In 1989 Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann made front-page news when they announced that they had fused the nuclei of atoms in a jar of water—a process that normally requires the heat of an H-bomb. In theory, room-temperature, or "cold," fusion could provide cheap, nearly limitless energy. No replication of the experiment could pass muster with critics, and most researchers dismissed the work as bogus.
Still, a few physicists keep the field alive and kicking. "There's something in the neighborhood of 20 basic experiments out there these days that are of interest," says MIT physicist Peter Hagelstein. In 2004 he and a group of fellow die-hard researchers tried to persuade the Department of Energy to reevaluate fusion research. A review panel found the evidence thin but saw some justification for further focused investigation.
The scientists who continue to work in the field claim that their experiments show minute, unexplained outputs of energy. Within the year, Hagelstein says, he plans to begin conducting cold fusion research at MIT, an institution that once held a ceremonial wake in cold fusion's honor. He aims to show that novel physical processes can trigger fusion without a significant input of heat. Hagelstein insists that those beyond the inner circle don't know the whole story. "People working in the field believe cold fusion is real and that the issue is settled," he says.