Nuclear fusion fraud causes heated debate

By Lane Song

A Purdue professor is undergoing investigation due to controversial reports about his supposedly successful tabletop nuclear fusion.

In 2002, nuclear engineer Rusi Taleyarkhan published a study claiming to have achieved nuclear fusion at room temperature, known as tabletop nuclear fusion. Tabletop nuclear fusion has long been sought after by researchers as a cheap, abundant source of energy.

Purdue University officials are investigating Taleyarkhan’s research and allegations of fraud made against him. David Flannigan, University graduate student, said in an e-mail interview that other groups and laboratories have not been able to replicate Taleyarkhan’s results, and that Taleyarkhan may have been premature in announcing evidence of nuclear fusion.

Ken Suslick, University professor in chemistry, said tabletop nuclear fusion is an attractive concept for scientists.

“It could potentially lead to a ‘Mr. Fusion’ type device like in ‘Back to the Future,'” said Suslick, who is researching sonoluminescence, the field in which Taleyarkhan based his claims.

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Taleyarkhan claimed he had replicated nuclear fusion through acoustic cavitation, another name for sonoluminescence. He claimed nuclear fusion occurred inside bubbles that collapsed through intense ultrasonic waves.

“When these bubbles collapse, the gas and vapor inside gets compressed to high temperatures and pressures for very brief periods of time, so much so that a brief flash of light is emitted from the bubble interior,” said David Flannigan, graduate student working with Suslick, in an e-mail interview. “It has long been hypothesized that thermonuclear fusion may be possible inside these bubbles, though it is remote if possible at all.”

Suslick found in his research that when the bubble collapses, the temperature at the center may be high enough to induce nuclear fusion. During his experiments, Suslick said he recorded temperatures as high as 20,000 degrees Kelvin, or approximately 35,000 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the temperature required for nuclear fusion is millions of Kelvin, putting doubt on Taleyarkhan’s claims.

“You might get close to detectable fusion, but there are just too many variables,” Suslick said.

Despite these results, Suslick did not rule out the possibility of nuclear fusion occurring during acoustic cavitation.

“The problem is that you can’t see the inner core of the collapsed bubble,” said Suslick. “For example, the temperature of the surface of the sun is only 54,000 Kelvin, but the temperature in the core is high enough to induce fusion.”

Others around campus see tabletop nuclear fusion as mere speculation.

“There isn’t much science in there, and that’s consistent with the history of the subject,” said Jeremiah Sullivan, head of the University’s Physics Department. “People often deceive themselves with false claims.”