The deuterium atoms in a gallon of seawater, for instance, could theoretically produce as much energy as burning 300 gallons of gasoline. The fuel contained in 50 cups of water could yield as much energy as burning two tons of coal. The problem is, how do you create a controlled reaction with enough temperature and pressure to get those nuclei fused together?
You won't hear Rick Nebel talking about fusion as a challenge requiring billions of dollars and decades of experimentation. For the past couple of years, Nebel heads up a handful of researchers following the less-traveled path to fusion at EMC2 Fusion Development Corp. in Santa Fe, N.M. That path involves creating a high-voltage chamber to sling ions so energetically at each other that at least some of them fuse and release energy.
EMC2 recently created a buzz in the fusion underground by reporting on its Web site that a series of experiments was able to "validate and extend" earlier results reported by the late physicist Robert Bussard. The company is now using a $7.9 million contract from the U.S. Navy to build a bigger test machine, known as WB-8. (WB stands for "Wiffle Ball," which refers to the shape of the machine's magnetic fields.)
Success isn't assured. The WB-8 experiment could conceivably show that the approach pioneered by Bussard, known as inertial electrostatic confinement fusion or IEC fusion, can't be scaled up to produce more power than it consumes. And if Nebel's team comes to that conclusion, he doesn't plan to pull any punches.
"No B.S. and no excuses," Nebel told me over the weekend. "If it looks like we have a problem with this, we're going to tell them."
But if IEC fusion actually works, Nebel wants to be ready to commercialize the technology. "Generally what you want to do is have one machine operating, one machine being built, and one machine designed," he said. "We want to be in a position that if we have good results from WB-8, we can hit the ground running."
That's what the contributions being sought under the umbrella of the New Mexico Community Foundation would go toward, he said. Nebel doesn't expect anything near $200 million to start with. "We're just looking for a few hundred thousand to do the design work and do some basic physics on this," he said. "There are some open questions we have to take a look at."
The EMC2 Fusion Web site sports a picture of a 100-megawatt WB-D fusion demonstrator, which looks like a cube about 20 feet on a side. Nebel said the eventual design may not look like the picture, but he does believe the best path to success leads to relatively small-scale reactors rather than the mega-reactors envisioned by ITER's backers.
"The key to making any of these things attractive is being able to make them small," he said.
Nebel can't yet predict whether his path will pan out. Some experts say the equations of plasma physics suggest that Wiffle Ball devices can never produce more power than it consumes, and that IEC research is destined to lead to a dead end. But so far, Nebel sees no reason to stop moving ahead. "It's been quite a trip on this thing," he said, "and I have a feeling this is going to continue."