Eric Lerner’s Lawrenceville Plasma Physics (LLP) is developing a dense plasma focus fusion reactor, to use proton-boron (pB11) fuel. Lerner’s work was initially funded by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and is now investor-funded.  The project is aiming to produce an extremely economical, compact, environmentally safe and essentially inexhaustible source of energy.  The projections can get to 10% of the current cost for electrical power production.

Working Focus Fusion Reactor. No larger image available.

Earlier in the experimental program Lerner’s team had already achieved major experimental milestones, including the achievement of plasma confinement at energies equivalent to two billion degrees, high enough to fuse hydrogen and boron.  They are carrying out new experiments with their “Focus-Fusion-1” (FF1) experimental device in Middlesex, NJ.

The current story begins in December 2008 as Lerner and his new team initiated its planned two-year experiment after receiving $1.2 million from private investors and The Abell Foundation.  Two plasma physicists joined Lerner on the experimental team, Dr. XinPei Lu for a period and Dr. Krupakar Murali Subramanian.

Dr. Subramanian was Senior Research Scientist, AtmoPla Dept., and BTU International Inc., in N. Billerica, Massachusetts. He worked for five years on the advanced-fuel Inertial Electrostatic Confinement device at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he received his PhD in 2004 and where he invented new plasma diagnostic instruments.

To help in the design of the capacitor bank, LPP hired a leading expert in dense plasma focus design and experiment, Dr. John Thompson.  Dr. Thompson has worked for over twenty years with Maxwell Laboratories and Alameda Applied Sciences Corporation to develop pulsed power devices, including dense plasma focus and diamond switches.

By January of 2010 the first preliminary evidence appeared that Focus-Fusion-1 is producing high-energy ions.  This evidence indicates that, even operating well below its intended current, FF-1 has produced ions with an average energy of at least 45 keV, the equivalent of half a billion degrees C.

The “shot” with 10 torr of deuterium yielded first, a very sharp peak that was the X-ray pulse, caused by radiation from hot electrons in the plasmoid and arriving at the FTF detector at the speed of light, 30 cm per ns.  The second group of peaks was the neutrons, traveling much slower and arriving later. The team knows that the neutrons produced by deuterium/deuterium fusion reactions should have a velocity of 2.2 cm per ns and should arrive 719 ns after the X-rays.  They also know that the fusion reactions only occur once the electrons have heated up the ions.

But in the January trial shot, the first burst of neutrons arrived only 682 ns after the beginning of the X-ray pulse.  These neutrons, traveling faster than would be expected from the fusion energy alone, must have additional energy imparted to them by the motion of the nuclei that collided to produce the reaction.  From this data the team is figuring that the average ion in the plasmoid had at least 45 keV of energy.  If the neutrons actually originated later in the pulse, then they traveled faster and the average ion energy could have been higher.  More energy out than anticipated – a very good sign.

Late February saw the first preliminary evidence that the injection of angular momentum into the dense plasma fusion considerably increases the efficiency of energy transfer into the plasmoid, the size of the plasmoid and thus the fusion energy yield.  During some shots the angular momentum coil (AMC) was connected to the power supply, so current could flow through it. In other shots, the coil circuit was left open, so no current could flow. The shots with the AMC connected have a neutron yield 8-10 times that of those with the AMC disconnected, so this is a large and very promising effect.

A factor of ten improvement in yield through the use of the AMC is very encouraging and is an initial confirmation of the proposal that LPP VP Aaron Blake made four years ago.  The team thinks that the current in the coil is producing a small magnetic field along the axis of the device. The interaction of the currents with this field induces angular momentum (spin) in the plasma sheath.

This in turn diverts the current in the sheath in the same direction as the current in the coils, amplifying the field. The angular momentum, conveyed ultimately to the tiny plasmoid, creates a centrifugal force that balances the compressive magnetic forces. The bigger the centrifugal force, the bigger the magnetic field that can be balanced and in turn the bigger the formed plasmoid. However, if the centrifugal force is too big, it will prevent the plasmoid from forming at all. Thus only small fields are effective.

By mid March the device was operating at 90% good shots.  In the best shots, ion energies were measured in the range of 40-60 keV (the equivalent of 0.4-0.6 billion degrees K). The electron beam carried about 0.5 kJ of energy and the plasmoid held about 1 kJ of energy, nearly half that stored in the magnetic field of the device. So, this is evidence that a substantial part of the total energy available is being concentrated in the plasmoids and transferred to the beams.

The testing shows that the control shots (with the magnetic coil turned off) were increasingly producing more neutrons (up to about 10 times) as the control shots at the beginning of testing.  Also it seems the steel flanges that attach the vacuum chamber to the inner lower bus plate and the bus plate itself were both becoming permanently magnetized.  This provides unintended additional evidence that the predicted angular momentum effect is working.

All this seems well, esoteric and sort of obtuse.  Not by intent, I’m certain, the news writer is deep into the science and hasn’t a clear idea where the usual observer is in the perspective of the news.  An extended stay on the Lawrenceville Plasma Physics site teaches that these news reports show the device and the experiments being done are giving results a bit better than predicted.

Dr. Lerner and his team are getting along very well indeed.  If the funding keeps coming we might well see the pB11 fuel test later this year or next.  As the experiments proceed in testing the theory working so well, the prospects for a pB11 fuel success seem quite good.

For accredited investors this might be the chance of a lifetime.  It’s a shame and an insult to everyone else to be cut out by a stupid law meant to protect the ill informed that regular folks can’t get a small part in this.  Yes, there is a mountain of sophisticated due diligence involved to be sure, the risk of loss very high – but imagine if Lerner can fuse proton-boron 11 and throw off massive electron energy . . .  Odds very seldom get this high in real life.


25 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on April 13, 2010 7:50 AM

    We could be witnessing an event that will go down in history as significant as the invention of the steam engine.

    If this aneutronic focus fusion actually works if could lead to an entirely new 50 year Kondratiev economic cycle.

    It will not only raise the US economy and lead to cars and tractors – it will mean a future for the half of the world’s population that still cook and heat with wood and dung.

    It will kill oil derricks and windmills in the same shot!

  2. Matt Musson on April 13, 2010 7:51 AM

    ELECTRIC cars and tractors that is.

  3. donb on April 13, 2010 12:53 PM

    Matt Musson wrote:
    It will kill oil derricks and windmills in the same shot!

    Perhaps windmills, but oil derricks are a whole ‘nuther matter. Electricity as a fuel for cars is already significantly cheaper than oil. The problem is using it. Even if electricity were free, the cost of batteries still makes electric cars costly. And aviation will be running on hydrocarbons for quite some time to come.

  4. kurt9 on April 13, 2010 5:35 PM

    Even with cheap fusion power, hydrocarbon fuels are still necessary for transportation. The cheap electricity would further drive the demand and development of plug-in hybrid vehicles. A plug-in diesel hybrid sedan ought to get 60 MPG or so, about a 3 times improvement over current cars. Also, cheap fusion power will make it easier and cheaper to make synthetic hydrocarbons as well.

    The petroleum economy will continue no matter what. However, there will be a permanent price ceiling on hydrocarbon fuels.

    There is also EMC2’s IEC polywell device as well as Rostakor’s Tri-alpha CB/FRC concepts that are intended for advanced fuel fusion.

  5. hurfdurf on April 13, 2010 5:45 PM

    Fossil hydrocarbon infrastructure will stick around for a long time, at least for other industries. However, the good news is that we’ll use a lot less of it in fuel. At least until all-electric hydrocarbon production becomes as cheap and productive as the fossil sort, derricks aren’t going anywhere. We also have major hurdles in energy storage to leap over before we can kick this habit once and for all, but economical synthetic hydrocarbons from renewable inputs (say, air and water) are one possible avenue for this.

    The only thing that concerns me is what impact fusion technologies might have on devices employing gamma fluorescence. I think we’re declaring this an entirely peaceful technology much too prematurely, and I’m interested to see how long it will take from break even to some degree of indirect weaponization. (Say, pumping isomers used in radiological, explosive, directed energy, or even pure-fusion nuclear weapons.) On the other hand, if our most optimistic predictions bear fruit, those weapons would have little utility in the fusion age, wouldn’t they?

  6. Oliver Snow on April 13, 2010 6:52 PM

    regarding the “accredited investor problem”. Perhaps if there are enough of us out there who willing to take a punt on this we can band together and obtain the necessary accreditation – how hard can it be?

  7. Yordan Georgiev on April 13, 2010 11:04 PM

    LLP should start IPO already now. This will give them the needed financing for the next 5 years + boost for the experiments. I would invest my small savings into a business Which will be Google square 2 billions after 5 years, which also will solve humanity,s energy crisis. If the bigger financing institutions come later to the party they will pay the according price. If fore some odd reason they cannot deliver what they aimed we will loose our money, but that is ok since this calculated risk of such an investments.

  8. Oliver Snow on April 13, 2010 11:12 PM

    The rules defining what an accredited investor is are here:
    While I am not a lawyer, my reading of this is that it does not (subject to certain caveats) preclude setting up an organization (that has an interest in the commercialization of fusion power) that can as part of its activities pool funds to invest in individual securities. Famulus Fusion got some funding together over on to recreate a Polywell Fusor – is anybody here game to start up a vehicle that can -legally- invest in this (and other) clean fusion efforts?

  9. Matt Wood on April 14, 2010 6:14 AM

    @Oliver, I’m in the early stages of organizing one. You can find the details in my PR by googling Edison’s Idea Factory. This search will also turn up a fascinating Business Week article on the history and prospects of innovation.

    Since refineries make asphalt, solvents, fertilizer and plastics feedstocks, and a lot of other products besides motor fuels, I expect the oil industry to be in business for a very long time.

    Focus Fusion’s weapons potential is about the same as electricity’s. Existing equipment is faster and easier than adapting FF to do what it’s not designed to do.

    @Matt Musson, I see successful aneutronic fusion as the beginning of the 3rd Industrial Revolution. Can’t wait!

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  11. Brian H on April 20, 2010 5:54 PM

    No IPO is likely, IMO. Lerner’s top long-term priority is the application of the technology to the needs of many on the planet, re clean water, cheap transportation, hygiene, lighting, and elimination of waste streams (past and present — think ‘plasma torch’). He is therefore not prepared to relinquish majority control to Venture Vultures or to a shareholder pool. This may slow the cash flow, and fail to optimize the financial gain potential at LPP, but the upside is medium and long term maximizing of its use and availability.

    The financial plan is unorthodox: Once a replicable and mass-producible design is in hand, manufacturers EVERYWHERE will be invited to license it for a very reasonable sum. One of the license conditions may well be, I speculate, that the markup on its distribution and its output will be limited to encourage mass deployment rather than cream-skimming.

    One of the benign consequences of this is that no jurisdiction’s government or regulators will be able to successfully bottle it up or force massive bureaugenic costs onto it, as doing so would create severe competitive disadvantages vis-a-vis other jurisdictions.

  12. Brian H on April 20, 2010 6:11 PM

    P.S. Lerner wants to force the pace of affordable fusion power in general; he is quite OK (he claims!) with someone else coming up with a cheaper better (or equivalent) method and system sooner, as long as it happens. In this, he takes a similar position to that of Musk at TeslaMotors, who sees the role of his company as leading and forcing by example. Seems to be working; many credit the investment and PR being placed on BEV and hybrid vehicles by major carmakers to his existence proof that a desirable viable highway-capable pure EV is technically possible and will be purchased. 1000+ Roadsters on the streets and highways of NA and EU are hard to argue with.

    Which brings up the point of storage, both vehicle and grid.
    First, a number of battery design breakthroughs, at MIT and Stanford notably, have shown that LiIon energy densities may be upped by a factor of 5-10 with comparatively “easy” design and production changes.
    Second, the proliferation of FF generators opens up distributed energy availability not constrained by overall grid/transmission capacity.

    The combination of the above two factors is revolutionary.

  13. Hal Ade on May 13, 2010 9:34 PM

    Re: “Oliver Snow on April 13, 2010 6:52 pm

    regarding the “accredited investor problem”. Perhaps if there are enough of us out there who willing to take a punt on this we can band together and obtain the necessary accreditation – how hard can it be?”

    That’s what I’d like to see – something for the “little guy” to invest in. Pooling many small amounts together means that if there is a loss, it’s something we can all sustain.

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  19. AnonYmoose on December 4, 2011 12:33 AM

    On the subject of cheap power not being the problem for electric vehicles of ALL types, one needs only to look forward to the bigger picture: When the Japanese or Chinese industrial machines get busy on this, (wouldn’t hurt for us to do it for a change) miniaturization will occur. Battery capacity that limits range and power will become moot. Just a guess, but I think that this system sized down to an automotive power plant and drive system will probably need half of the mass or less of combustion engine technology.
    Mr. Fusion anyone?

  20. Brian H on December 11, 2011 7:27 PM

    Actually, the size of the ‘core’ is pretty much locked in. The dimensions of the electrodes are part and parcel of the effects achieved. Just about the only real opportunity for shrinkage is the capacitor bank.

  21. Brian H on December 11, 2011 7:28 PM

    P.S. They’re the big blue things in the top photo.

  22. Brian H on December 11, 2011 7:31 PM
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  25. Brian H on January 14, 2012 10:11 AM

    Sorry, I misread on earlier comment, didn’t realize you were talking about EVs.
    You’re quite right; storage is a key, and is getting better faster than ever before. The last couple of years have shown ~17% improvement per year, double the previous rate. And the rate is itself still accelerating!

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