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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.

  • ljk March 18, 2008, 8:12

    IEC fusion visitor report

    The latest word from the IEC fusion effort.

    Basically progress is being made by a dedicated team, but results will be rigorously confirmed before they are published.

    A visitor to the lab reports:

    The effort is very professional, the crew is made of experienced people who get their hands dirty, and progress is occurring at a rapid rate. The WB-7 vacuum chamber is a dream: stainless steel with hinged doors, large enough for a person to sit in (it would be cramped, but still). It was welded by the same guy who welded my “Carl’s Jr.,” a real craftsman, but EMC wanted it so fast that it couldn’t even be leak-checked before coming to the lab–that was done on site. They definitely have the “balls to the wall.”

    I brought them a BTI PND dosimeter as a little token of my appreciation for the tour and in the hopes that they get neutrons soon. I watched a video of their first plasma in helium. They’ve got guys working on a magnet current switching scheme and RF plasma diagnostics, among many other aspects. Parts (MaGrids) from the previous WB systems were sitting out on the office floor and were informative to look at. If I tried to describe their program in any specificity here, I’d be abusing my privilege of being a tourist in their lab. But basically, it looked to me like a vigorous and enthusiastic effort.

    http://nextbigfuture.com/2008/03/iec-fusion-visitor-report.html

  • James M. Essig March 22, 2008, 18:39

    Hi Folks;

    It is ironic that a perpetually accellerating, fusion powered, manned, interstellar spacecraft such as some improved or yet to be developed interstellar ramjet concept might enable the crew to travel far greater distances in 56 years ship time than say an alien space craft travelling at 1 million times the speed of light could during say 10,000 years ship time. Since warp drive entails the transmission of space time through space time instead of the translational inertial travel through space at just under C, a warp drive craft would not experience any relativistic time dilation. Even a warp drive craft velocity of 1 million C would only get the craft 10 billion light years in 10,000 years ship and Earth time. However, a fusion powered, interstellar ramjet accellerating at 1 G continuosly would permit the ISR craft to circumnavigate the observable universe for a total distance of about 76 billion light years in roughly 56 years ship time.

    Ten thousand years of ISR ship referenece frame accelleration at a constant 1 G would enable the craft to travel a distance many, many orders of magnitude greater than the radius of the observable universe, in fact quadrillions of quadrillions of quadrillions of times the current radius of the observable universe. The craft would accordingly travel quadrillions of quadrillions of quadrillions of years into the future. After having traveled such a huge distance, the recessional velocity of the craft with respect to Earth as a result of space time expansion may be quadrillions of quadrillions of quadrillions of times greater than C. In fact, at this point, the subluminal ISR would be traveling quadrillions of quadrillions of quadrillions of times faster than the velocity of a warp drive craft, with respect to Earth and the Milky Way, even for warp drive craft traveling at a trillion times the speed of light.

    Thanks;

    Jim

  • James M. Essig March 24, 2008, 1:54

    Hi Folks;

    The following clarifications are made to point out just how far an ISR accellerating at a constant one G could travel.

    Ten thousand years of ISR ship reference time frame acceleration at a constant 1 G would enable the craft to travel roughly (100 billion) EXP 200 or 10 EXP 2,200 times the current radius of the observable universe, and this is not even taking into account the expansion of the universe. The craft would accordingly travel roughly (100 billion) EXP 200 or 10 EXP 2,200 of years into the future. After having traveled such a huge distance, the recessional velocity of the craft with respect to Earth as a result of space time expansion would be roughly (100 billion) EXP 200 or 10 EXP 2,200 times greater than C. In fact, at this point, the subluminal ISR would be traveling (100 billion) EXP 200 or 10 EXP 2,200 times faster than the velocity of a warp drive craft, with respect to Earth and the Milky Way, even for warp drive craft traveling at a trillion times the speed of light with respect to its ambient space time environment.

    If we were fortunate enough to live at a time when reactionary fusion powered ISR sub-luminal space craft that could do 1 G to 100 Gs continuously and if we were to learn how so extend human life essentially indefinitely, instead of saying to your spouse, kids, parents, friends, coworkers, etc., “I have been really happy to come back for a visit, I am booking a flight back to London tomorrow”, we might be able to truthfully say, “It’s been good to know you. I love you all very much and soon I will be leaving on some exploratory mission out to a distance of about 1 quadrillion light-years from Earth. You know the Pro-Life party line, ”Extend the human race ever further out into the Cosmos”, I am booking a U.S./Nasa Space Lines jet out of L-5 next week.”

    The meaning of a jet engine mechanic might become new and profound.

    Thanks;

    Jim

  • ljk May 6, 2008, 10:02

    Inertial Confinement Fusion update – May 5, 2008

    One interesting point is that the University of Wisconsin has 100 people and about 10 million in budget per year that is devoted inertial confinement fusion. They are obviously aware of the Bussard approach. It would seem obvious that they would try to adjust their own setups to try to achieve the potentially greater efficiency. Also, if the EMC2 fusion [bussard team] achieves success than the university of Wisconsin fusion department should be immediately trying to replicate and build on the work.

    Full article here:

    http://nextbigfuture.com/2008/05/inertial-confinement-fusion-update.html

    At the end of this lengthy MSNBC article is some information about the Bussard fusion process where researchers are building a new demonstration system WB7:

    http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2008/05/02/974180.aspx

  • Tim September 6, 2008, 9:50

    we can make an intersterstellar ramjet that uses an electric field to attract ,
    and collect interstellar hydrogen gas. Then we can use it as reaction mass
    in electric ion or plasma rocket engines. Breeder type nuclear fission reactors can keep it running and accelerationg for centuries under gentle thrust
    we can do it this way right now .

  • ljk September 22, 2009, 13:15

    September 12, 2009

    IEC / Bussard Fusion has gotten $8 million in Funding

    M. Simon at iecfusiontech reports that IEC (inertial electrostatic) fusion has gotten $8 million in funding. IEC Fusion is one of the most promising routes to commercial nuclear fusion and a possible solution to all of our energy problems. If it works we will be able to develop over thousand times our current level of energy, cheap, clean energy and have easy access to space.

    Full article here:

    http://nextbigfuture.com/2009/09/iec-bussard-fusion-has-gotten-8-million.html