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Dr. Robert Bussard and IEC fusion reactors

Discussion in 'Energy, Environment, and Policy' started by tonybelding, Nov 19, 2006.

  1. tonybelding

    tonybelding Active Member

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    I first read about inertial electrostatic confinement (IEC) fusion reactors in the Dec 1998 issue of Analog and became quite enthused, but it seemed like I never heard anything further about the topic. As years went by with no news, I had to assume the idea turned out to be a technological dead end.

    Little did I imagine, EMC2's contract with the US Navy prevented them from publishing anything or talking about any specifics of what they were doing. That situation continued until very recently when budget tightening (prompted by the War in Iraq) forced the Navy to shut down all their energy research -- not just IEC fusion, they cut off everything.

    Now Dr. Robert Bussard has surfaced claiming that right at the end of the project they figured out how to solve the problem. Their final experimental reactor, he says, was a success. It produced 100,000 times higher rate of fusion reactions than previous IEC designs.

    They've completely gotten rid of the electrode grid in the middle of the reactor. They've replaced it with a magnetic field. The reasoning being, they can use the magnetic field to trap electrons in the center of the reaction chamber, which creates a virtual electrode. Meanwhile, the positive ions are too massive to be affected much and can flow freely through the system without hindrance.

    Now Bussard is pitching a proposal to build a new reactor and repeat the experiment with better instrumentation. This would cost about one or two million dollars, and would be followed by convening a panel of experts to evaluate the results. If they confirm the potential that Bussard believes it has, then the next step would be construction of a full-scale prototype for $150 million (using D+T) or $200 million (using P+B11).

    The P+B11 (proton fuses with a boron-11 isotope) fuel cycle is particularly interesting since it produces no neutron emissions or radioactive by-products. The end products of the reaction are only helium atoms. It may also be possible to derive electrical power directly from this reaction with upwards of 90% efficiency, rather than having to go through the whole thermal conversion of steam-and-turbines that conventional reactors require.

    The name Bussard should ring a bell, since he's known in science fiction circles for inventing the idea of the Bussard ramjet for interstellar propulsion. What I didn't know was that he also co-founded (with Robert Hirsch) the US nuclear fusion program, which is mostly based on Tokamak research. He doesn't have many kind things to say about Tokamaks (superconducting cathedrals!) these days, though.

    Here's an interesting quote: "The R&D device to build is small and fixed and quick and cheap -- quick and cheap not compared to my budget, but quick and cheap compared to the eighteen billion dollars we've spent -- and it's straightforward testing of critical physics. These are all classical physics machines, and that's one of our problems in finding people to hire. Nobody's trained in gaseous electronics anymore, nobody's trained in gyrotrons and thyratrons. You can't find people who do the work of (Irving) Langmuir in the 20s and 30s and that's what we need."

    Check out his presentation:
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=1996321846673788606

    I've watched the presentation a couple of times. The first time I couldn't understand most of what he was saying. The second time I learned more about fusion reactors than I ever imagined knowing. I'm convinced his experiment needs to be done (or re-done, really). It's at least as promising as ITER -- probably moreso -- and the cost would be far less.

    Google recently paid $1600 million dollars for YouTube. Their annual electricity bill probably isn't much less than $200 million. Somebody, somewhere in the world, needs to step forward and fund this. If nobody does, then our civilization really deserves to lay down and die.
     
  2. asdar

    asdar Member

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    That's fascinating, and such a respected name to lead it all.

    I hope someone does step forward and start this off. I wish I knew more about the way this all works. I kind of have a vague understanding of the Tokamak, but not as much as I'd like.
     
  3. Tesla2Go

    Tesla2Go Member

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    My head hurts.....very interesting presentation but, if we already have a fusion reactor called the sun, wouldn't it make more sense to just use solar panels for our energy needs? No matter how energy is produced, if it's controlled by a few it will always be used as political "blackmail" tool. With solar panels many more people can become their own energy producers, it's one step closer to true democracy, independance and equality in my view.
     
  4. tonybelding

    tonybelding Active Member

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    As a power source, these fusion reactors would have none of the severe limitations that plague solar power. You wouldn't have to cover vast tracts of land with solar panels or concentrators. Building fusion plant would be far cheaper than covering miles of country with solar cells. And the fusion plant can run 24/7, rain or shine, producing power on demand. It can also be fitted into oceangoing ships -- and eventually spacecraft.

    Solar is very promising, but I have a hard time seeing it ever providing all our electrical needs. As I look ahead, I see our civilization being powered by a combination of renewables (with solar being the most prominent) and nuclear power. If fusion doesn't work, then we'll have to build fission reactors. Obviously I would prefer fusion!
     

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