2014 kickoff report: Looking back & the year aheadJanuary 24, 2014
- LPP’s credibility jumped upwards as our Physics of Plasmas article was announced to be the most read paper of 2012 in our field’s leading journal and a team of prominent fusion scientists found our project worthy of “much higher investment.”
- Our team identified remaining impurities vaporized from electrodes as the barrier to higher plasmoid density and yield, and designed and ordered new tungsten electrodes to remove this barrier.
- We eliminated leaks in the chamber and reduced impurities, tripling plasmoid density, increasing fusion yield and producing a record ion beam power of 400 GW.
- We started organizing for crowdfunding efforts that will give LPP a second stream of funds, in addition to still-needed private investments.
We will carry out our first crowdfunding campaign this spring. Given adequate funding and supplier timeliness, we will start experiments in May with the tungsten electrodes, expecting a nearly 100-fold increase in plasmoid density and fusion yield. With these experiments we expect to confirm in the course of a few months the predicted operation of the axial field coil and of heavier mix gases. We will then proceed in the fall to test shorter electrodes, which will give higher current. Finally, we will move to begin tests with hydrogen-boron fuel.
In 2013, LPP’s credibility as leaders in the fusion field jumped upwards. The paper that we had published in 2012, demonstrating our confinement of 1.8-billion-degree ions, was announced in March 2013 to be the most-read paper of the year in Physics of Plasmas, the leading journal in our field of plasma physics. This showed objectively that our colleagues found our work of first-rate importance and interest. In addition, a committee of senior fusion researchers, led by Dr. Robert Hirsch, a former director of fusion research for the US Atomic Energy Commission and the Energy Research and Development Agency, in December 2013 issued a report saying that our innovative research effort deserves “a much higher level of investment … based on their considerable progress to date.” The report concludes that, “In the committee’s view [LPP’s] approach to fusion power … is worthy of a considerable expansion of effort.”
While our progress in the laboratory was severely hindered by a shortage of funds, preventing us from advancing as rapidly as we could have otherwise, we did take significant strides forward. Our most important achievement was the identification of impurities in the plasma as the key barrier to higher density and yield, both in FF-1 and in plasma focus devices generally. These impurities are vaporized off the metal electrodes and disrupt the current filaments that are the vital first stage of the compression process. This leads to a decrease in compression and density at subsequent phases. We measured the levels of impurities and showed, in work that was presented at the ICPSA conference in Singapore in December, 2013, that this was the likely cause of the limits of fusion yield that has constrained other plasma focus research for decades.
Equally important, we identified the cure for these impurities: switching to tungsten electrodes, with a very high boiling point that allows them to resist vaporization far better than copper or silver, and by using a monolithic cathode that has no joints where sparks and vaporization can occur. Since the manufacture of such a large, complex tungsten piece can be performed by only a few suppliers in the world, the identification of such suppliers, getting estimates and testing of samples of their material took several months.
Despite the limits imposed by our copper, multi-piece electrodes, our efforts in the laboratory bore significant fruit. In the first few months of 2013, we reduced to insignificant levels persistent leaks that had introduced gaseous impurities into the plasma. Reductions in contact resistance further reduced, although it did not eliminate, impurities. That allowed us to achieve a three-fold increase in plasma density and a rise in fusion yield to 1/6th of a joule. In addition we achieved a leap in ion beam output to a record 400 GW.
Shortage of funds constrained our work by impeding the hiring of additional scientific staff and by imposing on us the need to seek the least expensive suppliers of the tungsten electrodes, which has delayed by months their acquisition. But we began to address the critical funding question in three ways, which we think will show large results in 2014.
First, we decided to initiate a crowdfunding effort. In crowdfunding, non-investment funds are sought on crowdfunding websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo from tens of thousands of people, each contributing on average only $20-50. We believe we can raise $1 million or more in this way. In preparation for this effort, we have been redesigning the LPP website and mobilizing volunteers to help us.
Second, we have enlarged our collaborations, which allow us to benefit without cost from the work of other researchers, as they benefit from ours. We signed an agreement with a simulation research group at Toyama University in Japan and solidified joint research with the Plasma Physics Research Center in Tehran, Iran. To aid these collaborations, we made available to other researchers our experimental database.
Third, we and other fusion researchers initiated in September an Open Letter on Fusion Funding, which proposes $300 million a year in new government funding for a broad range of ideas for fusion, specifically including aneutronic fusion. By the end of 2013, we had 50 scientists sign this open letter, which is intended for publication in major media outlets once we have 100 signatures. The aim is to begin an open debate in governments in the US, Europe and Japan over the direction of the fusion research effort. Such a debate is an essential prerequisite for actually allocating government funds for aneutronic fusion.
Regrettably, 2013 saw the passing of one greatly valued member of LPP’s research team, Dr. John Guillory, who died of cancer in July. John had helped us immeasurably with theoretical and simulation work and was an outstanding physicist and musician.
Our year-round laboratory team of Chief Scientist Eric Lerner, Laboratory Director Derek Shannon and Electrical Engineer Fred Van Roessel was ably assisted during the summer by undergraduate Research Associates Kyle Lindheimer and Arya Ghasejimedad, who helped to set up new instruments and in the design for our new electrodes. We also had help from consultants Dr. Brian Bures and Dr. John Thompson.
In the meantime, Dr. Warwick Dumas continued ground-breaking work on our simulation and Chief Information Officer Ivy Karamitsos carried out the re-design of our website and preparations for mobilizing the crowdfunding volunteers. This work was also aided by the members of the Focus Fusion Society, especially their Board of Directors. Chief Financial Officer Aaron Blake, after years of very able effort for LPP, passed the baton to Bob Fitzgerald, who has already brought several new investors on board.
Our efforts in 2013 have already been greatly aided by volunteers, including two, Henning Burdack and Rudy Fritsch, from among our own investors. Henning put our database together and Rudy has given invaluable mechanical engineering support, including to the vital electrode re-design.
During 2013, the Board of Advisors continued to provide valuable guidance for the business side of LPP and innovative ideas of all sorts. It was BOA member Al Samuels who initiated the review of LPP’s work by the team of leading fusion scientists. Thanks to all!
Plans for 2014:
As in previous years, we emphasize that our plans for 2014 require adequate financing, which we will make every effort to obtain through a combination of investment and crowdfunding. They also depend on critical suppliers coming through on time and within specifications. Our main goal for this year remains to increase the density of the plasmoid, the tiny ball of plasma where reactions take place, the third and last condition needed to achieve net energy production. Since we won’t resume experimental testing until May, we don’t expect to complete the demonstration of scientific feasibility in 2014, but we do expect to take large steps towards that goal.
We have already, as of January 10, ordered the new tungsten cathode and expect both cathode and anode will be in our hands by May 15. Eleven weeks will be needed to produce the tungsten blank for the cathode and another 6 weeks for the complex machining required. The anode, much simpler, will be ready before then. During this quarter, when we are not running the FF-1 device, we will be carrying out a number of important tasks, in addition to routine maintenance and improvements to our device and instruments.
1. We will be designing, with volunteer simulation help, improved connections between our switches and transmission plates, which we hope will boost peak current by around 30%, allowing us to achieve over 2 MA.
2. With our international collaborators, we will be working on plans to greatly reduce erosion when we shift from tungsten to beryllium electrodes later this year—see below. We’ll be locating suppliers for the beryllium electrodes as well and for the new equipment we will need for running with hydrogen-boron fuel.
3. We’ll be submitting a number of scientific papers showing in detail the conclusions about the plasma focus that we have outlined in conference presentations last year. We expect this will further increase our credibility among our peers and bring in new ideas and suggestions from them.
4. In response to questions from other scientists, we will issue some new studies on some of the engineering aspects of a working Focus Fusion generator.
5. We will put online our new, vastly improved website and produce many new educational videos and other materials to mobilize volunteers for our first crowdfunding effort.
1. We will run our first crowdfunding effort in late March or April.
2. We’ll install our new tungsten electrode and perform experiments that we expect will
a) Increase density about 100-fold to around 40 milligrams/cm³
b) Increase yield about 100-fold to around 10 J
c) Demonstrate the effect of the axial field coil
d) Demonstrate the positive effects of mixing in somewhat heavier gases, such as nitrogen
1. Run expanded crowdfunding effort
2. Implement our improved electrical connections to demonstrate peak currents over 2 MA
3. Move to shorter electrodes
4. Increase density to over 0.1 grams/cm³
1. Move to beryllium electrodes, or at least a beryllium anode, which will be needed as x-ray emission increases so much that tungsten electrodes would be cracked by the heat absorbed. Beryllium is far more transparent to x-rays.
2. Demonstrate density over 1 gram/cm³
3. Demonstrate billion-Gauss magnetic fields
4. Demonstrate the quantum magnetic field effect with these billion-Gauss magnetic fields; show its ability to prevent plasmoid cooling caused by x-rays, making possible the net energy burning of pB11 fuel.
5. Install new equipment and begin running with pB11 mixes