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May 05, 2008

Inertial Confinement Fusion update

At the end of this lengthy MSNBC article is some information about the Bussard fusion process where researchers are building a new demonstration system WB7

One interesting point is that the University of Wisconsin has 100 people and about 10 million in budget per year that is devoted inertial confinement fusion. They are obviously aware of the Bussard approach. It would seem obvious that they would try to adjust their own setups to try to achieve the potentially greater efficiency. Also, if the EMC2 fusion [bussard team] achieves success than the university of Wisconsin fusion department should be immediately trying to replicate and build on the work.

H/T Power and control

Currently, the most promising path toward electrostatic fusion runs through Santa Fe, N.M., where a team at EMC2 Fusion Development Corp. is currently trying to validate Bussard's results. The team's leader, Richard Nebel, told me this week that it's still too early to gauge how promising the Bussard fusion device could be.

"We're getting high-power plasma," he said. "We don't have answers ... [but] we're far enough along that we know we're going to get answers."


"We're losing our lead to other countries in the world," Gerald Kulcinski, director of the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

ITER's path to fusion isn't the only one [and EMC2 is not the only one working on inertial confinement fusion]: For more than three decades, the University of Wisconsin's institute has focused its research not only on magnetic containment, but also on the other two "legs" of fusion research: laser-powered inertial confinement, which is to be developed in the United States at the National Ignition Facility; and inertial electrostatic fusion, which has been in the news recently due to the work of the late physicist/engineer Robert Bussard.

The institute is funded to the tune of about $15 million a year, with 150 people working on fusion, Kulcinski said. Inertial confinement fusion currently accounts for about two-thirds of the technology development work being done at the institute.

If Kulcinski had to pick a favorite in the decades-long fusion marathon, it might well be the dark horse in the race: electrostatic fusion, which involves packing ions densely within a negatively charged grid or a cloud of electrons. He and his colleagues have been experimenting with electrostatic grid reactors for years.

"We're not even close to break-even," Kulcinski said. But the devices do produce enough high-energy protons to create short-lived radioisotopes for medical applications.



Kulcinski foresees a day when every hospital could have its own little fusion reactor churning out oxygen-15 and other isotopes for diagnostic purposes. (Right now they're created in cyclotrons.)

He said fusion devices could also be used to detect hidden nuclear weapons and buried explosive devices. They could even disable nuclear weapons. "We probably shouldn't discuss that, but there are ways," he said.

The real promise of the electrostatic devices, at least the way Kulcinski sees it, is that the electrostatic devices can be used for fusion reactions using helium-3. His group has been experimenting with a deuterium-helium-3 combination as well as with pure helium-3.

About 40 tons of helium-3 would produce all the electricity we use in the United States in 2008.

He sees electrostatic fusion reactors using helium-3 as the best long-term option. "We could put the thing right downtown," he said.


FURTHER READING
There is a new writeup[H/T again to Power and Control and IECfusiontech] by Tom Ligon which discusses the inertial confinement fusion work and theory of the Bussard fusion team.

Another online writeup is at Dailykos.

I have covered the Bussard IEC fusions potential before

And I have been following its development closely

This has the potential to be a huge game changer for energy and technology in general.

4 comments:

John said...

Hey Brian, I'm curious. If WB7 is successful, do you really think that EMC2 would release their successful results?

If funding is provided by the US Navy, why would they (the US Govt.) want that information going public? I would think that if the EMC2 group really does manage to confirm that Bussard was correct and/or manage to get it working, then letting the world know it works would not be in the best interests of the US Govt.

I don't think the Navy is funding this project for humanitarian reasons, although I could be wrong. After all, they kept Bussard silent for over a decade while they were funding him.

M. Simon said...

Thanks for the link.

May I suggest visiting:

Talk Polywell

Dr. Nebel is a frequent commenter of late. He also answers the occasional question.

bw said...

John

Power and control (M Simon) has some updates related to your question)

EMC2 owns the patents and the commercialization rights. DOD retains the right to use the technology free of charge. That's a pretty standard arrangement.

As for DOD taking control of the technology, I think that's pretty unlikely. The most similar parallel to this that I can think of was the development of fission power. Both nuclear fission propulsion and commercial power were developed in parallel. It isn't a coincidence that both systems are LWRs. I expect a similar situation here. Everyone that I have talked to at the DOD understands that energy supply is a major national security issue. It's not in the national interest of the US to keep this technology from going commercial.

Dr. Nebel also reports that the EMC2 contract with the Navy runs through August. So that gives some idea of when we might know the answer.

bw said...

From the Talk Polywell that M Simon mentioned.
Dr Nebel comments :

I suppose that this is the point where I need to make a comment. As for the WB-7, the plasma is pretty much there (i.e. where it needs to be). The plasma diagnostics aren’t. They have been built and their components have been tested. They need to be installed and tested on the machine. Obviously, we had to get reasonable plasmas before we can use the diagnostics. As I told Alan Boyle, we don’t have answers yet so I can’t speculate as to how well this machine will perform.

We anticipate that we will be getting a lot of data over the next few months. Consequently, it would good to let you know what to expect from us in terms of information:

1. We can’t release data. The DOD has to determine what it wants to release. Eventually this will all come out, but they are our customer and this is their call. We are free to discuss anything which has been released (such as the WB-6) but they will control the new data. I’m willing to discuss where we are and what we are learning, but I can’t give you a lot of numbers.

2. Don’t expect us to be making a lot of pronouncements to the press like the cold fusion people did. We will have a very high level review panel that will be looking at our results, and we don’t want to prejudge their conclusions.

That being said, so far we are pleased with what we are seeing. The hardware works and we haven’t had any nasty surprises. It appears that we have a lot more control over the discharges than they did in the WB-6.

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I think the WB-6 neutrons are probably real. The measured neutron rate matches well against the expected rate if the plasma was operating in the wiffleball. But if we don't see them, then the question will be whether they aren't real or something just got screwed up. If there are open questions that need to be answered, then there is a reasonable chance the the research will continue. Let's hope that we don't get in the mode where we have to perpetually rebuild the laboratory like we've had to do this time
==========
The worldwide electricity market is $6,000,000,000,000/year. Noone has ever cornered a market anywhere near this size. We don’t think that a little 5 person company in the New Mexico desert is going to pull that off, and we’re not going to try to do that. We are presently developing commercialization strategies to open up this technology. However, right now I’m not going to tip my hand as to what we are going to try. Suffice it to say that are plans are consistent with Doc’s original vision. We’re focused on getting the WB-7 to work first.