May 08, 1989 12:00 PM

Stanley Pons was 6 years old when his mother gave him a chemistry set, along with the usual caveat: Don’t make a mess in the kitchen. He did, of course, spending hours concocting brews that turned the tap water in his beakers to noxious shades of blue, green or yellow. He was thrilled when the foul odor of one potion would outdo the stink of another. Soon he had found his calling. “Mom,” he declared, “I’m going to be a chemist.”

And that is precisely what Pons grew up to be. Forty years later, still working on a tabletop, he has stirred up much more than a batch of malodorous compounds. On March 23 the University of Utah professor and his British colleague, Martin Fleischmann, announced they had achieved the world’s first nuclear fusion reaction at room temperature. (Fusion, in which two atoms join to produce one new atom, is the inverse of fission, in which atoms split apart.) If that turns out to be the case, they may have ushered in a brave new world of cheap and virtually limitless energy that would leave no radioactive residue. By harnessing in a simple laboratory test tube the stunning power that fuels both the sun and the hydrogen bomb, Pons and Fleischmann may have achieved a breakthrough akin to discovering fire itself. That prospect has helped transform the retiring Pons into a potential, if unlikely, superstar. His phone rings off the hook, and boxes of fan mail arrive daily; the press dogs his every move, and fans clamor for snapshots, autographs or even a glimpse of the man who may become one of history’s most celebrated scientists.

“The other day a ballet student in her dance tights ran over and knocked on my door, saying, ‘I just wanted to see if you were real.’ Isn’t that crazy?” says Pons, sitting in his office on the university’s Salt Lake City campus. Pons has mixed reactions to being in the spotlight. “I’m thrilled at what we’ve discovered, but I’m having a hard time coping with the public’s attention,” he says. “I had no idea it would amount to something this big.”

In fact, the extraordinary claim by Pons and Fleischmann has triggered a fusion frenzy as researchers at hundreds of laboratories worldwide scramble to duplicate their results. Skeptics, meanwhile, question whether fusion was actually achieved and criticize the two scientists’ haste to trumpet their findings at a press conference before publishing them in a scientific journal. Some simply can’t believe that two relatively obscure scientists could somehow achieve on a countertop what hundreds of their colleagues have struggled for years to accomplish as part of multibillion-dollar, high-tech government projects. Pons concedes he is stung by the doubters but insists he will not be daunted by them. “Everybody seems to think that because it was so simple, because it was not done with fancy equipment, it must be wrong,” he says. “Yes, I was pretty depressed. But I’m absolutely sure of what we’ve accomplished.”

Raised in tiny Valdese, N.C. (pop. 3,400), Pons never lost his boyhood passion for chemistry. “While his two younger brothers read comic books, Stan preferred science magazines,” says his mother, Jeannette. Pons concedes the point. “I suppose I was a pretty good student. There weren’t many ways to get in trouble in Valdese. Oh, once in a while I’d sneak out to smoke cigarettes and drink beer, but that’s about it.”

Pons went on to earn a science degree at the University of Michigan and did two years of graduate work before returning home in 1967 to help out with his father’s textile business. Eight years later he enrolled in the acclaimed electrochemistry department of the University of Southampton in England. It was there that he met and formed a lasting bond with Professor Fleischmann, now 62, Even after Pons moved to Utah in 1983, the two continued to collaborate. Their fusion experiment had its genesis in 1984 after frustrating discussions that seemed to be getting them nowhere. “We stayed up all night, but it just wasn’t coming together,” says Pons. “So we took a walk in Mill-creek Canyon to clear our minds, and pretty soon things started making sense. We came back to the house, opened a bottle of whiskey, and the next morning had the experiment ready to go.”

Getting results took much longer. During the next five years, while still teaching courses, Pons logged 18-hour days trying to achieve fusion. Between them, he and Fleischmann spent $100,000 of their own money on the experiment. “In those years Stanley only got about three hours of sleep a night,” says his wife, Sheila. “He’d wake up with an idea and tell me about it. But they went right over my head and put me right back to sleep.”

As early as last summer, Pons sensed he was on the verge of a breakthrough. He and Fleischmann rigged up a contraption consisting of electrodes made from the elements platinum and palladium immersed in a bath of “heavy water,” a chemical variant of water in which the usual hydrogen atom has been replaced with an isotope called deuterium. Using an ordinary car battery, they passed a current through the electrodes. Pons claims that the humble apparatus began generating heat, producing four times the energy it consumed. His conclusion was that deuterium ions had fused inside the palladium to form helium—the first known instance of energy-producing nuclear fusion at room temperature.

The results left Pons in something of a tizzy. Recalls his father, Pete, who now runs a restaurant in Florida: “He called a few days before the announcement and said, ‘Dad, I think I’ve done something that’s going to put me on TV. Be sure to watch.’ Of course, I didn’t have a clue as to what he was talking about. That stuff is too deep for me.”

Even Pons is not sure exactly what the future holds, though he says he is certain the reaction was nuclear. To nail things down, he and Fleischmann last week announced a new round of experiments to supplement their original findings.

Meanwhile, Pons is trying to maintain a semblance of normality at home. Twice divorced, he lives in a modest, redbrick house in Salt Lake City with his third wife, Sheila, 36, whom he met at one of his father’s textile mills, and their two children, Joyce, 12, and John Albert, 6. (His four older children, by his earlier marriages, are grown and on their own.) He likes to relax at the stove, cooking up French and Cajun dishes, but lately the time has been lacking. One recent evening, the phone was miraculously silent, and Pons was getting ready to whip up a fish barbecue. “To the first quiet evening in weeks!” he proclaimed, raising his wine glass in a triumphant toast. No sooner had the words tripped off his tongue, than the doorbell rang, sending the world’s Most Wanted Chemist into a fit of laughter. “Now why,” he asked, “did I have to say that?”

—Paula Chin, Cathy Free in Salt Lake City

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