Eric Lerner may well twist a few bands of electric arc and their magnetic fields to wring fusion for a lot of energy output with Focus Fusion.

As an admirer of Dr. Bussard I have a “heads up” for fusion alternatives to ITER with its tokamak built out of an old Soviet idea that would be the size of an aircraft carrier and thought to become radioactive beyond use from operating. Eric Lerner’s idea is every bit as interesting as Dr. Bussard’s and to my mind offers opportunities every bit as valuable albeit in another direction, perhaps.

As compact, elegant, and straightforward as Bussard’s concept is, it will be big, putting out great megawatts of power ideal for a wide range of purposes where lots of electrical energy is needed and transmission is in place or can be arranged. Its small city sized output at the minimum from an installation perhaps as small as a pair of semi trailers.

Lerner’s idea while sized more like four refrigerators for his test rig at Texas A&M has an idea that might become very small. How small over time is imagination driven today, but keep in mind that ITER needs several city blocks of space and Bussard a small chunk of a truck stop. ITER will likely get even bigger. Bussard suggests he needs a couple meters or 7 feet cubed for his cube of magnets to drive boron-11 fuel at a minimum.

It’s not reasonable to expect either of these will downsize to be in a locomotive, a truck or home.

Lerner’s idea just might, based on my intuition. The intuition is based on lifetime of amazement in stuff getting really small and lately most new stuff is micro-sized just to start.

We need to add Eric Lerner and Focus Fusion with Bussard and Polywell to our list of interests, Bussard to grow into the large, Lerner to grow into the small. Mankind would be set, energy as close to free and abundant as it will ever get, barring even more innovation and creativity from the mind of mankind.

The Spark Plug Look of Focus Fusion

The Spark Plug Look of Focus Fusion

Here’s why: Focus fusion is a very sophisticated evolution in dense plasma control and fuel selection. In a design that reminds one of a spark plug, two cylinders nested one inside the other act as electrodes that discharge an electrical pulse from the outer to the inner. When that happens an electric arc forms and when a gas fuel (a mix of hydrogen and boron) is present the gas forms a sheath of plasma that is conductive around the arc. With the larger outer cylinder’s discharge flowing to the points of the smaller inner one the gas plasma pinches and twists closer (like wringing a washcloth) into a tiny dense ball called a plasmoid. The electric current sets up magnetic fields, which when the pulse ends – decay. That drives a beam of electrons to flow one way and the positive ions the other.

A Sheath Wrung Tight

A Sheath Wrung Tight

Its quite hot, what with the electric arc, plus pinching and twisting the fuel plasma sheath, and heating the plasma ball so much so that fusion of the hydrogen and boron should occur, which adds even more heat and more charged fuel particles to the reaction. The ion beam can be directly converted to electricity the electron beam is electricity.

A Plasmoid in Focus Fusion

A Plasmoid in Focus Fusion

Lerner has a mountain to climb, the main one getting the plasma density high enough so the fusion reaction will be more intense. So far he hasn’t gotten to the power level anywhere close enough for hydrogen and boron fusion to be driven efficiently. He understands that the design needs upgraded to a much higher density, more magnetic field power and thus higher efficiency.

It seems that an earlier Lerner device was able to drive some fusion reactions during the experiments at Texas A&M which have yet to be ascribed to other actions during the test runs. Thus Lerner’s company Lawrenceville Plasma Physics (LPP) has finally managed to achieve some investment to continue work and further experiments to refine the research into working devices in a drive to a net energy device.

The biggest and best news is that LPP has completed a $1.2 million investment drive capped with Wednesday’s December 17th 2008 announcement that the Abell Foundation closed the offering with the final $500 thousand. With $700 thousand from others a two-year development experiment can get underway.

There’s room here for lots of enquiring minds. A website,, exists for those who wish to see more, learn and participate in forums. The activity level there is getting more momentum; if fusion interests you there is a storyboard walkthrough, more links, a place to see an animation, even a page for detractors.

Keep in mind that Lerner was supported very early in the theoretical basics by some impressive names such as Bruno Coppi, MIT’s Professor of Physics, Senior Fusion Researcher. The work to date has stayed on course to end in a success.

Lerner has taken the challenge of heat and pressure to the opposite direction of ITER, by going as small as possible. While the probabilities of getting the device someday to the size of a five-gallon bucket or even a soda can might seem incredible, bear in mind that the genius of Lerner is the construction of the theory in the scale of the fuel, hot plasmoids twisted into pressure vessels that are much closer to the size of the fuel target. It’s an intuition on Lerner’s part that strikes me as nova sort of moment. For a visual interactive moment poke a stickpin in a wet washcloth laid flat, then wring the cloth tight and try the poke the pin in again.

If you take the time to watch the Google Tech Talk given by Lerner you’ll see a professorial, statesman like, thorough and competent scientist. Admittedly not an endearing character, yet an extremely interesting physicist with a brilliant idea well into development. His brainstorm that triggered the theory needs its story told. He’s not the lovable, rascally, blunt and funny guy Bussard was and Bussard was having an off day while at Google and fighting the health problems that brought him to his death. Lerner strikes me as the sort of teacher that would carefully set about introducing one to each step, logically guiding to the carefully reasoned conclusion. Not much laughing, but a self-confidence building gentleman who would treat one with direct honesty and care.

Perceived personality matters. But the technology is the most important, so those of us interested in the future need to find it in ourselves to strengthen the legs of all the worthy people working to bring the future closer, sooner and better. Eric Lerner has pulled off a miracle; he has attracted funding outside of government and without locking the theory up forever. He’s gathering skilled assistance, notably Aaron Blake who has massively improved the communications coming out of the effort. Be sure to keep an eye on Lerner, and do not underestimate him. He’s much better founded and further along than a cursory look would suggest.


14 Comments so far

  1. Matt in NC on December 19, 2008 8:01 AM

    This has been a HUGE week for plasma fusion. First IEC released the numbers on their latest machine – which were excellent. Now, FocusFusion gets some real funding. FF had been forced to work in conjunction with the Chilean government’s nuclear program just to get lab space and materials.

    Now can anyone tell me what’s going on with Tri-Alpha Fusion?

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