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While researchers argue over the scientific feasibility of cold fusion, another--and even more speculative--debate is raging over the potential economic consequences of the discovery.
Ever since Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and Martin Fleischman of the University of Southhampton announced last month that they had sparked nuclear fusion in a jar at room temperature, some pundits have speculated that the use of the cheap, virtually endless supply of energy would change the world's political order.
While the scientific community still argues over the validity of independent fusion confirmations at Brigham Young University and Sao Paulo University in Brazil, it seems certain that widespread adoption of fusion technology would significantly loosen the stranglehold oil producing nations have over other industrial countries.
A Saudi Arabian adviser on petroleum policy at the embassy in Washington acknowledges that implementation of fusion would hurt his country's economy.
Even so, "We will not stop science. If [the rest of the world] can survive without us, it is O.K.," says the adviser, who asks not to be named.
If worse comes to worse, "We will keep oil for domestic utilities" in Saudi Arabia, he says. Since fusion technology would probably be incredibly inexpensive, it would benefit underdeveloped countries who now cannot afford enough oil, the embassy representative adds.
William T. Onoar, the senior counsel on energy at the World Bank, agrees that fusion technology could rewrite the politics of global energy.
"If in fact what they claim is true, then the discovery ranks with fire," Onoar says. "We will have an unlimited energy source forever."
"Petroleum will become a lubricant," he says.
Onoar says the importance of oil in the world economy now gives Middle Eastern countries massive political influence.
Onoar cited a Bahrain government report that predicted that by 1992, 90 percent of the oil in the world will be produced by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). At the same time, the United States will be importing 60 percent of the oil it uses, he says.
OPEC "can hold the globe to energy ransom," Onoar says. The problem will be aggravated within the next decade, he says, because the U.S. may run out of domestically produced crude oil.
But Onoar remains unconvinced that the experiment at the University of Utah will significantly alter this scenario. "Right now, I see [fusion] as unlikely," he says.
Harvard scientists have also expressed skepticism about cold fusion.
"My opinion right now is that the energy's not coming from fusion. I don't think we're going to see a lot of energy coming out of this sample," Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences Isaac F. Silvera said earlier this week.
"My suspicions are that the heat is coming from a chemical reaction," says Silvera, who leads one of the Harvard teams which is trying to verify the Utah experiment.
But not everyone is willing to engage in fusion speculation--whether of the scientific or geopolitical variety.
A spokesperson at the Soviet Embassy in Washington says, "We cannot answer. We at the embassy deal with the real thing. We are diplomats here."
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