Sander Olson on behalf of Brian Wang’s nextbigfuture site managed to speak with Richard Nebel the leader of the Bussard founded EMC2 Corporation that’s working to get Dr. Bussard’s IEC fusion concept into working and productive function. The questions and answers are quite illuminating and the comments include input from Mr. Nebel and shed even more light on the situation and the coming milestones. This link will take you to Brain Wang’s posting with the interview.

Bussard's IEC Polywell Device

Bussard's IEC Polywell Device

But first let’s look at what the interview offers. Nebel describes the technology as part magnetic confinement and part electrostatic. The current machine as designed and tested met the expectations “With the parameters that we have put into this device, we have gotten the results that we expected.” That’s clear cut and as good of news as we’ve seen since Dr. Bussard presented to Google now almost two years ago.

What the coming questions are centers on the magnetic field power and the degree to which current designs will scale. The question simply needs tried in an experiment form.

It seems that Nebel, the team and the funders are committed to going to the proton-boron 11 fuel. The reasons appear to be on the elimination of radioactive byproducts, the size because the primary use goal from the main funding is to power ships, and simply cheap operating costs and a low development budget. As Bussard proved, the design can get to its success or fail for a microscopic fraction of other projects costs. This much is now quite clear.

Nebel is offering, with certainly every available caveat that energy production could be as soon as only six years out. No $100 billion dollar multi decade time frames, in fact Nebel in the comments says in responding to a success or failure of the basic concept that a hard answer should become clear in 1.5 to 2 years. That may prove prophetic, or may arrive with many more questions. It might seem like a certain future conclusion moment, but realistically it may not be a technology answer but an engineering and materials issue. Only time and the experimentation can get to the milestones with the new questions coming along, too.

In response to a question about the limits of low funding Dr. Nebel and the team expressed great faith and offered considerable ingenuity with his comment, “Due to time limitations, we haven’t been able to test the device as thoroughly as we’d like, and we couldn’t put all of the diagnostics on the machine that we initially wanted. But these constraints compel us to operate efficiently and expediently. My biggest concern at this point is getting things right the first time, which is difficult when doing fundamental research.” That honesty and clarity should be a flag to funders and supporters that “too cheap” might be an issue. As Nebel hints and I make clear, too cheap can have an especially damaging result, if getting it done right is missed, the critical questions and answers may simply be out of view as well.

But if everything comes together six years could see a demo unit, absent only the power generating equipment to go on the grid. That projection would see the first power station out about 10 years or 2020. That’s seems to be a good estimate, and cause for great hope.

Nebel also addresses the operational risk. Regular readers already know, but new visitors should know as Nebel says, “There are no radioactive materials or waste made with this (the Bussard) process. The only serious hazard(s) with operation are the high voltages involved, which pose a risk to the workers. But that is a risk that conventional powerplants have as well. These machines shouldn’t require containment vessels, like the fission machines have. The only byproduct of our fusion process is helium.” Enough said.

Two questions about size and power prices to consumers were asked. To the first about size, it isn’t known yet in a clear way, as the lessons learned in scaling up will show the dimensions needed and not stated is should a working unit come to market innovation will really get going then. As to electricity prices a low fuel cost, low investment in research and not especially costly units could lead to prices as low as 2 to 5 cents a kilowatt hour, one assumes, at the reactor end.

It’s of note that Dr. Nebel acknowledged M. Simon’s innovations and ideas briefly in his comment. This points up again that other’s thoughts have use, even though the funding limitations bring experimentation limits. It also makes more clear that the success or failure some 1.5 to 2 years out will also be within the confines of the limits. Success could be clear-cut, failure would only apply within the limits. It won’t be over in two years. Much more will be left to be done.

Dr. Nebel addresses the funding and the coming potential with these words, “I am not at liberty to discuss that (who) at this point. We currently have multiple funding sources, and certain corporations and private organizations are very interested in this technology. We have had numerous inquiries from various sources, and we tend to be forthright and explain the inherent risks involved. Some corporations are more amenable to funding high-risk projects than others.” Time will tell what information comes out to assist other innovators going ahead with Dr. Bussard’s concept. That may be a very important question in the years to come.

Lastly, some mature and kindly words for those excited by the Bussard reactor design. “If we get super excited about this, than we will lose perspective, and that is deadly for science projects. People who lose perspective tend to start misinterpreting the data to meet their expectations. This technology will either be a world-changing process or a bust. If it works, it will dramatically alter the world within the next two decades. This is a truly disruptive technology, and if successful will result in a safe, cheap, and nearly limitless source of energy.”

I’m still very happy indeed, and thankful to Brian Wang and Sander Olson for putting this together.


10 Comments so far

  1. Matt on May 14, 2009 5:48 AM

    This could be the most transformational breakthrough since Steve and Steve built the first Apple in their garage.

    Funding is always the issue. We would have had energy positive fusion units 40 years ago if GE had only funded Philo Farnsworth and then stayed out of his hair.

  2. M. Simon on May 14, 2009 9:08 AM

    Thanks Brian.

    BTW even a Proton/Boron machine will produce neutrons. Shielding will be required. However, as you point out the shielding need not be constructed to withstand high pressures (a containment vessel).

    Because of the way shielding works a reduction of flux from 1E12 neutrons per sq cm per second to 1E6 neutrons per sq cm per second only reduces the amount of shielding required by 1/2. BTW those numbers are representative of a fission reactor vs a Polywell reactor.

    One thing to keep in mind that there are no fission products from Polywell so all you need to do is to control the construction materials of the reactor to minimize activation products. Since we now do that with fission reactors we already know how to do it with Polywell.

  3. steve kelsey on May 15, 2009 9:27 AM

    I have been following Dr Nebel’s development of Dr Bussard’s design for two years now and the latest news is very promising.
    I share your enthusiam and hope however I must admit I have one worry.
    This is a Navy funded project.Is it not possible that the technology will be restricted?

  4. Roger Fox on May 17, 2009 2:01 PM

    Boom or bust in 2 years, well… I’d better pre order my space ship now.

  5. Brian H on May 22, 2009 6:10 AM

    A parallel effort with an even smaller budget is the Focus Fusion system, which has now moved into full experimental mode. It’s timeline is about the same, or a bit shorter; after 1½-2 yrs of science “proof of concept”, about 3 yrs of engineering is expected to result in a licensable design, to be made available for manufacturers world wide. The generator will be VERY small, with a garage-size housing unit, able to be installed pretty much anywhere.

    Cost should be under $500,000, and the output should sell for about 1/10 of the price projected for the Polywell.

    If it works, no contest. Every other generating model will be economic roadkill.

  6. Brian H on May 22, 2009 6:11 AM

    Oops. “its timeline”. (One of my pet grammar peeves. Sorry! 😉 )

  7. Brian H on May 22, 2009 6:19 AM

    Your funding comment inspires me to note that the recent Focus Fusion funding is entirely by a few private investors and the Abell Foundation of Baltimore.

    Read about it here:

  8. Your Future on September 13, 2009 3:25 PM

    Polywell is a failure so far, and even if it succeeds in generating net energy the US military, which is the largest most powerful terrorist organization on this planet, will use it to continue their crimes against humanity.

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  10. Brian H on December 17, 2010 3:40 AM

    The above “salle” post is generic spam. Click on the name at your own risk!

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