8 August 2012
Martin Fleischmann died recently at the age of 85 after an extended illness. He was a chemist of great vision that allowed him to initiate new fields of activity. He had interests in both fundamental science and its applications and although best known for his involvement in ‘cold fusion’, he made many other contributions to the development of modern electrochemistry.
Martin Fleischmann FRS was born in Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia in March 1927. During his early childhood, his family were vocal opponents of the Nazi regime and were eventually forced to flee. After a difficult and dangerous journey across Germany and Holland, they arrived in England with a total of £1-30 in their purse! Fortunately, they were helped and eventually settled near Worthing. Martin then went to Worthing High School for Boys before serving in the Czech Air Force Training Unit. After the war, he studied chemistry at Imperial College London. His introduction to electrochemistry was as a PhD student at Imperial College where he was a member of group that included Bockris, Conway and Parsons, all to become leading figures in the world of electrochemistry. After graduation in 1951 he went to the University of Newcastle and then, in 1967, became the Faraday Chair of Chemistry at the University of Southampton, leading a large Electrochemistry Group with a worldwide reputation. After his retirement from Southampton in 1983, he continued to be active and worked with scientists around the world, especially groups in Utah, Italy and Japan.
Martin Fleischmann was characterised by a broad background in science and an enthusiasm for research that inspired all who worked with him. This led him to contribute to many, diverse areas of electrochemistry. In the early 1950s, Martin Fleischmann recognised the importance of ‘potential’ in determining the rate of electrode reactions and set out to design instrumentation that was capable of potential control and variation in a programmed way; the electronics has developed considerably but the subsequent generations of this equipment remain essential to experiments in laboratories throughout the world. At the same time, he started to study the early stages of the deposition of conducting materials on electrode surfaces. The theory of nucleation and growth of such phases remained an interest throughout his life and this is reflected in recent papers. In Southampton, Martin Fleischmann was one of the first to recognise the need for spectroscopic methods able to interrogate the interface between electrodes and solutions. In particular, he developed surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) and showed that it could give new insights in many systems. The application of ultramicroelectrodes was another topic developed in his laboratory and these are now another routine laboratory technique. Martin Fleischmann also championed the use of electrolysis for the manufacture of chemicals and started an electrochemical engineering group charged with the development and study of novel flow cell designs including cells with three dimensional electrodes. This work led to many plenary lectures at conferences and invitations to visit laboratories throughout the world. Recognition came with the election to a Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1985 and the award of several medals, perhaps the most prestigious being the Olin Palladium Medal of the US Electrochemical Society in 1986.
Late in his career, Martin Fleischmann returned to the palladium/hydrogen system, a topic that formed part of his PhD and had been studied at intervals. This led to the announcement of ‘cold fusion’ with possibilities for a final solution to energy generation. Naturally, this created much interest. The response of scientists was adverse and there has been much cynicism about both the experiments and, indeed, the general concept. Martin Fleischmann continued to defend the programme and this led to much criticism and rejection. To the end, however, he believed that there was an unusual phenomenon that deserved further study. Whatever one’s opinion about cold fusion, it should not be allowed to dominate our view of a remarkable and outstanding scientist.
Martin Fleischmann had a warm personality with a multitude of ex-students involved in Research & Development as well as friends throughout the world. He was also a devoted family man. Outside science, he was a passionate skier and had a great interest in both food and wine. Martin Fleischmann is survived by Sheila, his wife for 61 years, and children Nicholas and Vanessa.