Friday, June 12, 2009

Fusion energy

Fusion energyBy M. Simon

There are a lot of fusion experiments going on in the world that don't get much publicity. Among these is Polywell Fusion. All you see in the papers is the billions spent on ITER or the billions spent on Laser Fusion. Small projects like Polywell where the spending is in millions and where the prospects for viability are near, near term (years vs decades) don't seem to attract much attention from the giants of the media.

I have been studying the Polywell Fusion Reactor intensively since November of 2006 when I first saw a video of Robert Bussard, the inventor of the Polywell Fusion Reactor, giving a talk to Google. The talk is about an hour and a half long and is full of physics, engineering technical details, and prospects for the future if the device works. However, there is a much shorter video done by Daily Kos poster Roger Fox which gives a good overview of the technology. The video is not technically correct in every detail but it does give a good look for those of you short on physics, math, and engineering. As you can see this project transcends politics. I'm from the right side of the political spectrum with a rather libertarian orientation. Roger of course is from the left. Roger and I may disagree on many things but Polywell is not one of them.

There are also other resources out there. Tom Ligon, a noted science fiction author, who worked with Dr. Bussard wrote a piece for Analog Science Fiction magazine on the Polywell reactor which you can access here. Tom also did a series of videos about Polywell and his work with Dr. Bussard. You can also visit my IEC Fusion Technology blog which has news, technical discussions, and numerous useful links on the sidebar.

That is the technology and some history. What are the prospects? Since Dr Bussard died in October of 2007, Rick Nebel has been running the research for the US Navy that is going on at Bussard's Company, EMC2, in New Mexico. EMC2 has just recently gotten a new contract from the US Navy to continue its research on a new experiment that will be called WB-8. The funding was done under the auspices of the America Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. So it turns out not all that money may be wasted after all. Out of the $787 billion in funds that is projected to be spent something like $2 million or so may actually do something very useful.

Rick Nebel has had a couple of things to say about the prospects of the device and the results of the experiments to this point:

"There's nothing in there that suggests this will not work," Nebel said. "That's a very different statement from saying that it will work."

And that is very true. These experiments are no sure thing. As Albert Einstein said, "If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?" And what else has Rick said about his work?

I believe we will know the answer for the Polywell in ~ 1.5-2 years. I haven't looked at MSimons design, but I know he has a lot of good ideas. We'll probably take a closer look at D-D reactors over the next 2 years.

The MSimon referred to is me. And D-D is the Deuterium - Deuterium reaction that produces a lot of neutrons. The reason that it is promising is that there is probably enough Deuterium in the oceans to run the planet at USA economic levels for a billion years and the reaction can probably be made to work with Polywell. There is another reaction they will be looking at eventually (if the device works) that produces a lot fewer neutrons called the Hydrogen-Boron reaction and is often referred to in the literature as the pB11 reaction. The p stands for proton which is an ionized Hydrogen atom and the B stands for Boron 11 which an isotope of Boron. I like to call it the pBj reaction for proton/Boron/joules. And a joule of course is a unit of energy measure.

What is the best part of Polywell in comparison to all other hot fusion methods currently under consideration? In mass production the reactor will cost on the order of 50¢ a watt or less and can be built in increments of 100 Mw, with a good possibility of larger reactor sizes where demand warrants it. And the device has the potential to be light enough to be used for getting into space from the Earth and for space propulsion. Earth to Mars in 37 days is one prospect. Less time than it took to cross the Atlantic in 1492.

So there you have it. At a cost of a few millions and about two more years of research or less we will know if we can use this method to power our civilization for the next billion years. And not just an Earth civilization. A multi-planet civilization. Exciting times.

No comments: