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.Dr Nebel has been rather quiet lately in the usual forum he frequents, so this update is very welcome to all us grass-roots fusion fans.
"We're kind of a combination of high tech and Home Depot, because a lot of this stuff we make ourselves," Nebel told me today. "We're operating out of a glorified garage, but it's appropriate for what we're doing."Now compare "We're operating out of a glorified garage... with ITER's 30 % cost over run so far.
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."
an independent panel of experts will be coming to Santa Fe this summer to review the WB-7 experiment, Nebel said."Warts and all now isn't that refreshing.
"We're going to show them the whole thing, warts and all," he said.
Because of the complexity, it will take some interpretation to determine exactly how the experiment is turning out. "The answers are going to be kind of nuanced," Nebel said.
The experts' assessment will feed into the decision on whether to move forward with larger-scale tests. Nebel said he won't discuss the data publicly until his funders have made that decision.
Nebel may be low-key about the experiment, but he has high hopes for Bussard's Polywell fusion concept. If it works the way Nebel hopes, the system could open the way for larger-scale, commercially viable fusion reactors and even new types of space propulsion systems.With my typical engineering sensibilities I still think some intermediate steps would be required. Like a continuously operating experiment. It need not be a very big machine but it will require a big power supply. It might need to draw 4 to 6 MW on start up. In fact it might need that for the whole duration of operation. The machine scales in a funny way. Coil power (for a copper coil demo) goes up as the reactor gets large but the accelerator power goes down.
"We're looking at power generation with this machine," Nebel said. "This machine is so inexpensive going into the 100-megawatt range that there's no compelling reason for not just doing it. We're trying to take bigger steps than you would with a conventional fusion machine."
Over the next decade, billions of dollars are due to be spent on the most conventional approach to nuclear fusion, which is based on a magnetic confinement device known as a tokamak. The $13 billion ITER experimental plasma project is just starting to take shape in France, and there's already talk that bigger budgets and longer timetables will be required.By God I hope it works out.
If the Polywell system's worth is proven, that could provide a cheaper, faster route to the same goal - and that's why there's a groundswell of grass-roots interest in Nebel's progress. What's more, a large-scale Polywell device could use cleaner fusion fuels - for example, lunar helium-3, or hydrogen and boron ions. Nebel eventually hopes to make use of the hydrogen-boron combination, known as pB11 fusion.
"The reason that advanced fuels are so hard for conventional fusion machines is that you have to go to high temperatures," Nebel explained. "High temperatures are difficult on a conventional fusion machine. ... If you look at electrostatics, high temperatures aren't hard. High temperatures are high voltage."
Most researchers would see conventional tokamak machines as the safer route to commercial fusion power. There's a chance that Bussard's Polywell dream will prove illusory, due to scientific or engineering bugaboos yet to be revealed. But even though Nebel can't yet talk about the data, he's proud that he and his colleagues at Emc2 have gotten so far so quickly.
"By God, we built a laboratory and an experiment in nine months," he said, "and we're getting data out of it."
If you want to know what you can do to help have a look at Starting A Fusion Program In Your Home Town.