It’s quite a relief to see some activity on the Robert Bussard Fusion effort led now by Richard Nebel.  Friday saw the news that the federal contract “Justification for Other than Full and Open Competition” document make it out to confirm essentially what everyone had expected. The divergence from the established norm is the newly available document covers an expenditure up to a full $10 million.

The full contract document is available as a pdf download. I’ll cover the meat courtesy of some guidance from the estimable M. Simon who has covered the contract in close detail.

WB7 Polywell Makes Plasma

WB7 Polywell Makes Plasma

What can be gleaned from the situation in the first instance is that Bussard Fusion at the current completed stage of WB-7 went quite well.  It’s something for which we all could express some gratitude to Mr. Nebel and his team.  Mr. Nebel and the others not so well known or even named have taken Dr. Bussard’s work on in spite of his passing away just to the extent that the funds allowed and fulfilled Dr. Bussard’s predictions.  Those predictions, now confirmed made it possible and reasonable to go on to fund the next stage, a WB-8.

WB7 Vacuum Chamber

WB7 Vacuum Chamber

What is at stake now is to verify the engineering rules at higher power.  That would set the stage for a trying the pre full sized device with full power a shot of injecting some Boron 11 fuel.  Boron 11 fuel, should it stay put inside the still too small WB-8 or amazingly, fuse and decay a little as predicted by Dr. Bussard and others, would crash the barrier holding the Bussard Fusion, Lerner Fusion and the Rostoker Tri-alpha Energy programs from wide acclaim.  It would also open the door to other confinement ideas, combined ideas and new innovations.

The new contract provides for building a higher power device of the same configuration as Dr. Bussard’s WB-7.  It’s essential to get as far with the design layout as possible, a good thing.  The internal field strength of the new WB-8 is being raised by a factor of 8.  The observers are calculating that should the new design layout perform as the old one an increase of power out would come to a factor of 4,000.

At that scale measurements can be made over a much wider range.  That means the operating range has upper and lower error lines much more easily observed.  Thus the detections that rely on units will have one or more orders of magnitude of units to work from.  That makes measuring accuracy significantly more reliable and significant.  Additionally, those error lines will become more relevant as well as understood such that design and operating parameters over the course of adjustment will give useful feedback.

The new contract is requiring the Bussard Fusion team to provide a predictive model of the WB-8 behavior.  With data points for the profile, measurements of the plasma density, ion energy and the WB-8’s own magnetic field structure validation of the Polywell concept can provide a solid scientific basis and set up a guidance for the forthcoming research.  This sort of provisioning assures that the critical knowledge of how the device is operating is gathered so that design improvements, modifications and operating parameters can be predicted with more certainty.

Of considerable interest is the new contract also requires and funds the preliminary design of the next generation, a WB-9.  It’s as if the existing data divines success, and the WB-8 is really about power scale.  But that is speculative, even if it’s a great confidence booster.

Long time close observers already know that Dr. Bussard himself has observed fusion in previous WB designs.  What the object of the chase is to get to power scales and fusion rates to step up to a breakeven machine.

That puts considerable interest in the new contract specification for a derived device; a WB-8.1 that would see added ion drive capabilities.  Going to that level allows the contract specification in include wordage “that a “PB11” reaction will be demonstrated.” There’s the suck in your breath moment, they’re going to see if the Boron 11 fuel might fuse and decay into all that predicted electricity and helium.

Now here are some of the “tall mountain” problems along the way.  First is to get that Boron 11 in the Polywell WB-8.1 the contract is specifying that Dr. Nebel and his team “develop an enhanced ion drive system” to inject the fuels.  Now I respect and admire Mr. Nebel and the team but we have no idea about their capability to solve this matter with certainty.

The ion drive is more akin to a prototype race car than the umpteenth millionth Toyota Camry with years of Deming investigation on refining the design, engineering, materials and workmanship issues.  If it works at all – even just once – it will be a success.

The same perspective holds for the WB-8 and WB-8.1 devices.  These are one off, hand made, complex, precision instruments.  The potential for a disastrous error, no matter how small is much higher than a device in its millionth rendition.  These are the risks.

It’s not the theory anymore that poses the problem.  Farnsworth showed decades ago that magnetic confinement offered a path to fusion.  Bussard worked out the physics and engineering to get to a device that fuses as well as the power to perhaps fuse Boron 11 with a pathway for others to follow.  The Nebel led group has to take the knowledge and turn it into know how.  It must be a hair pulling exercise, because it is a race of sorts.

The international ITER program is sucking up tens of billions of dollars and euros with a time frame measured in decades and no certainty the device would be economical even if it can be made to work.

Lerner and Rostoker both have serious concepts that may well work, and if Nebel can show that Boron 11 can be fused and it decays into the helium with the expected enormous rush of electrical energy, they stand to close up development very quickly.

That’s makes the wish for good luck seem slight, God’s speed and care seems more like it.  So please, lets all wish the Nebel team clear minds, a calm thoughts and a NASA like adherence to the details.


7 Comments so far

  1. M. Simon on October 7, 2009 4:03 AM


    And an excellent article. Esp. loved the pictures.

  2. Matt on October 7, 2009 7:24 AM

    Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated failures. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. — Calvin Coolidge 1872

    Somehow this quote seemed appropriate. I know that Farnsworth, Bussard and Nebel have all demonstrated uncommon persistence.

  3. TallDave on October 7, 2009 10:45 AM

    Good stuff, thanks for sharing.

  4. James Bowery on October 7, 2009 4:46 PM

    “Farnsworth showed decades ago that magnetic confinement offered a path to fusion.”
    should read:
    “Farnsworth showed decades ago that electrostatic confinement offered a path to fusion.”

  5. Brian H on October 14, 2009 6:45 PM

    A much lower-rent effort to get to p-B11 fusion is here:

    This rig will run on D-D first, and then (probably late 2010) step up to p-B11, for which it is designed.

  6. Matt M on October 25, 2009 4:06 PM

    Excellent. Really like the summary.

  7. Zahnbleaching on June 19, 2011 9:30 PM

    You ought to open a fanpage on facebook to go with your blog.

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