Chemist Martin Fleischmann died at the age of 85 after battling with Parkinson’s disease for many years. He passed away in his England home on Friday, Aug. 3. Fleischmann was best known for his work with cold fusion, and will be remembered for the excitement he brought to finding clean nuclear energy.

March 23, 1989, was a day that held great promise for two scientists working at the University of Utah, and for the world. That was the day Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann called a press conference to display the world-changing breakthrough of cold nuclear fusion, a bountiful and “free” source of energy.

Working in secret for more than five years using $100,000 of their own money, Pons and Fleischmann conducted their research in a basement laboratory at the University of Utah. At the March 1989 press conference, Pons and Fleischmann displayed “tabletop cold fusion,” a simple experiment involving an insulated glass jar with “heavy water” (deuterium oxide) inside. Immersed in the heavy water were two electrodes: one a coil of platinum wire, the other a rod of palladium. When a small voltage was applied to the electrodes, the deuterium oxide broke into its constituent parts of oxygen and deuterium, a form of hydrogen. Some of that hydrogen was absorbed into the palladium rod. Pons and Fleischmann believed that, after some time, this reaction would pack deuterium atoms so tightly in the palladium that fusion would occur.

Much excitement ensued after that press conference; scientists sought to replicate the ground-breaking results of the Pons-Fleischmann experiment. At first, many thought they had, but within a year or two the predominant result of most studies showed no signs of nuclear fusion.

Unfortunately for the pair of scientists, the excitement of releasing what they had hoped to be momentous breakthrough became an example of the dangers of “science by press release.” As the late scientist and astronomer Carl Sagan famously said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Pons and Fleischmann’s rush to reveal a breakthrough cast the pair from the scientific establishment, and cold fusion research slowed to a crawl. Even after being shunned by the scientific community, the duo continued to research and defend their theory.

Fleischmann “was an extraordinary genius” says his friend Michael Melich, a research professor of physics. The work of discovering cold fusion continues, but only on the periphery of mainstream science — much to the regret of Martin Fleischmann.

Main image credit: Paul Barker/Deseret News