Dr Richard Nebel on Bussard Polywell

This interview is a welcome update on the present progress of the Bussard Polywell. The important take home is that a time horizon on six years is reasonable and that usually means that a decade should see it well understood if not finished. Those are time frames still difficult for corporate money but still reasonable.

This project needs to be well funded and the Navy support is a really good start. General Electric needs to pony up to the bar on this one.

It is interesting on how the problem areas are the obverse of the Tokomak. I certainly have never felt that the Tokomak was potentially optimizible in the sense needed for commercial exploitation. That was my intuition back in the sixties. I suspect that the Bussard has an excellent chance to perform. It really needs though to have a healthy budget that allows for plenty of false starts and to pay for the best talent.

May 05, 2009

Question: Could you provide an overview of your nuclear fusion process?

Answer: Our machine is a hybrid machine - part magnetic confinement and part electrostatic. Our approach involves holding
plasma together and heating with electrostatic fields. With the parameters that we have put into this device, we have gotten the results that we expected. We are currently using low magnetic fields, and the major issue with this is to what degree it will scale. At this point we don't know the answer to that question.

Question: How is your concept for nuclear fusion different than that of the Government's tokamak project?

Answer: Tokomaks are pure magnetic confinement devices, so the physics on our devices are considerably different than for Tokamaks. The advantage of our system is that high temperatures are not difficult to obtain, but we struggle to get the high densities that magnetic confinement devices do easily. We have disadvantages as well - the things that are difficult for us are easy for them and vice versa. But overall we believe we have a superior concept for several reasons. First, our hybrid system uses PB-11(proton-boron 11) for fuel, which doesn't produce radioactive material. Second, our system is compact, and could be portable enough to be used on ships. Third, this system is cheap to develop and to run - we don't require enormous development budgets like the tokamak does.

Question: How close are you to creating a fusion machine capable of actual energy generation?

Answer: We are hoping to have a net energy production product within six years. It could take longer, but this definitely won't be a 50 year development project..

Question: You are currently operating on a shoestring budget. How are budgetary limitations hampering your work?

Answer: Unsurprisingly, our biggest constraints relate to funding and schedules. Due to time limitations, we haven't been able to test the device as thoroughly as we'd like, and we couldn't put all of the diagnostics on the machine that we initially wanted. But these constraints compel us to operate efficiently and expediently. My biggest concern at this point is getting things right the first time, which is difficult when doing fundamental research.

Question: When is the earliest that an actual fusion plant based on your concept could be built?

Answer: The project that we hope to have out within the next six years will probably be a demo, which won't have the attendant secondary equipment necessary for electricity generation. Hopefully the demo will demonstrate everything that is needed to put a full-scale working plant into commercial production. So if the concept works we could have a commercial plant operating as early as 2020.

Question: How safe would these fusion plants be, relative to fission reactors? What byproducts would they produce?

Answer: There are no radioactive materials or waste made with this process. The only serious hazard with operation is the high voltages involved, which pose a risk to the workers. But that is a risk that conventional power plants have as well. These machines shouldn't require containment vessels, like the fission machines have. The only byproduct of our fusion process is helium.

Question: How portable could these devices be made? Could they be used to power ships?

Answer: The navy is funding our work because they are interested in using our fusion technique to power their ships. The minimum size on these machines isn't yet clear, and that will depend on how this scales. Dr. Robert Bussard was very interested in using this fusion technique to power spaceships.

Question: What do you estimate a kilowatt hour from your fusion reactor to cost?

Answer: We are looking at 2-5 cents per kilowatt hour. That should make electricity generation less expensive than any alternative, including coal and nuclear. So if this technology works it will be like a silver bullet, and be fundamentally superior to any competing technology. The issue is whether it works or not.

Question: What fuel sources could your fusion system use?

Answer: Our system uses a proton and the boron11 isotope, which is called PB-11. It is easier to run a fusion device on helium 3, since it is easier to generate power out of helium 3. But there are accessibility issues with helium 3, so it is currently extremely expensive. People have argued that we should be mining the moon, since helium 3 is abundant on the moon. But I believe that PB-11 is a superior approach, if we can make it work.

Question: What is your assessment of cold fusion? Will it ever become feasible?

Answer: I don't know if it will ever be feasible or not. What we have seen so far is excess heat production, and we don't know the cause of that. But we should wait and see what the cold fusion proponents accomplish.

Question: Are there any corporations/civilian agencies funding your research?

Answer: There are, but I am not at liberty to discuss that at this point. We currently have multiple funding sources, and certain corporations and private organizations are very interested in this technology. We have had numerous inquiries from various sources, and we tend to be forthright and explain the inherent risks involved. Some corporations are more amenable to funding high-risk projects than others.

Question: If this technology progresses as you hope, how could it affect society?

Answer: If we get super excited about this, than we will lose perspective, and that is deadly for science projects. People who lose perspective tend to start misinterpreting the data to meet their expectations. This technology will either be a world-changing process or a bust. If it works, it will dramatically alter the world within the next two decades. This is a truly disruptive technology, and if successful will result in a safe, cheap, and nearly limitless source of energy.

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