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Richard Lahey ’64
Richard Lahey ’64. Photo by Mark McCarty
The Fuss Over Fusion
Richard Lahey ’64, the Edward E. Hood Professor of Engineering at Rensselaer, was on the phone for about five hours on March 4 to answer questions from reporters about “bubble fusion,” a possible new technique for creating fusion that was reported in the March 8 issue of Science magazine. The announcement sparked an explosion of debate in the international scientific community and generated widespread media attention.

Lahey and Rusi Taleyarkhan ’78 are part of a team of researchers who reported the observation of phenomena that could point to the possibility of nuclear fusion using a novel technique for plasma confinement. Ultrasonic waves were used to implode small cavitation bubbles of deuterated-acetone vapor. The team said that, during bubble implosion, evidence pointing to nuclear emissions and sonoluminescence light flashes was observed. They also observed evidence of tritium, which could suggest the fusion of deuterium atoms in the highly compressed bubbles.

The experiments were conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory by a team led by Taleyarkhan, who earned his doctorate in nuclear science under Lahey’s tutelage. Lahey and Robert Nigmatulin, a visiting scholar at Rensselaer and a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, performed the theoretical analysis of the bubble dynamics and the shock-induced pressures, temperatures, and densities in the imploding bubbles. Robert Block, professor emeritus of nuclear engineering at Rensselaer, helped to set up and calibrate a neutron and gamma detection system.

Attempts to confirm the researchers’ results by looking for the telltale neutron signature of the deuterium fusion reaction have yielded mixed results. Additional experiments still are needed to verify neutron emission.

The scientific debate has been reported worldwide. National and international news outlets immediately picked up the story, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Business Week, the Associated Press, USA Today, Newsday, Science News, Christian Science Monitor, Financial Times (London), Montreal Gazette, and Times of India.

Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science, wrote, “Our mission is to put interesting, potentially important science into public view after ensuring its quality as best as we possibly can. After that, efforts at repetition and reinterpretation can take place out in the open. That’s where it belongs, not in an alternative universe in which anonymity prevails, rumor leaks out, and facts stay inside.

“It goes without saying that we cannot publish papers with a guarantee that every result is right,” Kennedy wrote. “We’re not that smart. That is why we are prepared for occasional disappointment when our internal judgments and our processes of external review turn out to be wrong, and a provocative result is not fully confirmed. What we ARE very sure of is that publication is the right option, even—and perhaps especially—when there is some controversy.”

The March 18 issue of Business Week magazine examined the controversy in the article “Is It Really Fusion This Time?”

Rensselaer Magazine: June 2002
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