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A hush-hush nuclear fusion project that's received $12 million from the U.S. Navy is now sharing what it calls encouraging results — and looking for private investment.
For years, EMC2 Fusion Development Corp. has had to conduct its research into what's known as Polywell fusion outside public view because the Navy wanted it that way. Now the Navy is phasing out its funding, and EMC2 Fusion is planning a three-year, $30 million commercial research program to see if its unorthodox approach can provide a fast track to cheap nuclear fusion power.
"The goal is, we want to get a set of concrete data that will allow us to make a decision if, when and how we can build a fusion device," EMC2 Fusion's president and chief scientist, Jaeyoung Park, told NBC News. "Obviously 'if' is a big part of it, but we believe the 'if' part looks promising. ... We might have a very pleasant surprise. Fusion might not be 30 years from now, but maybe 10 years, or maybe around the corner."
Not everyone is convinced the Polywell approach will work. EMC2 Fusion's latest findings, which were made public via the ArXiv academic preprint server, are more positive than skeptics suspected but not as positive as some supporters hoped.
"This finding ... is just one step along the way," said M. Simon, a frequent contributor to the Talk-Polywell online discussion forum. "It makes the case that further experiments are warranted. In other words, no showstoppers."
Nicholas Krall, a plasma physicist who has been working in the fusion field for more than a half-century and has been an adviser to EMC2 Fusion, was more enthusiastic. "I think this is the most exciting experimental advance that I've been involved in," he told NBC News. 'I'm stoked."
What fusion is all about
Polywell fusion is about as much of an underdog as you can be in the decades-long race to achieve power-producing nuclear fusion. Fusion involves smashing atomic nuclei together under such high temperature and pressure that a tiny bit of mass is converted directly into energy, in line with the equation E=mc². It's the process behind the sun's glow and an H-bomb's blast.
If fusion can be tamed, it could open the way to cheap, abundant electrical power, produced more cleanly than nuclear fission from ingredients found in sea water.
Over the years, physicists have looked at several routes to controlled fusion. One method involves building massive chambers with strong electric fields to confine the plasma for a fusion reaction. The best example of that is the ITER experimental facility in France, which is expected to cost upwards of $20 billion and take until the 2030s to complete.
Another method involves blasting tiny fuel pellets with powerful lasers to create bursts of fusion energy. That's what the $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility has been doing, and this year the NIF team reported a milestone on the long road to the break-even point.
In comparison, Polywell fusion is a bargain-basement technology. It combines two design concepts: One of the concepts involves an unorthodox containment device that's called a Wiffle-Ball, because the magnetic field pattern produced by the reactor looks like the well-known perforated plastic ball. The other concept is the Farnsworth fusor, which uses a high-voltage cage to direct beams of ions to a fusion reaction. Fusor technology is so well-understood that a teenager could do it.
Putting the pieces together
The late physicist Robert Bussard worked for decades to try to show Polywell fusion could work, using a variety of Wiffle-Ball configurations. Just before his death in 2007, he claimed that he was getting close to solving the challenge with his WB-6 device.
After Bussard passed away, other researchers picked up the baton at EMC2 Fusion in New Mexico and continued building test devices. Most recently, Park and his colleagues used a redesigned Wiffle-Ball test device in a San Diego lab to show the Navy that their configuration could enhance plasma confinement even under incredibly high pressure — pressure levels that could not be achieved by, say, the ITER reactor.
"If you can make high-pressure fusion, it will be much easier to commercialize it compared with a low-pressure device," Park said. "You could make a relatively compact system, and control the output level. We expect the sweet spot would be from a few hundred megawatts to a gigawatt."
The high-pressure confinement, also known as high-beta confinement, is what's described in the ArXiv paper. One of the keys to solving that problem was to redesign the Wiffle-Ball to do away with the joints between the reactor's rings, Park said.
However, the test device did not demonstrate the neutron production that would be required for an actual fusion reaction. "We tried to do it, but we just didn't have enough equipment to do it," Park said. "We thought that getting the Wiffle-Ball effect validated was a good accomplishment."
What lies ahead
Park is proud of the fact that his team proved the Wiffle-Ball design could work — confirming a theoretical claim that was first made 56 years ago by physicist Harold Grad. But EMC2 Fusion still has to show that the design can support a fusion reaction that eventually produces more power than is put into the system. Such a system would have to smash ions together in the center of a hot, magnetized cloud of electrons.
For the Navy-supported project, EMC2 Fusion concentrated on the prospects for an exotic kind of hydrogen-boron fusion known as pB11. But if the project goes commercial, the company would consider more mainstream options such as deuterium-tritium.
"We might have to deal with a different boss, and if the boss says, 'Why can't we make a chunk of change,' am I going to say no? Probably not," Park joked.
Park said he's already been having discussions with potential backers for the next experimental phase.
"It'll be great if we get funding," he said. "But even if we don't, I think there will be somebody who will be excited if they understand what all this means. There could be a bit of a race, too. If the race happens, I'm playing to win the race."
After spending decades working on what some have called an energy technology that will always be decades in the future, Krall is anxious to see that race heat up. He acknowledged that EMC2 Fusion hasn't yet determined whether or not a working Polywell fusion reactor is feasible — but at the age of 82, he's counting on Park to get the answer to that question soon.
"He thinks we can reach break-even in seven years, and we can get to proof of principle in four years. Seven years, I can wait that long," Krall told NBC News. "I've had a good career, but I'll be a lot happier if I can see a break-even fusion device before I kick off."