Fusion energy, too risky a bet for America (we prefer to rely on war)
Summary: The polywell is one of the most promising of fusion technologies. This post describes its history and potential. But the significant lesson from this is America’s irrational policy for investing in its future. Also, see the updates posted in the comments!
The Polywell has come up in the comments several times, so perhaps deserves an update. The polywell is the last work of that giant in the world of physics, Robert W. Bussard (who passed over in October 2007). Exerpt from the Wikipedia entry:
The Polywell is a plasma confinement concept that combines elements of inertial electrostatic confinement and magnetic confinement fusion, intended ultimately to produce fusion power. The geometry is a polyhedral configuration of electromagnets, within which the magnetic fields confine a cloud of electrons. The “quasi-spherical” negative electric potential well created by the electrons is in turn used to accelerate and confine ions, which will then undergo nuclear fusion. It was developed by Robert Bussard under a US Navy research contract as an improvement of the Farnsworth-Hirsch fusor.
… In August 2007, EMC2 received a $2M U.S. Navy research contract to continue the reactor development. Following Bussard’s death in October, 2007, Richard Nebel took the helm on the Polywell design team at EMC2, and the latest experimental device, WB-7, achieved “1st plasma” in early January, 2008. Depending on the results of ongoing experiments, the research could continue in pursuit of the final full-sized model.
Yes, this Hirsch is Robert Hirsch — head of the US Fusion program during the 1970′s. See his articles here.
Still in the experimental stage, Polywell is probably of little relevance to our adaption to Peak Oil. Radical new technology usually takes several decades to perfect, commercialize, and develop on a large scale. On the other hand, projects like this are of the greatest significance for the long-term future of America — and all humanity.
Reading the history should bring tears to the eyes of any American. One of our greatest physicists has a potentially breakthrough concept addressing one of our most critical national problems — and has to scratch to obtain even minimal funding. We spend one or two trillion dollars, without forethought or plan, on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But investing in the kind of research that has so greatly rewarded us in the past — that is too risky a gamble for our leaders in Washington. Meanwhile, our super-rich donate unimaginable fortunes to their collections, bidding against each other to send the fixed supply of art and antiques soaring in price.
Our descendents will not understand.
Other sources of current news about the polywell
- The blog of M. Simon, IEC Fusion Technology. IEC = inertial electrostatic confinement.
- “The World’s Simplest Fusion Reactor Revisited“, Tom Ligon, Analog Science Fiction and Fact (January-February 2008) — “The Not-Quite-So-Simple Fusion Reactor, and How They Made It Work” (pdf). An easy to read, non-technical description of the polywell, its history and promise.
- EMC2 Fusion Development Corporation’s website – EMC2 is a a charitable research and development organization in frontier energy technologies with emphasis on fusion. At the bottom of the page are links to key articles about the polywell. (EMC2 — it’s a pun)
- For a current report on the progress of the three paths to fusion: “”The Far-off Fusion Race“, MSNBC (2 May 2008)
For more information about Peak Oil
- When will global oil production peak? Here is the answer! (1 November 2008)
- The most dangerous form of Peak Oil (8 April 2008)
- The world changed last week, with no headlines to mark the news (25 April 2008)
- Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off (8 May 2008)
Here is an archive of my articles about Peak Oil.
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