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

  1. The blog of M. Simon, IEC Fusion Technology.  IEC = inertial electrostatic confinement.
  2. 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.
  3. 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)
  4. 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

  1. When will global oil production peak? Here is the answer! (1 November 2008)
  2. The most dangerous form of Peak Oil  (8 April 2008)
  3. The world changed last week, with no headlines to mark the news   (25 April 2008)
  4. Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off  (8 May 2008)

Here is an archive of my articles about Peak Oil.

Afterword and contact info

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13 thoughts on “Fusion energy, too risky a bet for America (we prefer to rely on war)

  1. Yes it is a crying shame that such very promising research literally has to go begging for funds. Several decades ago Dr. Jerry Pournelle commented that since we were going broke anyway we should gamble big time and pur money into a large number of advanced research projects. If even one of them paid off it would pay for all the others and then some. His advice is even more relevant today, one big break through could spawn whole new industries that we would be world leaders in. It’s the sort of thing that would revive or economic infrastructure and help erase or current accounts deficit.

  2. One aspect of this is our approach to R&D in general. If there is a solution to any number of problems, energy, global warming, AIDS, etc., then R&D is necessary to discover it.

    Government sponsored R&D is one possible approach. Let the government develop the Internet and eventually blogs will spread. And so forth.

    Yet the the American approach to R&D has been private. Hence the heavy emphasis on Intellectual Property, as an incentive for private R&D. One problem – and IMHO there are many others – with private R&D is that it is constrained to those subjects which appear likely to yield present returns. Long term, speculative, far fetched type R&D – that which could yield fusion or what not type radical new solutions – are not viable.

    The other type of non-government R&D is the John Robb style of open source development – modeled after Linux and other open source projects. This , too, is antithetical to current Intellectual Property.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: How much of US research is funded by for-profit entities? There is a definitional problem here, do we include research on new soaps and floor polish?

    I’ll guess it is probably less than half, perhaps less than one quarter. The private scientist making breakthoughs is not a myth, but a tiny part of the whole. National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, DARPA, university funding, foundation funding — not only is this a big slice of the pie, it is most of the “pure” research. The Navy funds the polywell.
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    Quoting from Wikipedia: “Similarly, with some exceptions (e.g. biotechnology) government provides the bulk of the funds for basic scientific research. In commercial research and development, all but the most research-oriented corporations focus more heavily on near-term commercialisation possibilities than “blue-sky” ideas or technologies (such as nuclear fusion).”

  3. Duncan, but the US R&D is badly skewed toward defence spending, which is unproductive in economic terms. If even a low fraction of its R&D (private and public) spending had been put into more productive areas over the last 3 or 4 decades it would not be in the mess it is in now.

    The polywell plasma confinement concept is interesting and has great promise, though the World has gone for the Tokamak design (Russian design) in the ITER, which has also shown great promise as a design.

    Part of this has been the paltry funding, until very recently, of fusion. I would prefer a couple, or even 3 designs being turned into pre-production models, 1 or even 2 might fail but 1 would come though. You could even see a 2 stage process, with 1 design being the interim one followed by a later, more efficient design after more R&D.

    I personally think the ITER will be success (even a great success), but I’d feel more confident if at least a couple of designs were being trialed.

    Given the minute sums of money being spent, compared to:
    Advertising of cosmetics,
    A Virginia class sub fleet,
    A B-2 fleet of planes you can never use, except where there is no possible oppostition.
    The vapourware F-35 (the most expensive computer program in the world).
    And of course the Afghanisatan/Iraq wars.

    Then unfortunately you have to question the collective intelligence of humanity. Because if we don’t crack fusion, and soon, then the human race’s long term future is living in caves picking nits off each other.

    Note that the US just cut its commitment to ITER a month or so ago, so what does that day? Fortunately Russians, Chinese or the EU (excluding the UK) will fill in the gap.

  4. Another way of looking it is chasing easy over hard money (I’m on a roll, because it is something I’ve complained about for decades).

    The FIRE economy (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) is easy. Don’t believe the nonsense about finance being difficult. The average meteorological model is light years more complex than anything in FIRE. Look I built the most complex insurance model in the World (finished it in 1998 and its still not been beat). And I know it is NOTHING compared to a climate model, or an aerodynamic model, let alone QED models, or, as a friend of mine did, a model of an electrons path through crystals.

    Real wealth creation is hard work. Hard intellectually, hard emotionally, hard physically (depending on industry of course). It is easier to move imaginary money around and take your cut along the way. And pretend you are making something.

    I’ve aways called it the ‘Gentlemans economy’, never get you hands dirty, just trade in money and chat with your ‘masters of the universe’ friends at your club about how clever you are. It is interesting to note that the masters of this have been mostly the Anglo-Saxon countries (plus the Swiss of course), a left over vestage of the English class system I’ve always thought.

    It is complete tosh of course, wealth is science, creativity and making things. The thing, of course, can be an object or a computer program or a drug or a new medical procedure or a …. But at its heart it improves quality and/or productivity.

    Read (or watch) the Hithchhikers Guide to Universe, when the protagonists end up on a a planet just colonised by the most useless third of the population that got rid of them (management consultants,et al). They invent money using leaves (= the Fed, etc) but no one can do anything useful. Thats the modern US, UK, (yes) Australian , etc, economies.

    The kick was in the HHGTTU… that was Earth.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree that the shift of the US economy from manufacturing to finance was unwise. This is part of a greater delusion, that we have an intellectual advantage over Asia. We can retain the high-value operations in the US — product development, marketing, finance — and outsource the low-value parts — mining, manufacturing — to others. A “platform company” is the ideal, in this delusional view. The next decade or so might be an unpleasant awakening.

  5. Update on the Polywell:

    … If the experiments turn out positive (expected since they are a confirmation of previous experiments) look for a full court press (possibly to the level of Manhattanization) to get this technology to market. Expected costs are less than 1/2 of today’s cost for thermal/electrical energy declining to 1/10th of today’s power costs. If the costs of energy are fixed by this type of reactor then the cost of extracting oil declines. i.e. we may in 20 or 30 years find oil costs back in the $10 to $30 a bbl range. The technology is so disruptive that it is impossible to predict the major ramifications let alone the minor ones.

    For All Mankind“, IEC Fusion Technology (19 APril 2008)

    Just one possibility: using the neutrons produced from a Deuterium fueled reactor to make all kinds of new fission reactors possible. Another: using the reactors as heat generators making mining for oil and its conversion to fuel much less expensive.

    Another possibility: the reactors do not work according to their current theory of operation but the density increase made possible by this new method of confinement (65,000) may make thermal fusion feasible (as opposed to beam fusion which current theories posit).

    I do not expect a difficult transition in the liquid fuel market. Except for the Arabian oil producers. Heh.

  6. M Simon, the ‘spare’ neutrons are used usefully in the ITER (and other proposed) designs.

    Basically they are used to turn Lithium (which is abundent) into Tritium (which isnt). It is very clever, creating a virtually closed loop system. The long term hope is to eventually make tritium from deuterium (not so easy though), in which case the World truely has unlimited power available for virtually forever.

    Basically the World has decided to bet on the Tokamak. That’s because it has the best track record to date. But that is also a function of limited money. Fusion researchers have had to concentrate on the safest (not necessarily the best) concept.

    Personally I wish the purse strings had been opened a bit and funded 2 or 3 designs to the pre-production level. The Tokamak design would definately have been one and there is at least one other contender (and probably 2) that should be funded as well.

  7. Here’s hoping (though hope is not a strategy) that fusion advancements are accelerated (pun intended).

    Unfortunately, U.S. research for fusion is being cut: See “FY 2009 Budget Request for the Office of Science and Perspectives“, Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee Meeting (19 February 2008) — Slide 7:

    …The FY 2008 Omnibus Bill funding eliminated all US contributions to the ITER project, retaining only $10.6M for ITER R&D – Overall FES rises from $286.5M to $493.1M:

    – Calls into question the US commitment to fusion energy and U.S. credibility as an international partner; and

    – Increases the possibility that fusion will become a “donor” for shorter term priorities that do not address the Nation’s long term energy needs…

  8. Update on the Polywell

    EMC2 Fusion Development Corporation has been formed as a charitable research
    and development organization in frontier energy technologies with emphasis on fusion. From their website:

    Fusion R&D Phase 1 – Validate and review WB-6 results: 1.5 – 2 years / $3-5M.

    Fusion R&D Phase 2 – Design, build and test full scale 100 MW Fusion System: 5 years / $200M.

    They do not look further ahead. Phase 2 is a large pilot plant. The next step would be a demonstration plant — as a guess, another five years. Then comes the first commercial plant (a test-bed for large-scale implementation) — several more years, even on a crash basis. Assuming everything goes well, ignition on the first commercial plant is at over a decade away.

    Then commercial plants must be built, in large numbers at increasingly large scale. So a crash basis the earliest we could expect to see large-scale generation of electric power from polywells is roughly two decades from now. With normal problems in development, that could be three decades.

    Most recent news about the polywell: “FUSION QUEST GOES FORWARD“, MSNBC, 12 June 2008 — Excerpt:

    “Emc2 Fusion’s Richard Nebel can’t say yet whether his team’s garage-shop plasma experiment will lead to cheap, abundant fusion power. But he can say that after months of tweaking, the WB-7 device “runs like a top” – and he’s hoping to get definitive answers about a technology that has tantalized grass-roots fusion fans for years.

    “… The Emc2 team has been ramping up its tests over the past few months, with the aim of using WB-7 to verify Bussard’s WB-6 results. Today, Nebel said he’s confident that the answers will be forthcoming, one way or the other. ‘We’re fully operational and we’re getting data,’ Nebel said. ‘The machine runs like a top. You can just sit there and take data all afternoon.’

    “… Nebel said it’s way too early to talk about the answers to those questions. For one thing, it’s up to the project’s funders to assess the data. Toward that end, an independent panel of experts will be coming to Santa Fe this summer to review the WB-7 experiment, Nebel said.”

    *** For more information about the polywell project, see “The next Bussard IEC fusion reactor could be 100MW size producing net energy“, posted at Next Big Future, 7 July 2008.

  9. Meaningless. The amounts of money and the talent that it can apply (most now all working on ITER) is nothing. As I’ve said, I’d personally like at least 2 major approaches being tried, ITER the Tokomak design (well proven and will definitely work) and another.

    But there is no money. Now if only a little bit of all those trillions of dollars spent on ponzi schemes has been spent on something useful. Note a trillion is a million million. At its peak 65 trillion dollars was involved in the hedge funds. The US entire GDP was only 13 trillion at the time.

    An Apple story, a couple of guys in a garage making a computer? Not. They assembled a computer from components that required billions of dollars of investment to make them, they knew everything they used worked (the 6502 chip was well proven). This case? They have to make everything from scratch and do ground breaking research on the way. Basically a waste of time and money.

    ITER is the only game in town and if the US pulls out, then they will just have to pay more to buy them when they are made by the French, Japanese, Russians and Chinese.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not understand your grounds for dismissing the polywell before the results are in. I know some experts who believe it to be a long-shot, but with great potential. We will know the phase one results soon, so this debate is academic only.

  10. The US has lots of fusion experiments going on. The trouble with ITER is that if it works the utilities do not want it because it produces too much power in one location and it is high cost.

    It may be the best path to fusion. It may not be the best path to power.

    In any case I’m sure if in 10 or 20 years the ITER guys are making progress and nothing better has come along the US can buy in for maybe 10X what it would have otherwise cost us. In the mean time the US can pursue its multipronged approach. A smarter approach when there are so many unknowns.

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