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:
- Fusion energy, too risky a bet for America (we prefer to rely on war) , 4 May 2008
- An urban legend to comfort America: alternative energy will save us, 16 September 2008
- A look back at our time from the 2100 A.D. edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 24 June 2010
- Could a new “Manhattan Project” produce radically new energy sources?, 29 June 2010
Other sources of informatio about the Polywell:
- “Overview of fusion nuclear technology in the US“, Fusion Engineering and Design, Feburary 2006
- Comment by Dr. Bussard, posted at the forum of the James Randi Educational Foundation, 23 June 2006 — Excellent background on the Polywell project.
- “100MW net power Polywell fusion reactor“, Roger Fox, posted at the Daily Kos, 1 July 2008
- “The next Bussard IEC fusion reactor could be 100MW size producing net energy“, posted at Next Big Future, 7 July 2008
- Talk Polywell — a discussion forum about Polywell fusion.
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