Richard Nebel, the leader of the team testing Robert W. Bussard fusion concept variously called polywell, inertial electrostatic confinement (IEC) and others, has had the peer review panel check completed making their report to the funders – positive. Nebel is quoted today by Alan Boyle as saying, “There’s nothing in there that suggests this will not work. That’s a very different statement from saying that it will work.”

Nebel explains that by and large the results fit Dr. Bussard’s theoretical predictions, which could mean the polywell fusion device design would actually lead to a power generating reaction. The opposite way to say that is the WB-7 experiment has not ruled out the possibility that Bussard’s theory and design could actually serve as a “low cost, long term energy solution.” Nebel offers, “If this thing was absolutely dead in the water, we would have found out.”

Proving theory through a series of engineering designs is a tedious process for observers. But these kinds of experiments serve to prove the theoretical hypothesis is factual or not. The news of the day is – Bussard’s idea functions – which is for many a celebratory event. The next step is to enlarge the scale so using and creating more energy.

A little background for newcomers. Dr. Bussard, whose name you may recognize from as wide of a base as the Bussard Collector concept to harvest fuel in space that was incorporated into Star Trek scripts to Assistant Director of the Thermonuclear Reactor Division of the old U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. At some point Dr. Bussard got the idea to take the Farnsworth principles from vacuum tube technology and seek a method and design to form his own theory using velocity of atoms instead of heat and pressure to compel a nuclear fusion. With decades of experience at the very top of the U.S. atomic energy industry Dr. Bussard sensed that ideas such as the tokamak, a “gift” from the former Soviet Union and other ideas that sought to create center of a star like conditions to be impractical if ever possible.

Bussard’s idea evolved into a cube formed by electromagnets that when charged up make a ball of electromagnetism or a sphere shaped magnetic field. At the center of the cube is a point of intensity, which is negatively charged. When a fuel that has a positive charge is injected it descends to the center and may collide with another fuel atom. If the fuel misses, the negative charge slows and sends the positive charged fuel back again to the center. All this happens at incredible speeds. The descending is actually acceleration and will repeat until the fuel fuses.

The current experiment sought to show that the latest engineering of the magnets would stay together and not leak out the fuel and in so doing trigger fuel to fuse. Prior efforts had succeeded in fusing fuel, but the forces of the magnets and the leakage made operation a very short-lived event. Many astute observers have realized what the Nebel lead experiment proved, and the peer review of the data created by the experiment show, the theory works at this scale.

The next step is thought to be building the successful design at larger scale. The size of the current device is adequate to fuse small atoms such as deuterium, which is an isotope of hydrogen that has a neutron in the nucleus. Building a device in a larger size would offer a larger distance from the center to the magnets. That provides more space to accelerate so achieving even higher speeds and the use of larger heavier atoms.

The long goal is to get to boron-11 fuel. When boron fuses it becomes a very energetic carbon-12, which is unstable. The unstable carbon-12 promptly comes apart into three helium nuclei and a beryllium nucleus. Each of those helium atoms carries 3 million electron volts. It’s a huge amount of power from a very small source, far more than needed to charge the magnets.

Its thought by many that the theory will scale to boron fuel and that the engineering to build and operate a prototype will succeed. Now that the small version is confirmed to work the motivation to move on and up is irresistible by all but the least informed, competitive or naturally motivated detractors.

Nebel and his colleagues have already drawn up a plan for the next step: an 18-month program to build and test a larger fusor prototype. Nebel said his five-person team at EMC2 is getting by on some small-scale contracts from the Defense Department. Nebel said, “I’ve got enough (funding) to cover the people we’ve got, and that’s about it. What we’re doing with these contracts is trying to get prepared for the next step.”

President-elect Barack Obama’s pick for energy secretary, Steven Chu, has said he’s aware of the approach. Will the White House support EMC2’s low-cost, under-the-radar fusion research program alongside the competing ITER and the National Ignition Facility? “We just don’t know,” Nebel said.

One thing is for sure; Dr. Bussard’s approach is the furthest along. It fuses. It’s the cheapest. And the IEC or Polywell design would produce no radioactive byproducts using larger fuels. It may one of the million ideas we should be pursuing that looks like the “one in a million” already.

Dr. Bussard seemed to be a curious blend of engineer and physicist. His passing away was significant to many people for a multitude of reasons. At the end of this life over a year ago he knew what is proven now saying, “We’ve solved the physics; now it’s time for engineering development.” Right.


6 Comments so far

  1. Matt in NC on December 17, 2008 9:16 AM

    Absolutely great news! Farnsworth was a genius and Brussard was a visionary. And, they both will go down in history as an obscure footnote. But, their impact on the future may be incalculable.

  2. John on December 17, 2008 3:33 PM

    Best news I’ve read today. And here I was getting excited about a silly patent for EEstor…

  3. aaron on December 17, 2008 7:29 PM

    HIP HIP HURAY for real science!

  4. Greg on December 17, 2008 7:58 PM

    The decay product of the boron-11 fusion was explained poorly. The end product is just three helium nuclei, the beryllium is just a short lived intermediate product.

  5. Dan Frederiksen on December 18, 2008 11:41 AM

    I’m not sure about the polywell. I’m more excited about the focus fusion principle although I don’t understand it in enough detail to say if either will work. the polywell does hoever suffer from particle collision with the rings which seems like a fundamental flaw. focus fusion shouldn’t have such a problem

  6. Michael Jennings on December 21, 2008 11:35 PM

    I think that people need to stop screwing around and start building these things.
    A few prototypes at first, then iron out the problems.
    I have watched this project from afar for years.
    I am still dismayed and saddened that such an obviously elegant system has not been funded, researched, and understood fully years ago.

    I think there are serious questions to be answered.

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