Aggie Alchemy

John Bockris was known around Texas A&M as a chemist interested in "weird science." Joe Champion gave him all he could handle.

But Texas A&M would hear from them with a vengeance. On April 8, 1992, Bill Telander established a five-person scientific team headed by John O'M. Bockris and Joe E. Champion Jr. He called it the Philadelphia Project.

The focus of the research, Telander wrote, was "on a single phenomena [sic] which has implications in the accelerated production of precious metals, the production of energy and the separation of selected isotopes..."

Among the more than 60 recipients of Telander's four-paragraph statement were two U.S. senators, the CIA, the National Security Council, General Electric, Rockwell International, the Department of Energy, the U.S. Navy, nine oil companies and 20 foreign embassies. At the end of the message was a notice: "We are willing to receive you, upon appointment, within our offices on the campus of Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, U.S.A."

That Aggieland was not immediately flooded with government officials, foreign envoys and oil executives probably came as something of a relief to A&M officials. Despite Telander's confident announcement, at least one administrator had some concerns about the project.

For one thing, that concern went, who was Bill Telander, who had buckets of money in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, but not so much as a nickel in a U.S. bank? Who was "Dr." Joe Champion? And how did these guys get hooked up with John Bockris? Everyone at A&M was well aware of the kinds of things Bockris routinely got into; were Telander and Champion?

Then there were the rumors floating around campus that Bockris was once again involved in weird science.

Dawn Lee Wakefield, who was director of development for A&M's College of Science at the time, remembers a conversation she had with a faculty member on April 1, 1992, more than a week before the Philadelphia Project experiments began.

"He said he heard that Bockris was turning mercury into gold," Wakefield recalls. "I thought it was some kind of April Fool's joke, but then I realized, he's serious!"

Despite the questions and the rumors, the project was deemed acceptable and Telander gave $200,000 to A&M's Development Foundation, a nonprofit funding agency, to get it started. By then, Bockris' enthusiasm for the Philadelphia Project had runneth over. While he admitted that Champion's formula for making gold was incomplete, he believed wholeheartedly that it was closely related to his cold fusion work -- specifically in the transmutation of elements.

"I have no hesitation in encouraging you to go ahead with these speculative but very original and exciting investigations," Bockris said in an April letter to Telander, adding that success would be a major achievement in chemistry and physics. "One might see it as Nobel Prize material."

The Philadelphia Project began the second week in April with the first of two transmutation methods proposed by Joe Champion. The initial experiments involved bombarding a chemical mixture with radio waves from the EMR machine built in Clear Lake.

On hand for this first phase was William Baucum, a nuclear physics technician who had worked with Champion on cold fusion experiments at the University of Tennessee. Baucum says he worked several weeks on Champion's EMR process, yet "was never quite sure exactly how [the experiments] came out."

Champion claimed that transmutation of base metals into precious metals was nuclear science. If that was the case, then not only would gold be produced, but radioactivity would be as well. Baucum says the team wanted to measure radioactivity but didn't have the equipment to do so. Telander promised to buy a mass spectrometer, a $100,000 device that Bockris wanted in his lab, once the researchers convinced him that transmutation was possible.

"Once we had proved that it did indeed work, then I think he [Telander] was going to use that to raise a whole lot of money and provide more funds to study the effect," Baucum says.

After Baucum left A&M, he tried to keep up with the Project. But, because Telander had made everyone sign non-disclosure agreements, information was hard to come by. Baucum does remember one conversation when Bockris expressed serious doubts, "as if maybe some of the [gold] had been planted."

Plant or no plant, the Project kept churning on, and by May it had moved along to Champion's second method, a thermal process he had learned from a hobby chemist in Seattle. The chemist had been studying "cold fission" (as he called it) in his backyard lab for 30 years before he showed Champion the gold-making process during a 1989 visit to Brooks Machine Shop.

The chemist called his process gunpowder fusion. It worked like this: a mixture of silicon oxide, iron, mercury, lead, silver, calcium and gunpowder was placed in an empty coffee can, ignited and allowed to burn for a few minutes. The mix cooled for two days before it was sent out for precious-metals analysis.

When the thermal experiments began, Bockris asked Ramesh Bhardwaj to join the Philadelphia Project. Bhardwaj was the senior scientist in Bockris' lab, a native of India who came to A&M in 1988. At the time Bockris approached him about the Philadelphia Project, Bhardwaj was working on a waste-treatment project for NASA. Essentially, he was pumping electrical current through excrement to reduce it to water. It was exciting work, he says, but when Bockris called with the transmutation project, he answered.

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