Martin Fleischmann: Electrochemist at the centre of the 1989 cold-fusion controversy


Martin Fleischmann, a leading British electrochemist, stunned the world with the announcement in 1989 that, together with former student Stanley Pons, they had achieved cold fusion – nuclear fusion in a glass bottle – at the University of Utah.

The chemists became overnight sensations, adorning the front pages of many of the world's top publications, including Business Week, Newsweek and Time magazines, and set the science world alight – because the simple experiment might have solved the world's energy problems.

The ramifications would have been far-reaching and might have changed the energy world forever, allowing for the provision of a clean, renewable, and practically limitless source of cheap energy – a long sought-after goal by the science community – that could free the US and other Western oil-dependent nations from their reliance on foreign oil. However, the pair were never able to replicate the experiment and were accused of "sloppy" work, which led later to accusations of outright fraud. Almost ostracised, Fleischmann described it as "a terrible experience".

Fusion, the nuclear energy process that powers the sun, relies on Einstein's discoveries that matter is a form of frozen energy and that if atoms of a light element, for example, hydrogen, are squeezed together hard enough, they will fuse to create atoms of a new heavier element, causing the release of tremendous amounts of energy. For decades, scientists have attempted to find ways to control this explosive process, though all have failed. The temperatures thought necessary to make atoms fuse – hundreds of millions of degrees centigrade – are sustainable for only a few seconds.

Fleischmann and Pons, however, thought they had found a far simpler way, using what chemists call electrolysis – a simple concept: two electrodes are immersed in a conductive solution and electricity is passed between them. In a simple electrolysis cell, the reaction splits water to form hydrogen at one electrode and oxygen at the other.

Their apparatus were a jar of lithium and heavy water (a form of water made with deuterium rather than ordinary hydrogen), an electrical current and a cathode made of palladium, a rare metal. The theory was that a continuous stream of electrical current would release hydrogen atoms from the water, and that they would be absorbed by the palladium. They were convinced that when squeezed into the palladium, the hydrogen atoms would fuse together, releasing a burst of energy, just as the fusion of hydrogen atoms in the sun produces heat and light.

At the March 1989 press conference, the pair reported that their simple cells released more energy than was available from chemical processes alone; in other words, that room temperature or "cold fusion" had occurred. Their announcement, implying the discovery of a potentially "inexhaustible source of energy", was among the most powerful scientific claims of the last century.

Others immediately saw problems. If deuterium-deuterium fusion was occurring, the process should show signs of nuclear processes, notably subatomic particles called neutrons. However, although hundreds of scientists worldwide tried to replicate the experiment, none were able to detect such neutrons. The process should also produce helium by the fusing of the deuterium atoms. The team was never able to show excess quantities of helium beyond what was in the background air.

As failed attempts increased, scepticism turned to hostility, with other scientists concluding that Fleischmann and Pons had botched their energy calculations and that no excess energy was being produced. In 1990, Professor Close, head of the theoretical physics division, Rutherford Appleton laboratory, set out to determine whether the cold fusion work of Fleischmann and Pons was "a delusion, an error or a fraud" and found evidence for all three.

The scientists always claimed that they were rushed into a premature announcement of their findings, without the usual scientific publication, by University of Utah president Chase Peterson – in large part because a rival team at Brigham Young University was working on a similar project. Peterson championed their work and helped persuade the Utah Legislature to grant them $5m for research. The university spent more than $1m in legal fees to patent the research. But within two years, cold fusion was dismissed by the scientific community, Peterson had resigned and the pair had left Salt Lake City for France, where they had less notoriety.

Born in Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia in March 1927, Martin Fleischmann and his family fled the 1938 German occupation, and after a couple of close encounters with the Gestapo, eventually made it to Holland before arriving at Liverpool St Station, London.

Several years later, Fleischmann won a scholarship to read chemistry at Imperial College, London University, where he developed an interest in palladium and hydrogen. In 1950, upon receiving his doctorate, one of his instructors noted his tremendous talent for innovation, describing Fleischmann as a "brilliant contributor with an oft-demonstrated flair for new ideas." During this period, he met his future wife, Sheila Flinn, with whom he would have three children.

Fleischmann then taught at King's College, Durham University, and in 1967 was appointed professor of electrochemistry at Southampton University, where he built up the department, earning it and himself an international reputation. He was a leader in many aspects of electrochemistry, the science behind battery research. He played a crucial role in the development of a spectroscopy technique called surface-enhanced Raman scattering and, in the Eighties, was the developer of the ultra-microelectrode. Among colleagues, he had the reputation for generating lots of ideas, testing them "quick and dirty" to see if they might lead somewhere, then letting others refine them. Southampton chemistry professor Alan Bewick called Fleischmann "more innovative than any other electrochemist in the world."

Fleischmann retired from Southampton in 1983 and moved to Salt Lake City to work with Pons. In 1992, the pair moved to France to continue their work on cold fusion at Techova Corp, a subsidiary of Toyota, with more than $30m in research funds, but never replicated their earlier findings. In 1995, Fleischmann retired and returned to England following irreconcilable differences between him and Pons. The labs closed shortly after and Pons was later reported to have taken French citizenship and to be living as a recluse.

Fleischmann received many accolades and awards, including the post of president of the International Society of Electrochemists from 1970-72; the medal for electrochemistry and thermodynamics by the Royal Society of London (1979); the Palladium Medal by the US Electrochemical Society (1985); and the highest honour for an English scientist, a Royal Society Fellowship (1986).

Martin Childs

Martin Fleischmann, scientist: born Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad), Czechoslovakia 29 March 1927; married 1950 Sheila Flinn (one son, two daughters); died Tisbury, Wiltshire 3 August 2012.