A long-shot project for fusion power: the Polywell

Here is an update on that long-shot path to fusion:  the polywell.

The polywell is the last work of that giant in the world of physics, Robert W. Bussard (who passed over in October 2007).  Excerpt 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.

FM note:  Yes, this Hirsch is Robert Hirsch — head of the US Fusion program during the 1970’s.  See his articles here.

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 (slightly edited):

Fusion R&D Phase 1 – Validate and review WB-6 results.  Time:  1.5 – 2 years.  Cost estimate:  $3-5 million.
Fusion R&D Phase 2 – Design, build and test full scale 100 MW Fusion System (a large pilot plant).  Time:  5 years.  Cost estimate:  $200 million.

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.

The 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.

There are rumors that the head of the review panel is Robert Hirsch.  If so, that would be a good sign that the process is being well managed and receiving due attention (as in “when you care to send the very best”).  About Hirsch:  see the FM reference page about Peak Oil and Energy for his bio and links to his major works.  Here are links to some of the rumors about his involvement:  here and here.

A guess about the next step

On the basis of this article, my guess is that they will get the pittance required from the government (Navy, DARPA, or DOE) to continue research, but insufficient funding to substantially increase the project’s activities and assault phase 2. 

The frenzied speculation about a rapid jump to phase 2, then to phase 3, is IMO probably unjustified at this time.  Typical premature jubilation about emerging technologies, which drives the project’s supporters but can arouse unjustified hopes in the general population.

Update:  28 October 2008

The Navy filed a presolicitation notice notice for what is in effect a grant to Energy Matter Conversion Corp to continue work on the Polywell.  This looks like interim funding, to keep the project going until a decision can be made — and funding obtained — for the next phase of development.  (Hat tip to New Energy and Fuel)

For more information

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance to this topic:

On the FM site about fusion:

  1. Fusion energy, too risky a bet for America (we prefer to rely on war) , 4 May 2008
  2. An urban legend to comfort America: alternative energy will save us, 16 September 2008
  3. A look back at our time from the 2100 A.D. edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 24 June 2010
  4. Could a new “Manhattan Project” produce radically new energy sources?, 29 June 2010

Other sources of informatio about the Polywell:

  1. Overview of fusion nuclear technology in the US“, Fusion Engineering and Design, Feburary 2006
  2. Comment by Dr. Bussard, posted at the forum of the James Randi Educational Foundation, 23 June 2006 — Excellent background on the Polywell project.
  3. 100MW net power Polywell fusion reactor“, Roger Fox, posted at the Daily Kos, 1 July 2008
  4. The next Bussard IEC fusion reactor could be 100MW size producing net energy“, posted at Next Big Future, 7 July 2008
  5. Talk Polywell — a discussion forum about Polywell fusion.

Afterword and contact info

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12 thoughts on “A long-shot project for fusion power: the Polywell

  • The first phase contract of $1.8 million ended on 22 Sept according to Physicist Rick Nebel. Experiments were completed on time and substantially within budget according to Rick. Results will be announced when the funding authority chooses. You can verify all that by doing a search of rnebel at Talk Polywell.

    I discuss here why ITER is the wrong way to go and what a real fusion program would look like: ITER vs The Stone Axe, posted at IEC Fusion Technology.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thanks for the update!

    IMO Nebel says little of interest to a general audience in his comments on Talk Polywell, part of the overall lack of PR for the project. The most interesting comment I found was this— that they might be able to build a working Polywell in 5 years (he does not define “working”, but I think we all get the drift):

    Comment by JMC: “Regarding fusion coming too late, the same might well be said for the Polywell approach, while I would reject it out right, if a functioning Polywell reactor is built in 5 years as Bussard said I would be astounded.”

    Nebel: “If p-B11 works, 5 years isn’t unrealistic. The engineering on these systems isn’t all that bad. Getting away from D-T makes it a lot easier.”

    Dr. Nebel refers to p-B11, a type of fusion. See Wikipedia for more on this.


  • Thanks Fabius Maximus for helping to bring attention to the Polywell project. Dr Nebel has expressed interest in building the next one, as outlined in the D-Kos dairy you have already cited. My guess is that this would be a scaled up version of WB-7, theoretically capable of net power. It may be a Polywell of about 2 meters fueled by DD, operating in pulse mode as was WB-7, could be built in under 2 yrs. For only a few of tens of millions (20-30).

    Dr Nebel seems to want to go for net power, but there are multiple routes that can be taken at the same time, a small scale LN2 cooled device, capable of running for 100’s of seconds, makes a good platform to develop fuel injection as well as exploring possible PB-11 reactions.

    Either way, achieving net power and PB_11 fusion are game changers, and signal the end of the toroidal approach.


  • I’m not interested in how it works. It’s been predicted since I think the 60’s that fusion power is at most 50 years in the future. I am interested in whether this figure finally begins to become smaller.


  • Great news, ITER is the big game in town, but it sure helps to have a backup. It would be superb if the US (and other countries) threw some (at least reasonble) funding towards it, just throw a billion or so from their ‘rescue’ packages. Unfortunately, though $700B to bail out Wall st is possible, the US cannot even seem to find a few hundred million for ITER!

    This design is not so developed as the tokamak design (ah la ITER), but it definitely seems to have serious potential, though as we all know, moving from a research reactor to a production one is a long process. There will be problems scaling it up, but it would be crazy not to have a ‘plan B’ in the wings if the ITER starts to hit some serious delays. Not only that, the idea of an iterim design, that is reasonable but works, with a better design following up (this happened when we developed fission reactors) is a very sane and sensible approach.

    The old question “are humans smarter than yeast”? If we were then we would be funding at least 2, more probably several approaches to fusion plants (there are some other designs around with potential as well). Just think, the bonuses paid to Goldman Sach executives just last year would probably deliver fusion power, which pretty much answers the question doesn’t it.


  • I should add, after reading some Australian blogs, is that the pessimism about ITER amazes me.

    Is it a “not invented by anglo saxons” syndrome. The whole World is behind ITER, German, French, Russian (their invention no less), Chinese, Japanese, etc. These are the leading scientific and industrial countries of the world (the US, UK, Australia, etc are not). A bit more confidence guys.


  • Unfortunately the Australian Government is not the sort of government that would risk investing in visionary R&D. I think we are the only “developed” country to not have a national space program I beleive.

    Even Nigeria has one … Says a lot doesn’t it?


  • I watched Bussard’s entire lecture at google on google video. It honestly seemed like he was trying to sell the time machine in the movie ‘Napoleon Dynamite’. “Wait I forgot the crystals!” Bussard is going to need to get a better, more realistic sounding spokesman.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The late Dr. Bussard was one of the greatest physicists of his time. He had to sell his idea because there was nobody else able to do so. He could hardly hire a salesman on a commission basis, and his grants barely paid for the necessities of the project.


  • Has anyone considered that if the Polywell design works we can kiss any hope of controling nuclear weapons proliferation goodby. A DT fueled fusion reactor would be a huge neutron source. Any supply of U238, including depleted uranium armor piercing rounds dug from the sands of Iraq, could be transmuted into plutonium. This would put fission bombs in the hands of anyone with the money to buy a Polywell reactor once they become commercialy available. How many governments, corporations and extremist groups will become nuclear powers? The affordability of Polywell which makes it a possible silver bullet for both global warming and the energy crisis is the very thing that makes it a threat to civilization.
    Fabius Maximus replies: As designed, the Polywell is an aneutronic fusion device (i.e., where no more than 1% of the total energy released is carried by neutrons; see Wikipedia). Hence no proliferation problem. However, a technologically sophisticated user probably could design a polywell to use Deuterium-Tritium as fuel, producing neutrons (see Wikipedia).

    It’s all a theoretical problem at present. The Polywell project is on life support, so both hopes and fears should be on hold.


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