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.

Bockris suggested the same funding approach used for the Philadelphia Project -- that is, to go through A&M's Development Foundation rather than A&M's standard research agencies (see sidebar, page 8). That would allow Bockris to keep more of the money for his own purposes, and to pay A&M less for using their facilities. It would also allow him to get around possibly problematic peer reviews of his research proposals. It was a surefire thing, he said. "This formula is 100 percent foolproof, as proved out by me since 1981."

But none of it was meant to be. On September 28, 1992, the FBI subpoenaed all paperwork related to the Philadelphia Project. The documents went to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which had begun an investigation of Telander and his company, Southwest International Exchange. The SEC wanted to know if the Project had been funded from nearly $8 million invested in a fraudulent foreign-currency exchange deal set up by Telander in 1990.

The visit from the feds was the first (or perhaps just the latest) in a series of bizarre and embarrassing episodes that still plague A&M -- the worst of which could have been avoided if not for a strange reluctance to shut the Philadelphia Project down.

In October 1992, Bockris and Champion made their announcement to the Mexican press. They presented as evidence of their discovery a lengthy report written by Champion that included a number of experimental abstracts prepared at A&M -- including the one Bhardwaj had warned Bockris not to release. Telander, who was also in Mexico, added to the growing amount of bogus information by claiming that the trio held international patents on the alchemy process.

Champion and Telander spent the month following the press conference visiting Mexico's silver mines and giving demonstrations of a process they claimed would turn silver into rhodium -- an element worth about $4,000 an ounce.

Things seemed like they couldn't get any stranger. Meanwhile, back at A&M, Bockris was trying to drum up interest in his own demonstration of alchemic transmutation. The show was for Future Energy Applied Technology, or FEAT, a consortium of investors that was still giving Bockris thousands of dollars a year to study cold fusion. But Bockris abruptly canceled out, citing time constraints and the need for further confirmation.

The real reason may have been the widening rift between Bockris and Bhardwaj, which promised to tear them completely apart. With Champion still in Mexico, it had fallen to Bhardwaj to lead the FEAT demonstration. But when Bhardwaj had approached his mentor, he didn't have good news. "I have done 16 experiments," Bhardwaj told Bockris. "They have all failed."

"Well, Champion is claiming it can be done," Bockris replied. "These people are coming, somebody has to do the experiments. What do you need before you can give the demonstration?"

"I will do four experiments," Bhardwaj said. "If two work, I will do the demonstration."

Bockris began pressuring Bhardwaj to set a date for the demonstration. He told Bhardwaj that he would have to forgo a Christmas break in order to conduct his tests.

Christmas came and went while Bhardwaj did the four experiments, all of which failed. Bhardwaj pleaded with Bockris to consider his reputation and call off the project immediately. Bockris wouldn't hear of it and insisted on rescheduling the FEAT demonstration. He began questioning Bhardwaj's competence.

"If you cannot do these experiments," Bockris said, "why are you here? Why are you my senior scientist?"

Shocked, Bhardwaj went to Michael B. Hall, head of the A&M chemistry department, four times in a two-week period. He told Hall he was afraid Bockris was about to fire him. Hall told Bhardwaj not to worry. But the damage had been done: by summer, Bhardwaj would be gone from A&M, his turn as right-hand man to a scientist he had once idolized ruined by delusions of gold.

It turns out that Bockris had no choice but to try to pry results from Bhardwaj. In early December, Telander had paid a visit to Bockris' lab to ask the professor if he needed Joe Champion to continue the Philadelphia Project. Bockris reportedly said that Bhardwaj or Guang Lin, a physicist in Bockris' lab, knew enough about the process to do the experiments.

"Good," Telander had said. "The bastard's been stealing money from me in Mexico, and I'm going to have him arrested."

Telander and Champion had been heading for a break since August 1992, when Telander found out that Champion had lied about Jack Keller, the Seattle chemist who had originated the "gunpowder fusion" transmutation process. Champion had told everyone Keller was dead, a victim of leukemia contracted as a result of his nuclear experiments. But one of Telander's attorneys found Keller still tinkering away in Seattle, and Telander tried to hire him on. But Keller wanted nothing to do with Joe Champion, who he says "stole" the transmutation method from him.

Now, Champion was in Mexico City, getting drunk every day, fooling around with a young Mexican woman and, according to a news reporter who had gotten to know him after his press announcement, moving $10,000 a day from a joint account with Telander to one in his own name. It was a lifestyle with which he had previously had great success in Arizona, Tennessee and Texas, and now he was trying it south of the border.

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