An Industry Emerges
“We’re here to put a dent in the universe, otherwise why else even be here?” – Steve Jobs
ITER is expensive. Nobody knows how much. It could be 16, 21 or 50 billion dollars [9-12]. It is not going to be commercial at that price. Moreover, ITER will never make energy. That was fine, when it was the only path to fusion power. But that is not true anymore.
NIF has failed. It cannot get ignition . Even if it could, would it be commercial? The machine is complex. It is expensive and inefficient. Heaps of taxpayer dollars were spent on this. The public should be furious. Someone needs to be held accountable.
These efforts have stalled. Their future looks dim. But, we cannot wait fifty years for fusion power. Climate change will not allow us. Young fusioneers realize this. They are not joining ITER or NIF. They are joining a new breed of companies. Together, they are building an entirely new fusion industry. Their collective hope, is to put a dent in the universe.
This work examines alternative fusion as a fledgling industry. Fusion and climate news from July to November 2014 is summarized. An argument for alternatives over the laser or tokamak family of concepts is made. Alternative fusion includes: polywells, fusors, dense plasma focus, beam fusion, field reversed configurations and cusp confinement. It is estimated that this industry has ~450 million invested and engages ~330 people across ~12 organizations. These companies suffer from the classic first-mover problems: training talent, attracting capital and technical hurdles. Designs are compared using their neutron rates, shot time and energy extraction methods. The implications of the energy balance on conduction loss, radiation and efficiency is mentioned. Four new principals for fusion power are presented. These are: avoiding a thermalized ion cloud, electric heating, cusp confinement and direct conversion. The post ends with a discussion of the implications and potential of these changes.
In July, both Science and Nature reported on alternative fusion [31, 32]. This was a major milestone. It put a new spotlight on researchers who had been laboring away in obscurity. Natures’ article was more critical - covering Tri Alpha, Helion and General Fusion. The Science work was longer and upbeat. It detailed General Fusion, focus fusion, Tri Alpha and the polywell. The author, Daniel Clery was just publishing a great new book on fusion .
In August, Phoenix Nuclear Labs announced it could churn out 100 billion neutrons a second, for an entire day [34, 35]. Wow. That is 24 hours of constant fusion. This hints at what is possible when you use an electric field to heat ions to fusion conditions. Also in August, the US government finally moved into alternative fusion. ARPA-E started a program named alpha. The budget of 30 million should fund about ten projects . ARPA-E sees only two paths to fusion power. Laser fusion makes a high density plasma, while tokamaks makes a low density plasma. They want a third, middle range, high repetition option. By middle densities, they mean 1E18 to 1E23 ions per cubic centimeter . Dr. Bussards’ polywell got there (1E19) but Dr. Park’s did not (1E16) [18, 3]. This request says much more about the governments’ antiquated thinking. First, these new devices do not all pulse. Fusors can run continuously. Secondly, many schemes have no need for ‘drivers’ and ‘targets’. General Fusion and Tri Alpha are notable exceptions [19,20]. But, the polywell, the dynamak and Lockheeds’ designs do not work this way [21, 1, 27, 28].
In September, a fifth paper was published by the University of Sydney . Their old papers have been covered on this blog [39 - 45]. Their new polywell has better electron injectors and is ten times stronger. The team also built a new capacitance probe. Validating this probe was hard. This was used to measure the voltage in the polywell, under different conditions. This work is illustrated below.
The coil made electrons that were attracted to the positive rings. As they approached the magnetic field overpowered, drawing the electrons into the trap. The probe measured the amount trapped. The team found that trapping increased when more electrons were emitted. It also got stronger as the magnetic field rose. This is not surprising. Of the two variables, emission was more powerful. Trapping was connected to these variables with some rough math. You should read the paper yourself .
In October, Lockheed Martin revealed its fusion technology. This got international press [46 - 52]. Lockheed failed to give any data. They opted for a dreamy video and three patents [27, 28, 52]. This is unacceptable. We are building the case for fusion power. This is a long term effort. It can only be sustained by a community. A community of teachers, engineers, investors, policy makers, academics and businessmen. Everyone has a role here. The community needs to hear the newest data, presented in a clear manner. When this system breaks down – bad things happen. Lockheed should have done a paper before issuing a press release. Finally, the 16th IEC conference was held at University of Wisconsin Madison. The polywell had a big impact this year. Dr. Park gave a polywell keynote and Dr. Santarius discussed his modeling efforts . Devlin Baker premiered his excellent modeling code and George Miley discussed the IEC family of technologies. Dr. Hirsch predicted that ITER funding would fall and IEC research could rise in its’ place . It was a good conference.
As 2014 came to an end, the IPCC issued its’ most damning climate change report to date . The atmosphere and oceans have already warmed. The snow and ice packs have already melted. The sea has already risen. Carbon dioxide has reached levels not seen in the last 800,000 years . Ban Ki-moons’ words were unequivocal: “Science has spoken. Time is not on our side. Leaders must act” . Will leaders act? They have failed so far. Money seems to be the main obstacle. If you do not think money runs the world: ask someone with a job. Burning things for energy, is just so damn cheap. Fusion power could all change that. We are here to try for that solution. We must act, even if our leaders fail to do so. We are running out of time.
“If you can’t fly, then run, if you can’t run, then walk, if you can’t walk, then crawl, but by all means keep moving” – Martin Luther King
Old ideas are ending:
Traditionally, fusion has focused on any idea in the laser or tokamak family. Laser fusion means inertial confinement fusion. This includes: direct drive or indirect drive, fast ignition or magneto-inertial fusion . Basically, any time you are squashing stuff with a laser. This set of ideas has received over 12 billion in US funding in its’ fifty year lifespan . Currently, it has a poor outlook. The flagship machine, NIF, was costly and complex. It was also a colossal failure . The other family of ideas revolves around the tokamak. The tokamak family covers: spheromaks, the levitating dipole and all the stellerator designs [56, 57]. Basically anytime plasma is raced around in a loop. Over 177 tokamaks have been built, designed or operated. The newest version, ITER is very expensive, complex and behind schedule . Things are not going well.
Even attempts to commercialize the tokamak are not succeeding. Tokamak Energy is a British startup doing just that. It was founded in 2009 . But, after spending 10 million, the company is little more than a diversion for retired scientists. The staffs’ average age is over 60 [58 - 63]. They speculate about using the Tokamak as a neutron source. If this is their business model - they are going to get killed. Phoenix Nuclear Labs has already commercialized a smaller, cheaper and better neutron source. Their technology is based on fusors a much simpler path to fusion plasmas . Bottom line: tokamaks and lasers are on their way out.
This is a historic. For decades, our focus has been on just “getting there”. Merely getting fusion. This meant holding a hotter plasma with a higher density for longer. This is known in the field, as the triple product (density, temperature and confinement time). People ran roughshod over price, scalability, efficiency or size. No one cared: they built massive, expensive and complex machines. But today; we have arrived. We can do fusion - continuously - for thousands of hours, and for thousands of dollars [35, 22]. We are done with “getting there”. The next step is commercialization.
An alternative fusion industry:
Since 2000, a dozen fusion companies have been founded [73-105]. Together, they represent a fledgling new industry. The alternative fusion industry. What does this industry look like? I estimate that as of December 2014, it has roughly 450 million in total investment [73-105]. It also engages roughly 330 people [73-105]. These people are spread across a dozen organizations. A summary of some of the relevant groups is given below [73-105].
These firms are expanding several root technologies simultaneously. These are: polywells, fusors, dense plasma focus, beam fusion, field reversed configurations and cusp confinement. There is plenty of overlap. For example: general fusion has a hybrid between a field reversed configuration and a laser fusion style implosion . Because it is so new - the industry suffers the classic “first-mover” disadvantages. They have to find a way to get funding, train talent and solve incredible technical problems. The groups have plenty in common: determined founders, failures and funding issues. The collective goal is fusion energy - but there are differing views on how get there.
Paths to fusion power:
All these concepts work with plasma. This is a soup of electrons and ions. The goal for every idea is to make the ions collide and fuse. This makes neutrons. The more neutrons, the more fusion. Amateurs can make a million a second [22, 23]. Phoenix Nuclear Labs can do 100 billion while JET can do at least 16 quadrillion (the world record) [24, 65]. Next, you must sustain fusion. This “shot time” is driven by containment. Focus fusion argues that all they need is a nanosecond for net power, while General Fusion is aiming for hundreds of microseconds and Tri Alpha Energy says it can do 5 milliseconds [30, 31, 66, 67]. But who knows? Mr. Griengers’ homemade fusor can fuse for hours at room temperature [22, 23]. Could the polywell give the same behavior? Dr. Park has suggested it; especially if the plasma can be heated steadily .
Once you contain the hot plasma, you must extract energy. Not every team has planned this far. General Fusion wants to absorb everything in a liquid blanket, heat it and make steam . Focus fusion has suggested a traveling wave tube . Polywellers have pushed for a form of direct conversion. These last two ideas are shown below.
Here is how these ideas work: exhaust from fusion is a mixture of neutrals, ions, electrons and gas. It is a mess. It comes off in all directions. It comes off at many speeds. First, we must beat this stuff into submission. Ideally, we only want a beam with one kind of charge. The traveling wave tube uses a positive beam. Ions fly down the center. They pull electrons from the surrounding wire. This makes a flowing current. Direct conversion puts metal in the way of the beam [127 - 129]. Ions are absorbed – holding one side of a circuit, steadily positive. You can draw a current from this. Several teams have discussed integrating these extraction methods directly into their design [20, 122]. But, though we can do relatively cheap fusion, for hours [22, 23, 35] no commercial team can steadily draw a current from fusion. Not yet.
The Energy Balance:
What comes after energy collection? Optimization. That will revolve around the energy balance. Any hot plasma concept must grapple with this equation.
John Lawson gave us this equation in 1957 . It is the energy balance for a machine fusing with a hot plasma. We have always merely tried to boost the first term: the fusion rate. But we may finally be changing focus. The next term is conduction. This is the loss of mass. Anytime a plasma touches a surface, it is lost. The newest designs (polywells, Lockheeds’ machine, the dynomak, Phoenix Nuclear Labs’ device) all appreciate this. They all have smooth surfaces - and some cases, no surfaces at all. Both PNL and the polywell have vast spaces in the center [1, 24]. Space without a solid wall limits conduction loss. After this comes the radiation term. If a particle ever changes speed, it loses some energy as light . This happens everywhere inside the cloud, and for many reasons. Radiation is a function of cloud composition, temperature, density, size and structure. Fusioneers are just starting to tune their plasmas to beat this problem. For example: the polywell works best with tons of cold electrons, and a few hot ions .
Can this distribution be done? We do not know – mixing and instabilities will fight against it . But, it is possible to make plasmas which do not have the common bell curve [25, 110]. Tuning plasma clouds to beat radiation loss is going to be important. Finally, there is machine efficiency. Most fusion machines are very inefficient. NIF is one example. It takes 200 units of electrical energy to make one unit of laser energy . New methods for energy capture will go a long way to improve overall efficiency. Realize: if the energy balance was correct; the fusor could make net power.
New Design Principals:
Wither they know it or not, these groups are embracing a new set of design principals. I call these the new principals of fusion energy. They that have emerged in the past 10 years - outside tokamaks and laser fusion worlds.
4. Direct conversion. Direct conversion has been discussed for decades. The trend of incorporating it directly into designs is what is exciting. This was tested on the TMX fusion device and it achieved a 48% efficiency .
Certainly, fusion is changing. We need to stop seeing it as a hodge-podge of technological novelties and start seeing it as a fledgling industry. An industry where innovation is happening much faster than in “big science”. An industry which must work around price. Where will all this take us? No one knows. My hope is to a cheap, scalable, clean, carbon-free energy source for all mankind. My hope is we can summon effort needed to build this tool and the wisdom to use it wisely.
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