Furth's comments came two days after dozens of physicists heaped scorn on claims of cold fusion at a meeting of the American Physical Society in Baltimore. Forty papers submitted for presentation at the meeting doubted the fusion-in-a-flask claims made by chemists B. Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton in England.
On March 23, Pons and Fleischmann jolted the world of science by announcing that they had achieved nuclear fusion, the same process that powers the sun, in a tabletop experiment conducted at room temperatures.
Since that time, scientists at hundreds of laboratories around the world have sought to duplicate their claims. If Pons and Fleischman are correct, the development could be the scientific breakthrough of the 20th century, leading to cheap, clean, virtually unlimited energy.
At yesterday's symposium - which brought together five Nobel laureates and top experts on AIDS, genetics, computers and other scientific fields - Furth said Pons' and Fleischmann's claims "seem to have disintegrated."
He said the "most devastating" evidence against the claims came from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology, who showed that Pons and Fleischmann made crucial errors in monitoring and interpreting their experiments.
Furth said that while scientists at his lab have continued to make steady progress in developing nuclear fusion, it is unlikely that commercial power plants will generate electricity by fusion before 2020 at the earliest.
Nuclear fusion is the opposite of nuclear fission, the way power is generated in today's nuclear plants. Fission splits atomic nuclei to release energy; fusion forces nuclei together to produce energy.
The next round in the debate over cold nuclear fusion is expected to occur Monday in Los Angeles, when Pons and Fleischmann are to make their case at the annual meeting of the Electrochemical Society.
Researchers at Stanford University and Texas A&M are also expected to discuss their work, which supports some aspects of the Pons-Fleischmann claims.