Feature

Martin Fleischmann, 1927–2012

The chemist who promised an energy miracle

For a brief moment in 1989, Martin Fleischmann could lay claim to one of the greatest discoveries of modern science. He and fellow chemist Stanley Pons told a crowded press conference at the University of Utah that they had induced nuclear fusion, the high-energy process that powers the sun, in a room-temperature jar of water. Once refined, Fleischmann said, their experiment would be worth $300 trillion, winning clean, unlimited energy from seawater and transforming humanity’s fate. 

Before long, however, it emerged that no one else could replicate cold fusion, as the process came to be known. “Skepticism turned to hostility,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.), and the most compelling question became whether the work was “a delusion, an error, or a fraud.” Fleischmann claimed that the university had railroaded him into seeking publicity rather than peer-reviewed publication for his work, said The Washington Post. He continued his research with private funding, but he later acknowledged, “This has been a terrible experience.” 

Born in Czechoslovakia, Fleischmann and his family escaped the Nazis in 1938 and moved to England, said the Los Angeles Times. He studied at Imperial College in London and had a respectable academic career, building an acclaimed chemistry program at the University of Southampton before retiring in 1983 and moving to Utah to work with Pons. Fleischmann never entirely gave up on the prospect of practical energy through fusion. “The New York Times said that you cannot make a heavier-than-air machine fly,” he noted, “the day before the Wright brothers took off.” 

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