You won't hear Rick Nebel talking about fusion as a challenge requiring billions of dollars and decades of experimentation. For the past couple of years, Nebel heads up a handful of researchers following the less-traveled path to fusion at EMC2 Fusion Development Corp. in Santa Fe, N.M. That path involves creating a high-voltage chamber to sling ions so energetically at each other that at least some of them fuse and release energy.Now that is a really different attitude from what has gone on in ITER. It was obvious to me a few years ago that the program was in trouble. But only in the last year have they admitted it by slipping the schedule by almost three years. So far.
EMC2 recently created a buzz in the fusion underground by reporting on its Web site that a series of experiments was able to "validate and extend" earlier results reported by the late physicist Robert Bussard. The company is now using a $7.9 million contract from the U.S. Navy to build a bigger test machine, known as WB-8. (WB stands for "Wiffle Ball," which refers to the shape of the machine's magnetic fields.)
What's more, Nebel and his colleagues are now seeking contributions to fund the development of what they say would be a 100-megawatt fusion plant - a "Phase 3" effort projected to cost $200 million and take four years.
"Successful Phase 3 marks the end of fossil fuels," the Web site proclaims.
Success isn't assured. The WB-8 experiment could conceivably show that the approach pioneered by Bussard, known as inertial electrostatic confinement fusion or IEC fusion, can't be scaled up to produce more power than it consumes. And if Nebel's team comes to that conclusion, he doesn't plan to pull any punches.
"No B.S. and no excuses," Nebel told me over the weekend. "If it looks like we have a problem with this, we're going to tell them."
You can read my earlier post on what I learned from EMC2 at WB-D which has some nice pictures of experiments and their proposed 100 MW device.