Fusion-energy promises yield stimulus cash
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The company that landed the largest direct contract awarded in Santa Fe under Pres. Barrack Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill didn’t exactly promise the moon and the stars. What Energy/Matter Conversion Corp. (EMC2 Fusion) of Santa Fe has often promised is the power that lights the stars.
If the claims of EMC2 Fusion founder Robert Bussard prove true, the world soon could be on a fast track toward abundant low-cost energy produced in clean, radiation-free nuclear-fusion plants. At the time this article was posted, EMC2 Fusion’s Website proposed a working fusion reactor in four years.
The company’s lead researcher says the technology might produce electricity at a cost of 2 to 5 cents a kilowatt. New coal or gas-fired plants currently produce electricity for about 9 or 10 cents a kilowatt.
“So if this technology works it will be like a silver bullet, and be fundamentally superior to any competing technology. The issue is whether it works or not,” Richard Nebel told Nextbigfuture.com in 2009.
Nebel, on leave from a job at Los Alamos National Laboratory, took over the research after Robert Bussard, 79, died in 2007 in Sante Fe. The ambitious company’s small Parkway Drive office in Santa Fe is identified only by a sheet of office paper taped to the inside of the door.
Under the 2009 contract, results in the form of a report were due this year at the end of April. Whatever the taxpayer-funded research reveals, the results reported to the fed in recent days may remain clouded by a curtain of secrecy. Under contract with the Dept. of Defense, EMC2 Fusion has been barred from saying much about their experiments.
What the public knows about the research comes from the confident claims of the company’s late founder, and the more moderate statements of his successor. According to Bussard, other laboratories have not attempted to duplicate his work because his company holds a patent on the technology.
A comparison of Bussard’s and Nebel’s public statements reveals some stark differences between the inventor’s view and those of the man who took over his research. Bussard was confident he’d found a way to feed the world’s growing hunger for energy. Nebel’s statements, on the other hand, often betray a shadow of doubt in a low-key research program that so far has cost U.S. taxpayers $35 million.
It works, Bussard told employees at search-engine giant Google, where he was invited to brief the company’s staff in a 2006. Bussard said he had achieved breakthrough results in a series of experiments that ended prematurely after his hastily built equipment disintegrated as a result of an electrical short.
In a talk dubbed “Should Google Go Nuclear” he suggested that Google might want to foot the bill for what he was certain could be a definitive step into the era of abundant, low-cost energy.
“The physics problems are gone. The engineering problems are what we have to do,” Bussard told the Google staffers.
Bussard’s confident speech to Google employees mirrored his assessment that same year in a report to the 57th International Aeronautical Congress.
“Success has been achieved from research and development work conducted since 1986 on a unique concept for creating and controlling nuclear fusion reactions… Final design insights were proven by experiment in Oct/Nov 2005, from which full-scale designs can be determined,” Bussard wrote.
In that paper, Bussard also held out the allure of super-cheap spaceflight. His proposed that fusion could power rocketships for 1/100th the current cost of spaceflight. He just needed a few million dollars to demonstrate what he said he’d proven in his laboratory.
“This demonstration will require about $200 M (USD) over 5 years… It will open the door to superperformance, practical, economical spaceflight, as well as clean fusion power, and mark the end of dependence on fossil fuels,” Brussard wrote.
It wasn’t Bussard’s first space-flight proposal. He once worked with NASA to develop fission powered rockets – a program the space agency later abandoned.
His work so far has found little purchase among private-sector investors, but Bussard’s inventions are forever enshrined in popular culture. A generation of Star Trek fans grew up watching space ships powered by Bussard Ramjets. Writers adopted the idea from one of Bussard’s early proposals, which other researchers later found infeasible for space flight beyond the realm of science fiction.
The promise that more research dollars will make fusion reactors feasible has long been a familiar chorus among fusion advocates. Bussard assured Congress in 1995 that a radiation-free fusion reactor could then be built within 10 years — if only someone would fully fund his research ambitions.
By his account a decade later, Bussard never got more than one-tenth of the funds he said he needed to build a working demonstration of his concept. The source of money that fueled the novel fusion experiments, with the exception of $150,000, has usually been the fed, at least according to a summary posted on the company’s Web site.
Including $7.85 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Bussard and his successors at EMC2 Fusion since 1986 have spent $35 million developing his novel approach to nuclear fusion.
According to Bussard, the reason fusion hasn’t yet been developed into a commercial process has more to do with a lack of public spending than it is a factor of the scientific and engineering problems that hamper efforts to control a nuclear process inside a magnetic crucible where temperatures reach 100 million degrees.
“It was clear from the beginning of this work (and has been so told to the DoD since 1987) that 10x more funds and people were needed, and the estimates of program size, scope and scale required for net power fusion systems have hardly varied over the past 13 years,” Bussard wrote.
After his experimental reactor failed in 2005, Bussard did not want to build another small scale reactor. He said the test reactors he’d built so far were just not big enough to demonstrate what he claimed to have proven in energy-intensive experiments that each lasted a tiny fraction of a second.
“Essentially all the research and development work that can be usefully done at the small scale available with the program limited budgets has been done,” Bussard wrote in the paper to the astronautical society in 2006.
The small reactors his federally funded research budget could afford heated up too fast, Bussard wrote. In the devices his federal funding afforded, “It is thus not possible to test at steady state all of the physics working in concert.”
In a paper that repeatedly referenced his formulaic price tag for a fusion reactor he said it would cost about six times what has been spent so far on his patented process – “($)1.5 m for DD(hydrogen fusion), ($)2 m for pB11(boron fusion)” – to develop what he believed would be a controlled fusion process that yields more energy than is required to ignite the reaction.
If he or his successors at EMC2 Fusion succeed, they will have accomplished something nobody in the world has yet achieved. Despite billions of dollars in mostly public money burned up in fusion research by several nations, so far nobody has created a controlled fusion reaction that produces more energy than is required to ignite the process.
Fraudulent budgets, sketchy results
In his talk to Google, Bussard said if the U.S. doesn’t develop his patented approach to fusion, some other nation will – maybe China, or Argentina or Brazil, he said.
“I think we have a lot of people around the world who don’t have the mental constraints we have in this country,” Bussard said.
He alluded to a publishing embargo related to his Dept. of Defense contracts, but said he would prefer to give away the technology if he can’t find investors willing to fund development of his technology.
He made similar comments in a letter attributed to him and posted in an online forum operated by the James Randi Educational Foundation, dedicated to skeptical review of unusual scientific or metaphysical claims. In that letter, Bussard attributed part of the problem in attracting private investors to what he called a fraud he started when he was deputy director of the Atomic Energy Commission.
“…who knows if any investor singly or a group can or will come up with the money.” Bussard reportedly wrote on the skeptic’s Web site. “One of the biggest obstacles is the world-wide tokamak lobby, which perpetuates the fraud that (Robert) Hirsch, (Alvin) Trivelpiece and I foisted on the country in the 1970′s when we started the big tokamak ball rolling.”
His comments to the skeptics’ Web site echoed what he’d told Congress a decade earlier. Bussard admitted he and fellow execs at the AEC and Department of Energy padded their budgets to sneak projects they considered hopeful under the radar of Congressional oversight.
When he earlier had helped write the AEC budget for fusion research, Bussard wrote to then House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995, “…we raised the budget in order to take 20% off the top of the larger funding, to try all of the hopeful new things that the mainline labs would not try.”
The “big tokamak ball” is an international project that otherwise represents the world-wide vanguard of fusion-energy research. Compared to the money several nations have so far poured into the “big ball” international fusion experiment in France, labeled ITER, the approach to fusion energy Bussard proposed late in his life offered super-sized results at bargain-basement prices.
At a price of $20 billion and rising, the ITER project in France is not expected to yield a marketable energy source before 2050, even by developers’ best estimates. The United States Department of Energy has anted into that project for about 9 percent of the cost.
Investors want proof
For potential investors, the business model Bussard proposed to the Google crowd would be mind boggling. He suggested annual profits in excess of $100 billion for leasing his proposed Polywell fusion reactors around the world.
Yet the problem in winning investors’ trust, he suggested, has more to do with attitudes than with science. Besides a fruitless and fraudulent big-budget fusion research program he and his peers cooked up while he worked at the AEC, which undermined investor confidence in the ability of fusion technology to deliver marketable energy, there were other problems, Bussard said.
Energy companies will never support an alternative technology as long as there was profit to be had pumping oil from the ground, he claimed. And, he added, the Bush administration cut money for his ongoing research because they were more interested in fighting roadside bombs in Iraq.
Again, his successor at EMC2 Fusion took a more understanding view of why investors aren’t beating down the door of EMC2′s modest office on Parkway Drive in Santa Fe. What’s more, contrary to the report on the company Web site that lists only federal funding, Nebel told NextBigFuture.com in 2009 there were several private funding sources behind the company’s ongoing research.
“There are, but I am not at liberty to discuss that at this point. We currently have multiple funding sources, and certain corporations and private organizations are very interested in this technology,” Nebel said.
“We have had numerous inquiries from various sources, and we tend to be forthright and explain the inherent risks involved. Some corporations are more amenable to funding high-risk projects than others,” Nebel told a reporter at the futurist-minded Web site.
Bussard’s comments to Google weren’t nearly as sympathetic to potential investors as is Nebel’s view, but other analysts paint an even darker picture. Some see a world-wide conspiracy lurking behind Congress’s refusal to pour more taxpayer money into research that private investors won’t otherwise support.
“Bussard’s concept and many other promising fusion concepts never received the funding they deserved because of the fundamental shift in the United States away from progress and for a Malthusian policy of population control, which began in the late 1960s,” responded Mary Hecht, managing editor of 21st Century Science & Technology, in response to an open inquiry from the Watchdog distributed to several nuclear energy advocates.
“The intention was not to fund technologies that could provide for virtually unlimited population growth, by assuring prosperity,” Hecht wrote.
That publication publishes articles arguing against the belief that global climate change is a result of human activity, and that refute claims the world has a limited capacity to support human population. Nonetheless, the publication editorializes that “Fusion is absolutely necessary.”
The conspiratorial view, coupled with a belief that taxpayers should bear the burden of developing technology that will assure individual wealth, follows a line of reasoning that has long been part of the fusion debate. 21st Century Science and Technology is the successor publication to Fusion magazine, which was the official publication of the Fusion Energy Foundation, a think tank established by perennial outsider Democrat presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche and Manhattan Project veteran Robert Moon. (The original Fusion magazine is not the same publication as conservative radio and TV personality Glenn Beck’s publication of the same name. The original Fusion magazine was closed after federal prosecutors moved to collect contempt of court fines associated with the publisher’s failure to cooperate with an investigation of fund-raising practices)
The specter of conspiracy and dire views of investor motivations notwithstanding, at least one other fusion researchers shares Nebel’s empathy for investors who see more risk than potential profit in an as-yet-unproven technology. In a New York Time’s article titled “Practical Fusion, or Just a Bubble?” UCLA professor of physics Seth Putterman said researchers simply haven’t offered enough proof of their claims to erase doubts.
“Maybe that’s the brutal answer. People are waiting for it to work,” Putterman told the New York Times.
Update: A reader forwarded the Watchdog a link to an item detailing the interest of late Penthouse magazine founder Bob Guccione in Bussard’s fusion research… http://www.iter.org/fr/newsline/151/468