Developements to Watch
THIS THEORY MAY MAKE SENSE OF COLD FUSION
When Ronald A. Brightsen was a graduate student in nuclear chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1940s, he discovered an isotope called arsenic-78, a short-lived product of uranium fission. His experiments set the stage for a radically new theory of nuclear physics that took shape in the mid-1980s and finally leapt into the spotlight on Aug. 10, when Brightsen unveiled it. He contends that his vision of the structure of the atomic nucleus cracks the riddle of cold fusion, at last describing the mechanism by which hydrogen atoms fuse to produce the energy cold fusion advocates claim to detect. If he's right, fusion in a jar of water may yet be possible.
Brightsen's theory was already laid down by the time the first widely controversial experiment in cold fusion was announced at the University of Utah in 1989. As a safety expert at Westinghouse Electric Corp. and other nuclear power producers, and then as a senior staffer on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Brightsen was never comfortable with the "fudge factors" used to reconcile theoretical physics with actual results. He wanted a theory that would more accurately predict how much energy would be produced in any nuclear reaction. He got it when he conceived a model of the atom's nucleus with neutrons and protons clustered together not randomly, but in certain precise ways. The energy bound up in these clusters can be released several different ways, which may explain why cold fusion experimenters report forms of energy that conventional physics doesn't account for.
In 1985, Brightsen founded Nuclear Science Research Corp. (NSR) in Reston, Va., to test his theory, partly with computer simulations. Most of the few scientists who knew of the effort were underwhelmed. "I wasn't very impressed," recalls Manson Benedict, the retired head of MIT's Nuclear Engineering Dept. Not so the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the utility industry think tank in Palo Alto, Calif., which helped fund Brightsen's work. "What he's got is very difficult to argue with," adds consultant Walter Loewenstein, past president of the American Nuclear Society. "Whether it conforms to reality is the question." To find out, Brightsen is spinning NSR into Clustron Sciences Corp., which will be based in Vienna, Va. The company expects to begin work on a cold-fusion power system this fall.EDITED BY EMILY T. SMITH