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Bussard and Fusion: A Practical Alternative

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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Will January 9, 2007, 10:04

    I know nothing about nuclear fusion, so I shan’t comment on that, but I just love the fact that all paperbacks in the early 1970’s were published with trippy, hippie covers, regardless of how non-psychedelic the contents of the novel.

  • Gordon January 9, 2007, 10:14
  • Administrator January 9, 2007, 13:17

    Gordon, thanks! I hadn’t seen the link for that paper.

  • Darrell January 9, 2007, 13:43

    Very interesting! I hope that Bussard is really onto something, but at the moment I know only what I have read here, and so can not really comment. Time to start searching for info on Bussard’s fusion work.

  • DV8 2XL January 9, 2007, 15:22

    Bussard has worked for years on this technology it is true, but when all is said and done his group is no farther along than the magnetic confinement folks.

  • JD January 9, 2007, 16:20

    I watched the clip of his presentation at google imperial hq’s and was impressed with his reasoning. The facts and extropolations, to my limited knowledge, made sense. I must admit that his dismissal of that monstrosity being built in France is a big positive to me :)

    I hope he finds the funding. It’s not an iron clad guarantee that he’s right but I find him at least as beleivable as the tokamak cult worshipers . I would also consider it fine irony if the concept pioneered by Farnsworth actually made it.

  • ljk January 9, 2007, 16:58

    DV8 2XL Says:

    > January 9th, 2007 at 15:22

    > Bussard has worked for years on this technology it is true, but when all is said and done his group is no farther along than the magnetic confinement folks.
    >

    How much funding and other resources has Bussard received
    compared to the other fusion projects? Correct me if I am
    wrong, but I bet it hasn’t been nearly as much.

    I could design an antimatter starship drive on paper if I were
    smart enough, but without the materials and money, it will
    remain only on paper.

  • Dennis January 9, 2007, 19:35

    I must say that tokamaks already DO achieved controlled fusion with positivie Q.
    ITER, with all its faults, is the only known way to make fusion power available.
    What are real advances of Bussard’s way? As much as I know p+B11 is very difficult reaction to utilize, in terms of temperature, plasma density, and so on.

  • JD January 9, 2007, 20:12

    Unfortunately tokamaks still have yet to achieve all required parameters. Hmm how long could you run a steam turbine burning ~18 billion 1$ bills? I am for science and all but what I see shaping up with the Thing In France (TIF) will not be practical. I’d rather see the money invested in generation IV fission plant designs.

    I don’t know enough about the science to cretique the various proposals. I do think the concentration on the tokamak design is extremely bad policy. There’s at least 6 variations out there that have potential, levitated di-pole comes to mind. I read information on the tokamak, off and on, and I’m just not impressed. Even if, in two decades or so, they make it work the best estimate I’ve heard for commercial copies will be 8-12 billion each in current dollars. Then you still have the non-addressed issues of equipment decommissioning after X years of irradiation by nuetrons (lighting a sun to make nuetrons to boil water….).

    I’m all for science but seriously I would like to see other options pushed, not just TIF. Bussard has a degree of credibility that warrants at least additional research.

  • Dennis January 9, 2007, 20:56

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polywell
    This is an interesting link. I must admit if results described are true, then Mr. Bussard have something to show.

  • Adam January 10, 2007, 2:38

    Hi All

    I don’t want to bash any fusion effort, but the tokamak approach has real problems aside from gigantism, neutron activation and being an abyss for physics bucks. Sure tokamaks have hit breakeven in pulsed operation, but no one has yet worked out how to extract the waste products after fusing them and keep the reactor running at the same time. At least that’s not an issue for the proposed z-pinch fusor, but it’s a real puzzle for an operating tokamak which will be nestled in a mass of molten lithium, unlike current experimental machines.

  • Eric James January 10, 2007, 3:13

    It seems that it isn’t clear to most folks that ITER isn’t going to produce any usable energy. It’s merely a proof-of-concept reactor that’s supposed to sustain high Q for a few minutes at a time (as I recall around 500 MW of heat for about 500 seconds). What this means is that for an investment of more than $12 billion, if we’re lucky, we’ll get a neato light show to entertain the scientists and a few privledged dignitaries. Of course, no one talks about how much energy is being spent in building ITER – on top of the energy required to excite and ignite the plasma. Breakeven? Hardly.

    Can you even imagine how much usable energy might have been produced, using proven technologies, with $12 billion?

  • Paul Dietz January 10, 2007, 11:37

    Frankly, I would not put much faith in this. Proton-boron fusion is frighteningly difficult. If the plasma in the interaction area of his device is neutral, then either bremsstrahlung or loss of ion energy to cold electrons will cause severe problems. If the plasma isn’t neutral (ion only) space charge limits will prevent the density from being high enough to achieve useful power density, even if the ions can be confined long enough.

    As I recall, previous efforts at IEC using a gridded approach also suffered from losses of ions to coulomb scattering (which has a much higher cross section than fusion reactions).

    Todd Rider’s thesis at MIT showed there are severe generic problems with maintaining non-Maxwellian plasmas for the purposes of fusing ‘advanced fuels’, of which p-11B is one. The plasma wants to relax back to a more Maxwellian state, and the effort required (in recirculated energy) to prevent this is ruinously large.

  • Adam January 10, 2007, 16:00

    Hi Paul

    I think the Polywell approach avoids Rider’s Limit (to coin a phrase) by being non-neutral in a sustained manner – and avoiding collision losses that plague all other IEC designs that do the same thing.

    I would be sad if we couldn’t ever do more than mucking around with D-T reactions for eternity.

  • Ross Mohan January 11, 2007, 9:35

    Bussard addresses the Maxwellian distribution in this 1.5h talk at Google HQ.

    (video.google.com, put in bussard and fusion).

    And in his most recent paper, he fully covers the issue of Brehmsstrahlung radiation as well. ( IIRC, it’s connected to the fix for keeping the electrons in
    a NON maxwellian distribution. )

  • stargazerdude January 11, 2007, 14:11

    Bussard’s got me sold and if GOOGLE will invest in him, I will invest in GOOGLE; either way they are sure to make a return on the $200 million investment in positive PR. Promises a demo plant in 6 years. What has this guy got to personally gain? His credentials are impecable, he’s 70 years old and at the end of his career and his argument to go to GOOGLE for funding vs. the government is crazy enough that it might work.

  • Paul Dietz January 11, 2007, 14:18

    Bussard addresses the Maxwellian distribution in this 1.5h talk at Google HQ.

    I’d be much more impressed if he addressed it in a peer-reviewed paper.

  • Monte Davis January 14, 2007, 17:41

    It’s fascinating to see how much of the enthusiasm in the comments comes not from familiarity with what Bussard is proposing, but from frustration and impatience with the “mainstream.” I know it’s fun to toss off remarks about the “tokamak cult” — but at least consider the possibility that controlled fusion really might be hard and expensive, and that the ITER approach — rather than an Evil Konspiracy to burn your money without results — really might be the consensus of people who’ve put a lot more of their lives into fusion than you have.

    I respect Bussard; I might be more excited if this weren’t his third or fourth “breakthrough” design in four decades, and if each hadn’t been accompanied by the same “the Establishment won’t listen” refrain. I know people in the mainstream programs who — whether you choose to believe it or not — would trample each other in their eagerness to adopt a cheaper, simpler, faster approach. They *do* look closely at Bussard’s ideas, and they’ve been pretty consistent over the years in pointing out drawbacks and gotchas that he consistently handwaves away.

  • JD January 15, 2007, 14:23

    Monte Davis

    Hmm just because I’m a curmudgeon doesn’t mean that part of the fusion society isn’t assinine. I fully agree there’s members of that community that meet the specifications you described. I also believe there’s a lot of time servers and turf defenders in that community. It would be nice if the science community was composed of dedicated, altruistic individuals but sadly it follows human grouping norms.

    They may get ITER to achieve greater than break-even. There’s indications though that their approach will not be practical for commercial use. Considering the amounts of money being thrown around there should be more emphasis on other lines of research. Levitated di-pole, reverse field and even Bussard’s concept, to name several, should be given more backing. ITER is not a forgone success, just the most expensive attempt. ITER has more than a touch of hoped for serendipity involved so being cautiouse/pessimistic about it’s success is not unwarranted.

    “Note, still can’t get zone alarm to work with the WordPress. Not a major issue but thought I’d mention it.”

  • Ross Mohan January 17, 2007, 17:24

    Granted non-Maxwellian issue was not peer-review published. But then again, his Navy sponsors told him explicitly NOT to publish. Now that he’s out in the wild, maybe he’ll submit some papers.

    Having said that, I don’t recall Farnsworth publishing peer-reviewed papers on every aspect of every problem he solved in creating TV, but…you know…it sure does work, and that’s really the final arbiter.

    Meanwhile, I’ll look up Rider’s thesis and see what he has to say. Thanks for pointer.

  • Elizabeth Klafter January 31, 2007, 20:45

    Ross Mohan sounds like he knows what he’s talking about!

  • ljk February 7, 2007, 23:25

    Dr. Bussard has won the International Academy of Science’s
    Outstanding Inventor of the Year Award for 2006 for his
    Inertial-Electrodynamic Fusion (IEF) Device.

    The details and images here:

    http://www.science.edu/TechoftheYear/TechoftheYear.htm

  • Zixinus February 15, 2007, 13:55

    It would be great if you don’t associate the ramjet with the fusion reactor. The ramjet lost credit, and people will associate the reactor with the ramjet.

  • Administrator February 15, 2007, 14:02

    I’m afraid the link with interstellar ramjets is unavoidable given that Dr. Bussard is the one who came up with the idea. But I think most people will know that fusion reactors are not necessarily intended to be space vehicles.

  • Adam February 16, 2007, 1:38

    Hi Zixinus

    The ramjet hasn’t lost credibility – powering it with proton fusion has. Ram-augmented rockets are still viable, and “ram-jets” make fantastic interstellar brakes.

  • Ross Mohan February 18, 2007, 16:43

    I got a copy of Rider’s thesis and supporting papers. I also corresponded with him briefly. Apparently the near-insurmountable problems Rider ID’ed in his thesis are precisely the ones which Bussard claims to have surmounted.

    I haven’t followed up on this topic lately (life, the universe, everything) but am
    eager to hear new word from EMC2 and Bussard, and to pore over Todd Rider’s
    thesis. (Then, as Elizabeth Klafter says, I will really know what I am talking
    about. :-)) Until then, I am just a blind man pawing at an elephant with a half dozen others) ross period mohan at google mail

  • M. Simon March 20, 2007, 0:58

    I have been writing quite a bit on this subject lately.

    http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/search/label/Fusion

    This will take you to a list of articles. I’m a retired aerospace engineer (aircraft power and control) with a nuclear background (Naval – Reactor Operator).

    My physics is pretty good and I can follow all the arguments. (derrivation would be much more difficult for me). The big if is getting the losses down to 10E-5 or so.

    He says he needs $3 – 5 mil to replicate his last experiments (with improvements) and to nail down the reaction constants. He promises to publish the results.

    The key is the magnet design (Superconducting for the operational reactor). A 100 MW reactor with 5% losses is going to have heat dissipation problems (keeping the magnets cool). Especially since the reactor is estimated to be 10 to 12 ft in diameter. A lot of energy dissipation in a small space. Nuclear reactors solve the problem with huge flows of water and massive heat exchangers (operation in the 500 to 1,000 MWE range) the problems will not be as severe but the temperature gradient and maintaining 4 deg K (conventional superconductors) with an acceptable refrigeration load will be difficult.

  • ANTIcarrot April 19, 2007, 12:07

    “but the temperature gradient and maintaining 4 deg K (conventional superconductors) with an acceptable refrigeration load will be difficult.”

    I think your reference books may by a little old Simon. Modern superconductors can work up to 138k. Still difficult to cool in that environment, but not as problematic as you imply.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superconductors

  • Edg Duveyoung April 23, 2007, 7:17

    http://tinyurl.com/36swgn

    He got funded!

    Edg

  • Administrator April 23, 2007, 8:09

    Yes, the Navy has picked up the final year of Bussard’s funding, though we should note that it’s at levels well below what he was lobbying Google for. That kind of money is still going to have to come out of the private sector, I think, unless Dr. Bussard produces some truly startling results.

    Slashdot gets into this today:

    http://hardware.slashdot.org/hardware/07/04/22/2115249.shtml

  • ljk May 10, 2007, 9:29

    A talk on Bussard’s fusion concept on The Space Show. Bussard
    called in halfway through the program!

    Guest/Program Description:

    May/8/2007 Special Edition — Details…Tom Ligon was the guest for this Space Show program to discuss fusion and the work…

    http://archived.thespaceshow.com/shows/709-BWB-2007-05-08.mp3

  • Roger Fox May 12, 2007, 19:34

    If I have it right Dr Bussard labeled that picture WB6, not WB5

    http://www.askmar.com/ConferenceNotes/2006-9%20IAC%20Paper.pdf

    Fusion for Dummies video

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XiHsSAS_SQw

  • ljk May 23, 2007, 13:54

    A presentation on Bussard’s fusion concept at the 2007
    International Space Development conference is online
    here:

    http://isdc2.xisp.net/~kmiller/isdc_archive/isdc.php?link=submissionSelect&submission_id=576

    Look for the little link button near the bottom under PPT at
    the bottom right of the Web page.

  • M. Simon May 25, 2007, 12:54

    Yes we have high temperature superconductors. I’m not sure they can support the required magnetic field. Going from 4K to 77K is a very big help. It changes the problem from nearly impossible to very difficult.

    BTW the Navy contract got extended without funding.

    http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/2007/03/mr-fusion.html

    Ask Mark is good and has good links, but he does not keep up with the news or correct the errors in some of the material he has produced.

    better is:

    http://www.strout.net/info/science/polywell/

  • Torange June 26, 2007, 18:40

    I would bet the farm that China is working on Polywell Fusion. They need energy bad. I would also bet that Japan is working on it also.

    There are other applications than are being discussed. Large arcraft, manned high altitude platforms using nucular ash propulsion, big tunnel machines, utility veicles to build a beanstalk, the list is endless. I would like to claim and develop the rocks at one of the Jupiter orbital equilateral locations (solar Lagrange points).

  • M. Simon July 24, 2007, 23:58

    It appears Dr. Bussard may be getting funding from the State of Calif.

    http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/2007/07/california-to-fund-bussard-fusion.html

  • Eric James July 25, 2007, 0:42

    I hope the governator is being bamboozled!

  • M. Simon July 25, 2007, 18:37
  • Rothman July 29, 2007, 16:55

    Very interesting thread. If USA pulls our of Iraq we will see some majour changes in the way we consume and use energy in America. And I think in that future Tesla like cars and Bussard polywell fusion can play a large roll (if Bussards fusion work that is!)

  • davea0511 August 25, 2007, 2:02

    Apparently the DOD refunded his project a week ago or so. At least it says so in this wiki:

    http://www.peswiki.com/index.php/Directory:Inertial-Electrodynamic_Fusion_Device#Latest_Developments

    It’s from an “anonymous tip”. Hmmmm… could some tokamak scientist have floated the rumor to thwart Bussard’s efforts to get funding? If Bussard is right, tokamak, along with $40 billion of funding will be dead.

  • ljk September 4, 2007, 1:00

    PDF version of Dr. Bussard’s talk, with many images:

    http://www.askmar.com/ConferenceNotes/Should%20Google%20Go%20Nuclear.pdf

  • Adam September 4, 2007, 16:09

    Hi All

    Dr.Bussard’s fusor would allow fusion of things like lithium-6 which is also an aneutronic reaction and the fuel is a fairly dense solid and pretty strong, at least at deep space temperatures. Thus large fusion starships can be built without any fuel tanks at all.

  • M. Simon September 14, 2007, 14:21

    It has been funded:

    http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/2007/08/bussard-reactor-funded.html
    Bussard Reactor Funded

    I have inside info that is very reliable and multiply confirmed that validates the above story. I am not at liberty to say more. Expect a public announcement from the Navy in the coming weeks.

    The above reactor can burn Deuterium which is very abundant and produces lots of neutrons or it can burn a mixture of Hydrogen and Boron 11 which does not

    The implication of it is that we will know in 6 to 9 months if the small reactors of that design are feasible.

    If they are we could have fusion plants generating electricity in 10 years or less depending on how much we want to spend to compress the time frame.

    BTW Bussard is not the only thing going on in IEC. There are a few government programs at Los Alamos National Laboratory, MIT, the University of Wisconsin and at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana among others.

  • Ro November 10, 2007, 3:41

    http://www.americanantigravity.com/graphics/interviews/Robert-Bussard-Interview.wma

    This links to the last interview Dr Bussard gave before his death. Very good primer if you don’t know anything about fusion, like me.

  • ljk January 15, 2008, 0:24

    Bussard’s inertial electrostatic confinement fusion WB-7
    prototype activated

    EMC2 Fusion has built an upgraded model of Bussard’s
    last experimental plasma containment device, which was
    known as WB-6.

    “We got first plasma yesterday,” Nebel said – but he and
    his colleagues in Santa Fe, N.M., still have a long way to
    get the WB-7 experiment up to the power levels Bussard
    was working with.

    This work is very important because we could have
    commercial fusion in as little as 5 years if the work is
    successful. Success would also transform space travel
    (40 to 1000 times cheaper to get into space).

    Full article here:

    http://advancednano.blogspot.com/2008/01/bussards-inertial-electrostatic.html

    See this attached article – The World’s Simplest Fusion
    Reactor and How to Make it Work

    http://www.fusor.net/newbie/files/Ligon-QED-IE.pdf

  • Ben February 21, 2008, 21:45

    Tokamak reactors suffer from many technical hurdles. I think the biggest problem with these toroidal designs is their huge diameter. Accounting for microinstabilites over many cubic meters of fusion plasma is practically impossible with current computer technology. I like The IEC designs because their plasma volume is considerably smaller and their magnetic confinement schemes draw much less current i.e. no superconducting cryogenic concerns

  • William Sinclair February 27, 2008, 21:14

    I don’t think we’ve seriously addressed debris avoidance.

    Let’s assume that we can acheive a velocity of 1 percent of C, the speed of light. Then the one-way trip to Alpha Centauri would take about 433 years.

    How then do we detect and avoid interstellar debris, moving at 3000 km/second? An object as small a grain of sand would cause major damage, even to a shield. If an effective shield were deployed, the cumulative damage would render it useless before it reached its destination. There wouldn’t be any raw materials on the way to repair it with.

    Of course, we also have to consider how to scoop up the hydrogen atoms and at the same time avoid debris objects. Obviously a ram scoop would also be subjected to collisions from those, and a shield would interfere with its function.

    At higher velocities, the problem becomes exponentially worse.