occurrences in the future.