It seems that Richard Nebel, leader of the Bussard Fusion effort at EMC2 in New Mexico while on leave from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) isn’t so much left as still working a wide ranging in the effort to get Inertial Electrostatic (IEC) Fusion into a successful technology.  It’s a very good sign to see a person like Nebel active across a wide spectrum of the IEC effort.

The LANL press release covers some interesting new ideas that while not saying so appear to be an anticipation of what problems might come up on the way to break even power production.

The IEC system provides an economical and technologically straightforward means to produce fusion reactions in a table-top device.  By confining a plasma in a potential well created by electrostatic fields or a combination of electrostatic and magnetic fields produced either by grids or by virtual cathodes, typically in spherical or cylindrical geometry, ions are accelerated towards the center of the device, where fusion reactions can occur.  The technological simplicity of the IEC system was the basis for its early success – it produced a steady-state neutron yield of 2 × 1010 neutrons/s in the late 1960s.  That’s the bait taken up by the late Dr. Robert Bussard and others – it looks like a leading technology along with Eric Learner’s Focus Fusion.

IEC Device Setup with Grid for POPS. Click image for more info.

As it IEC stands today the break-even point is still a ways off.   The problem, subject to testing the ideas of Bussard and others is thought to be the Coulomb barrier-collision cross section is much greater than the fusion-collision cross section by several orders of magnitude. The ion beams in the IEC device rapidly lose the energy by Coulomb collisions before producing fusion reactions, leading to a net loss in energy.  That’s the historical objection to the Bussard theory.  Whether the physics and the engineering is at hand at the Nebel lead team at EMC2 in New Mexico can get past the matter is a topic of intense interest.

If not, and there could be two views on the honorable Mr. Nebel being both at EMC2 and working on the project at LANL, the LANL work could be to get past the Coulomb barrier if Bussard’s ideas don’t work out or an assumption that Nebel is on both sides of the Coulomb fence.  How much it matters – that depends on Nebel’s honor and determination.  The LANL release on its face shows Nebel is in deep.  Very likely determined, thus if the Bussard theory doesn’t get there, of even if it does – Nebel and the brilliant minds at LANL have a follow-up that should work, too.

The LANL theorists propose a new electrostatic plasma equilibrium that should mitigate the Coulomb matter has recently confirmed experimentally.  This is very good news from any perspective.

The concept now called Periodically Oscillating Plasma Sphere, or POPS requires uniform electron injection into the central region of a spherical device to produce harmonic oscillator potential. An ion cloud in such an environment will undergo harmonic oscillation with an oscillation frequency independent of amplitude. Tuning the external radio-frequency (rf) electric fields to this naturally occurring mode allows the ion motions to be phase-locked. This simultaneously produces very high densities and temperatures during the collapse phase of the oscillation when all the ions converge into the center. Solutions to POPS oscillation have the remarkable property that they maintain equilibrium distribution of the ions at all times. This would eliminate any power loss due to Coulomb collisions and would greatly increase the neutron yield up to more than 100%, resulting in a net energy gain for fusion-power generation.

IEC Devices in a POPS Set. Click image for more info.

Ready?  Here comes the remarkable part: In practice the POPS system would use a massively modular system to achieve high-mass-power density as shown in the conceptual drawing in Figure 2. Such a device would contain thousands of tiny spherical IEC reactors within a single reactor vessel to produce a large amount of fusion power (i.e., ~ 100–1000 MW). A modular IEC device would have very high-mass-power density, comparable to a light-water reactor, while maintaining conventional wall loads (~ 1 MW/m2) and being economically competitive with other sources of power.

Farnsworth – Bussard and the new developers have taken the basic physics way up in scale from a tabletop device.

The POPS oscillation being experimentally measured for the first time, confirms the scientific basis for a POPS-based fusion device. The harmonic potential well is created by electron injection. Ions in the potential well undergo harmonic oscillation. By applying radio frequency fluctuation to the grid voltage, the LANL team was able to phase-lock the POPS oscillation and to measure the resonance behavior of the ions.

The goal, the route to which is explained in more technical detail in the press release is a much longer ion life in the IEC potential well.  The LANL team has taken a lifetime of 0.5 millisecond up to 2.5 milliseconds, a five-fold increase that portends a much greater life and chance of fusion collisions.

The LANL team involving the Plasma Physics Group parts P-23 and T-15 is hard at an alternative to the Bussard concept still using the old Farnsworth principles and it seems following the theoretical path. The experiment offers a solution to the main objection, over coming the Coulomb barrier that many think Bussard has overcame in his work.  Whether or not who’s idea is working, the LANL group has done the IEC community a service – putting a major blotter over the Coulomb barrier objection with experimental data to show.  Moreover the LANL POPS idea adds some compression to the natural velocity that IEC uses to get the atoms to fuse.

If anything is clear, from a funding standpoint, on to a very cheap source of power generation, overlooking IEC for a few millions of dollars for tens of billions for the ITER tokamak idea seems now, well, foolhardy.


11 Comments so far

  1. TallDave on August 24, 2010 8:16 AM

    I think there’s some confusion here, as this appears to be old information. Nebel picked up the Bussard Polywell effort in 2008 and is currently working on WB-8, a larger version of WB-7, which Nebel used for validation of Bussard’s WB-6 work. The WB-8 contract also calls for a full 100MW reactor.

  2. Matt Musson on August 25, 2010 8:55 AM

    The new information is the harmonic occillation data.

    Once again, if this project pans out, we could be on the verge of an entirely new Kondratief wave.

  3. TallDave on August 25, 2010 9:44 AM

    Ah, OK.

    So that LANL release is new? It’s interesting Nebel is still submitting POPS papers. I wonder if he’s doing POPS with WB-7? “Virtual cathode” sounds like a PW machine…

  4. TallDave on August 25, 2010 12:23 PM

    Upon further review, this appears to be a 2003-4 paper.

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