Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.

Fusion Power: A Gambler's Chance

by Gaianne Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 12:11:12 AM EST

[With his permission, I am re-posting Boston Joe's diary of Mon 27 Nov 2006 at Booman Tribune about Dr. Robert Bussard's research on fusion energy.  I think it is worth considering and may be of interest here--Gaianne]

Watching our [US--Gaianne] government in action is very much like observing a sucker at the poker table.  The guy or gal who is always chucking away chips while drawing dead, but never wants to take a rational risk at a worthwhile pot.  

I came across a diary last week by RimJob at Dailykos that makes this case and point.  The diary links to a lecture by Dr. Robert Bussard that explains his efforts towards a revolution in energy production through fusion.  


I took the time to watch the hour-and-a-half lecture.  Though I'm not a scientist or engineer, it was absolutely fascinating.  For those of you who don't have that kind of time to spend watching the video, let me give you the very short version:

Over the past twelve years, Dr. Bussard has developed a prototype of a fusion generator that appears to work.

Dr. Bussard's project has been eliminated by the Department of the Navy thanks to cutbacks to pay for the Iraq War.

The project requires $2-3 million to build a seventh prototype (it took six to get to this breakthrough point).  This full size prototype can be completed in the short term (I believe he was talking one year or so, if memory serves).

If this seventh generation works, Dr. Bussard estimates that the project can be operational world wide in five to ten years, at a cost of $200 million.

The upside to this technology is almost unbelievable.  Cheap.  Clean.  Basically limitless energy.  Solving the world's energy problems.  The world's water problems (the power required for desalinization plants is instantly affordable).  The world's global warming problems (to the extent it is not too late).  Enabling very fast near space travel.

Watch it for yourself.  Pretty amazing. [The video is fascinating. Kick back with a cup of coffee and a note pad--Gaianne]

But wait, you say.  This guy must be a kook.

Well, no.  He's an award winning physicist.  I believe he is at Princeton now.  Former number two guy at Los Alamos.  Not exactly a crackpot.
Can't be, you say.  The government wouldn't let a project like this get away.  Think of all the cool weapons and propulsion applications.

This is the government part.  Classic.
Bussard is thinking outside the box.  Literally.  We are spending billions (I think) researching fusion.  All that research is conducted under the Department of Energy.

The mainstream thinking on fusion is to build a solid containment system, then get some particles to collide together.  And suck up all the good energy released by the fusion of these particles.

But there's a problem.  The solid containment systems (like boxes) don't seem to work.  The technicalities are beyond me, but something about the electromagnetism of the particles or the fusion itself, is escaping from the solid containment systems.

[not solid containment, actually, but magnetic bottles, that leak badly when plasma particles are contained in a thermal energy distribution--Gaianne]

Bussard's idea is pretty simple, in theory.  If the solid containment system isn't working (it will never work in his view), then why not make a non-solid containment system.  An electric or electro-magnetic containment system.

[Dr. Bussard describes how to create an electic potential well, that drives ions to a focus where they can fuse, using both electric and magnetic fields--Gaianne]

Problem is, since the U.S. is investing billions in solid-state containment systems [tokamak--Gaianne] under the auspices of the Department of Energy, we have created an entire industry of scientists and engineers whose very livelihoods depend on making this system.

So Bussard couldn't even take his idea to the DOE.  He had to make an end run.  The project had to be re-routed as a low-budget project through the Department of the Navy, related to propulsion systems.  The budget was deliberately left under the level where it would have to be reported as a line item in the Congressional budget, because if it was a line item, it would have been struck by pork-protecting legislators.

It took him twelve years to do it on a shoe-string budget.  But the data from his last prototype (which was actually completed and tested by his small staff after their project was de-funded) apparently showed that they had been able to create a non-solid state containment system of relatively spherical shape.  Pretty cool stuff.

But why haven't we heard about this before?  

Part of the deal under the Department of the Navy grant was no publication.  He still hasn't published his results.  [except for an overview this last October at the International Astronautics Converence in Valencia--Gaianne] Though I guess they are being presented.  Bussard wants this thing built.  And he doesn't care who does it.  Chinese.  Europeans.  Chavez.  Doesn't matter.  Bussard just wants his generator built.

Sounds a bit like cold fusion or something.  We can't waste $200 million on some crack-pot scheme.  

Yeah right.
Iraq War.  $6-10 billion a month.  For a neo-con fantasy.  Or a nightmare, I guess.

D.A.R.E. program.  $700 million annually, through public and private funding.  Provably ineffective at keeping kids off drugs.  At least one study suggests the program itself might serve as a gateway to experimentation by kids.

Essentially free power for the entire planet.  Priceless.

American government, and the people that allow it to operate.  Fucking clueless.

So there you have it.  Just one man's opinion in the land that won't accept the Theory of Evolution.

The American government.  Getting ready to piss away another monster pot.  Just muck those pocket Jacks, because there is an overcard on the board.  Who knows if they can still win.  Saving our chips so we can chuck them in on another global disaster.  Invade Iran.  ANWR drilling maybe.  Oil company tax credits.  Great bets all.

Display:
Have your heard about this guy?
Teen builds nuclear fusion reactor in basement

An American teenager has built a working nuclear fusion reactor in the basement of his parents' home.

Thiago Olson, 17, spent over 1,000 hours and two years getting the reactor to work, scavenging old equipment, buying components on eBay and persuading manufacturers to give him large discounts.

The reactor works by sucking the air from a reaction chamber and injecting in deuterium, a form of hydrogen. A charge of 40,000 volts is then applied, using equipment from a gutted mammogram scanner, forming a small ball of plasma.


He is ranked as the 18th amateur in the world to create nuclear fusion. This year, Thiago was a semifinalist for the Siemens Foundation's National Research Competition. He plans to enter the Science and Engineering Fair of Metropolitan Detroit in March, in hopes of qualifying for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in New Mexico in May.

By the way, the big international ITER project in Sourthern France is starting up. Bush's ignorance won't stop us, maybe :-)

by das monde on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 01:20:39 AM EST
By the way, the big international ITER project in Sourthern France is starting up. Bush's ignorance won't stop us, maybe :-)

Agreed about Bush's ignorance.  

But I have no faith in the ITER design--I don't think it will ever work.  I wouldn't tell then not to try it, though.  

And no, I don't know if Bussard's design will ever work either.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 03:02:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And the lack of faith in ITER is on what basis?

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 03:04:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
For fifty years now, cheap fusion power has been just twenty years in the future.  That's the short answer.  

Longer:  They are still grappling with the problem that as soon as the plasma has enough density for particle interaction, the interactions themselves cause the plasma to walk out of the bottle.  Well, they think they are overcoming that, and if they do, fine, but to me it is beginning to seem doubtful.  

Maybe ITER will show I am wrong.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 03:19:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My impression also.

The ability of materials to withstand that extraordinary environment and the containment problem are major obstacles.

People imagine that nuclear waste is not a problem with fusion.  But there will be nuclear waste.

Like you, I have always heard that fusion is 50 years out, no matter on what date you make that statement.

Let's hope ITER proves us wrong.

I very much want to be wrong about global warming, too.  

by Plan9 on Thu Nov 30th, 2006 at 12:45:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The "twenty/fifty years in the future" is not exactly what was claimed. The actual claim was more like "fund the project seriously and we can deliver in X years". Granted, the estimates were (perhaps) overly-optimistic, but a substantial part of the delay in developing a reactor is also due to the lack of political will to follow through on such a (politically) long-term commitment.

During and immediately after the fuel crisis there was substantial political will to pursue fusion. However, once the oil was cheap and free-flowing again that pretty quickly evaporated and most people went back to sleep. In spite of half-hearted support, fusion development over several decades has been remarkably consistent. ITER has already broken with that consistent development not because building of the reactor could not have been started several years ago, but precisely because of how long it took to gain the political go-ahead to start building.

by det on Thu Nov 30th, 2006 at 02:14:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
For what i read about this stuff, the electrostatic confinement is easy to create, nothing new, and useless furthermore Broussard has a good reputation of charlatan.

not wasting $200M seems a good move.

by fredouil (fredouil@gmailgmailgmail.com) on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 01:27:13 AM EST
Are we thinking of the same guy?  

He does not talk like a charalatan--most use the right buzzwords but don't get their facts right.  Where I knew what he was talking about, Dr. Bussard's facts were good.  He certainly knows basic physics.  

The underlying theory was electromagnetism:  Electric and magnetic vector fields.

He describes the other people working on electrostatic confinement, and says that their main problem is their electric grids are only 95% transparent, and electrons that hit the grids foul the machine.  So he opens the grid up into a polyhedral cage, and then uses magnetic fields to keep the electrons from hitting the cage.  

Well, he claims he got real data that shows fusion occurred, and that should not be so hard to check.  

It would take $2 million to rebuild the successful device.  Not much in the world of fusion budgets.  Worth the risk?  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 02:10:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
he refuse to supply any data and was unable to recreate its result under controlled condition and each time someone wanted to witness this breakthrough , his reactor conveniently had malfunction and he is not allowing anyone to build his reactor to test its "fusion".

"big claims need big evidence"
Charlatan.

by fredouil (fredouil@gmailgmailgmail.com) on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 02:28:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Really this is a different guy.  

Also different experimental set up.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 02:32:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
no, i am talking about Dr Robert W Bussard, a 70+yo who is only validated by his mates (all 70+yo) and pretty much didnt publish since 20years and done the same type of scam with INESCO.

he refuses to rebuild his reactor for peers validation and just asks money to upscale.

doubtful at best.

by fredouil (fredouil@gmailgmailgmail.com) on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 03:56:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]


The Fates are kind.
by Gaianne on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 04:34:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Wikipedia: International Nuclear Energy Systems Corporation
With fellow researcher Bruno Coppi, Bussard later founded Inesco, a private firm funded in part by Penthouse Magazine publisher Bob Guccione. Inesco set out to build small power-producing Tokamak fusion reactors called Riggatrons using methods developed from the MIT Alcator research tokamaks. The method they were trying to use in order to initiate fusion proved vastly more difficult to achieve than they had anticipated and Inesco eventually shut down when its funds ran out.


Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 04:50:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Only a failure of the project to achieve desired results.  This is normaly called test-failure.  

Apparently, back then Bussard was still interested in tokamak designs.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 05:19:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
btw, i had good dreams and science-fiction readings about is Ramjet ;-).
by fredouil (fredouil@gmailgmailgmail.com) on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 02:31:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
it cannot work but a pretty idea for writers :

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bussard_ramjet

by fredouil (fredouil@gmailgmailgmail.com) on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 02:37:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The problem isn't getting fusion to happen. The problem is getting it to happen reliably at industrial scales that produce more energy than they consume.

And all schemes - well, most schemes - are based on non-physical containment. So there's nothing really new there.

Also, if Bussard isn't sharing the tech and allowing independent verification, that's definitely not a good sign.

It's possible the real story has been misreported, and the reality is more positive than this. But there aren't enough facts in the original reporting to suggest this.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 10:29:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The problem isn't getting fusion to happen. The problem is getting it to happen reliably at industrial scales that produce more energy than they consume.  

Absolutely.  What he says he has done so far is merely proof of concept.  Making it deliver more energy than it consumes is an unsolved engineering problem.  Solvable?  Unsolvable?  I think the point is that that is not yet known.  

And all schemes - well, most schemes - are based on non-physical containment. So there's nothing really new there.  

Of course they are based on non-physical containment--solid walls would vaporize and the machine would be destroyed.  So they use potential fields.  Which means some configuration of electric and magenetic fields.  There are countless different configurations one might try.  Most will not work.  But might some work?  That is the question.  

Tokamak uses non-physical containment--toroidal magnetic fields.  

The plasma in the tokamak is thermal, so the particles have a great range of energy distributions.  Only a few particles are near the desired energy.  In Bussard's design, the particles are accelerated toward a focus ("dropped down a potential well") so most of the particles are near the desired energy, which is a great advantage--provided scaling problems can be solved.  

if Bussard isn't sharing the tech and allowing independent verification, that's definitely not a good sign.

He did not publish while under contract to the Navy.  That contract ended last year.  The contract had no post-contract gag provision.  He is starting to publish now.  So your point is not a criticsm--yet.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 02:55:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
He's an award winning physicist.  I believe he is at Princeton now.  Former number two guy at Los Alamos.  Not exactly a crackpot.

I would say that being an award-winning physicist (even up to genius level) and a crackpot are not mutually exclusive. Highly-intelligent people go off the deep end all the time (fine lines and all that).

by det on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 11:29:10 AM EST
And improving the prospects of your research is not something only crack-pots do.

Everyone does it.

He has a plan. He needs funding. Of course he makes it look like his plan is overlooked because of idiocy. And it might even be the case that his plan is the best, but it is very hard to determine from his own statements.

And as pointed out elsewhere, most research into fusion seems to be geared towards magnetic containment, so it is really nothing new there.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 11:42:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
most research into fusion seems to be geared towards magnetic containment, so it is really nothing new there

Tokamak contains a hot plasma in a toroidal magenetic bottle.  

Bussard's design accelerates ions to a focus at the bottom of a potential well.  

Both use magnetic fields, but the basis on which they succeed or fail will be very different.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 03:12:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Sounds like it would seriously limit scalability.
by det on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 05:45:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
String Theorist Luboš Motl writes about Bussard's lecture in his blog. No earth-shattering physics insights in his commentary, though.

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 04:04:52 PM EST
But, sadly, he does not add anything to the question of feasibility.  

Except that he apparently does NOT regard it as an outright crank scheme.

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 04:42:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, he also doesn't regard string theory as an outright crank scheme.

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 04:44:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]


The Fates are kind.
by Gaianne on Wed Nov 29th, 2006 at 04:59:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is foreign to me, being the least scientific around, but it´s interesting because it provokes thought at many levels.  It helps to keep an open mind about mysterious subjects.

It´s also interesting that nobody here seems to give it a chance, yet nobody can prove it wrong...  I will wait and keep reading.

P.S.  Isn´t there a satellite, in some warehouse near DC, that France and Russia have offered to send into orbit for free?  Something about climate/warming measurements in real time that W is not interested in.  

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Mon Dec 4th, 2006 at 12:52:08 PM EST


Display:
Go to: [ European Tribune Homepage : Top of page : Top of comments ]

Top Diaries