Some time later this month a paper by Robert Bussard should become available [Addendum: The paper is already available here — thanks to a sharp-eyed reader for the tip]. You’ll want to pay attention when it appears, because Bussard has spent well over a decade at Energy Matter Conversion Corporation (EMC2), a San Diego company he co-founded, working on devices that could be the most practical approach to fusion ever developed. They’re cheap, small and produce helium as their only waste product. Bussard believes they could be commercially viable in six to twelve years. And he has never made any secret of his wish that reliable fusion engines will one day explore deep space.

But of course fusion’s other benefits are equally immense, from improving the environment to ending nuclear waste production, replacing coal, oil and gas-burning power plants with clean energy that will stabilize industrial economies. He spelled all this out in a presentation now available as a downloadable video, a lecture he gave at Google in his continuing search for funding. Earlier sources like the US Navy, which saw its entire advanced energy development budget cut for 2006, have simply dried up as all attention seems riveted on the ITER European fusion research project, which is based on a tokamak design.

IEC fusion prototype

You should watch this video to get an idea of the alternative. It’s called inertial electrostatic confinement fusion (IEC), and it’s based on the reaction between hydrogen and boron-11, which is totally neutron-free. Traditional fusion research (if fusion research can be considered ‘traditional’) involves deuterium and tritium, but the neutrons produced are only one of the problems thus created.

Image: This is a WB-5 machine, part of a series of experiments developed as Bussard’s team investigated inertial electrostatic fusion concepts. Credit: Energy Matter Conversion Corp.

As to benefits in space, listen to the International Academy of Science’s statement about Bussard’s work in naming IEC a finalist for Outstanding Technology of the Year for 2006:

Design studies of IEF-based space propulsion show that this technology can yield engine systems with thrust/mass ratio 1000 times higher for a given specific impulse (Isp), over a range of 1000 < Isp < 1 x 10^6 sec, than any other advanced propulsion means, with consequent 100 times reduction in costs of spaceflight.

You can trace IEC’s roots back to the early part of the 20th Century, with contributions from none other than Philo Farnsworth, the pioneer of raster scan television, and a graduate student of his named Bob Hirsch, who wrote a classic paper on the technology in 1967. Those deep roots may be part of the problem, as Bussard says finding people less than 65 years old who can work readily with the technology is a continuing problem. Modern research has seemingly moved away from some of these techniques, much to our cost.

What does Bussard need? At Google, he outlined a program to continue the research into IEC, one that would take four to five years to produce a full-scale demonstration device. The details are in the talk, but be believes such a demonstrator capable of generating power will cost about $200 million. Listen to the lecture, in which Bussard describes a series of IEC devices he and his team built, with increasingly positive results even as their funding dried up.

Meanwhile, what’s wrong with the tokamak technology that came out of the Soviet Union in the 1950s? Bussard calls these huge devices ‘superconducting cathedrals,’ noting that a practical plant based on this technology would be 36 meters high and 45 meters wide. The US, he says, has spent $18 billion on tokamak designs so far with no clear result and no apparent end in sight. The tokamak approach is highly radiocative, provides no clear road to a practical power plant, and absorbs government funding like a sponge compared to alternative approaches. You can see why Bussard is frustrated.

Normally, the name Bussard appears in these pages in relation to a classic 1960 paper in which he outlined an interstellar ramjet principle. In that scenario, a spacecraft with a vast electromagnetic scoop could trap interstellar hydrogen and use it to drive its engines, thus producing continuous acceleration that could open up the stars at relativistic speeds. It’s a sensational idea, though one that fell out of favor when it became clear that drag was a serious problem, so serious that more recent thinking is that such a scoop could actually be used for braking upon arrival at a destination solar system by a spacecraft powered in some other way.

Tau Zero novel

Robert Bussard has left his fingerprints all over the subject of interstellar flight (and we again give a nod to Poul Anderson’s novel Tau Zero, so heavily influenced by Bussard’s ideas). But his contribution to energy and fusion technologies at places like TRW and Los Alamos is legendary, and he may be leading the way to a fusion solution of more immediate application. Philanthropic funding at these levels is more than feasible. All it takes, as Bussard says, is the right people with a visionary outlook and a willingness to put their money on an idea that is out of the conventional research loop. Google may not be that funding angel, but my guess is that Bussard’s work will attact another.

Image: The cover of the first paperback edition of Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero, published in 1970 (a shorter version called “To Outlive Eternity” appeared in 1967 in Galaxy Science Fiction). This tale of a runaway interstellar ramjet drew heavily on the work of Robert Bussard.

As we wait for the new Bussard paper (and absorb the video’s implications), it’s wonderful to go back to the earlier work on ramscoops. The key paper is “Galactic Matter and Interstellar Flight,” Acta Astronautica 6 (1960), pp. 179-1994. Thanks to Vincenzo Liguori, Adam Crowl and Larry Klaes for early pointers to the Bussard video.