Using Recovery Act funds the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division at China Lake, Calif., is contracting with the late Dr. Robert Bussard’s firm Energy Matter Conversion Corp., (EMC2) of Santa Fe, N.M., for research, analysis, development, and testing in support of the Plan Plasma Fusion (Polywell) Project. The Polywell and IEC or internal electrostatic confinement and “Plan Plasma Fusion” are different names for the work of the late Dr. Robert Bussard. The contract award will validate the basic physics of the plasma fusion (polywell) concept, as well as provide the Navy with data for potential applications of polywell fusion. Of considerable interest is the contract runs to April 2011 using some $7,855,504 in a cost-plus-fixed-fee contract. By any description, this is a major fusion event.
Dr. Richard Nebel is leading the EMC2 team and has offered small reassurances during interviews in the past. But the hallmark of Bussard Fusion is the elegant, “simple” and innovative take on powering atoms into fusing without heat and pressure by using shear speed of atoms or molecules in dense clouds of fuel to get fusing and energy release.
The potential has stunning implications. Using a heavy fuel, the suggested boron 11 base the prime candidate, could drive a reactor under 4 meters in outer size to great output such that concept could power ships, space vessels, perhaps rail, aircraft and certainly power generation plants. It’s the leading fusion reactor with far-reaching, wide application potential.
Nebel’s team isn’t alone in the effort to get to net power. M. Simon, a noteworthy contributor and operator of iecfusiontech.blogspot.com, has a lot of good ideas as well. Nebel says they’ll probably take a closer look at D-D reactors over the next 2 years.
The last public information to come out of EMC2 was in the Sander Olson interview snagged by Brian Wang at NextBigFuture.com. There Nebel, who surely has some idea of the information offered to secure the contract, offered that EMC2 is hoping to have a net energy production product within six years although it could take longer. That would probably be a demo unit, which won’t have the attendant secondary equipment necessary for electricity generation. Yet a demo unit would demonstrate everything on the power side that is needed to put a full-scale working plant into commercial production. So if the concept works, there could be a commercial plant operating as early as 2020.
For the experienced fusion watcher this is major news. For the new folks something quite informative and that explains what all the news across the energy blogs and news media would have to be Dr. Bussard’s friend, employee and accomplished writer Tom Ligon’s article The World’s Simplest Fusion Reactor” published in Analog magazine. There Tom starting at about page 10 of the 18 pages explaining how a Bussard fusor works and the steps undertaken to get to the point that Nebel’s team has funding now to continue to scale the research reactors up to prove the physics and mathematics for the next round of development and eventually commercial scale and transport sized devices. (Direct to PDF File link.)
Mr. Ligon’s article uses the opening four pages to cover some history and some of the ancillary efforts that serve to drive more research and education. This is going to be a field rich for young people and educators. While for many the jury is still out on the Bussard Fusion concept, the research reactors to date show that the physics Bussard worked out have strong legs for going to scale. Nebel’s group might not get to power breakeven for a multitude of potential reasons, but the basics are certain, breakeven will be possible some day. It might simply need the innovations of another generation to get there. If Nebel’s group does succeed, there will still be a need for development and more innovation for decades to come.
It’s quite a thrill to see the Bussard Fusion effort under way in a larger and faster capacity. For years the concept of velocity instead of heat and pressure for getting to fusion events has had a “back seat on the bus” while the heat and pressure groups have had essentially all of the money going their way. But decades of waiting for decades to work out the operational, design and construction issues to handle the heat and pressure matters has finally driven some funds to the simpler more elegant method. It’s about time, and its still too little money. But it’s satisfying enough, for now.
One more point. There is great merit in the additional insights that those such as M. Simon offer to Bussard type fusion. As the Nebel team progresses and information gets out there will be even more minds with innovation and insight available. For all the facts of fission and its certain contribution if societies get under way on installing more fission drive generation, there should be much more attention and funds going to those such as Bussard and Lerner for the economy to know much more about the time frame for fusion to get to commercial scale. One would think the global warming, environmental and anti nuclear groups would dedicate much more effort to seeing fusion, any fusion process at all, got the full intensity of funds and attention needed to drive to the cheapest possible form of energy production possible.