This post is also available in: Español
There are lots of people out there claiming to know how to get cheap or even free energy. Why is Focus Fusion different?
Unlike zero-point energy and cold fusion, which are based on new physical theories, or at least new interpretations of existing theories, aneutronic fusion with a dense plasma focus device, which we call Focus Fusion, is based on an original application of very well-confirmed scientific theories such as electromagnetism and quantum mechanics. No “new physical theories” are invoked. Indeed we are utilizing natural phenomena that have been observed at much larger scales in the universe—in solar flares, for example.
LPPFusion’s work in this field is taken seriously by our peers. In addition to participating in numerous scientific conferences to present our results, our work has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Fusion Energy and Physics of Plasmas, the world’s leading journal in the field of plasma physics, which is fundamental to fusion research. In 2012, our paper in Physics of Plasmas was named the most-read paper of the year.
If aneutronic fusion with the device is so good, why is LPPFusion the only group working on it?
Aneutronic fusion with the plasma focus device, or Focus Fusion for short, is not the product of one researcher or one group. It is the fruit of a research program involving dozens of experimental groups around the world over 40 years. The plasma focus device, while it has suffered over the years from a great lack of funding, and faced challenges to theoretical understanding, has now become one of the most promising alternatives to the costly tokamak approach to fusion. In Latin America, for example, plasma focus devices are the only alternative device that is now being actively researched.
LPPFusion’s contribution to the plasma focus research has been, first, to develop a quantitative theory of the plasma focus that indicated that it was capable of burning hydrogen-boron fuel; second, to demonstrate that the magnetic field effect would greatly reduce the cooling of the plasma by X-rays, and third, to introduce the idea of improving the efficiency of the device by injecting angular momentum into it. These innovations are what are expected to overcome the remaining technical barriers to hydrogen-boron fusion.
In this work, LPPFusion President Lerner has built on the work of the late plasma focus pioneers Winston Bostick and Victorio Nardi of Stevens Institute of Technology and of the founder of modern plasma physics, Nobel Laureate Hannes Alfven.
You say you can convert the energy directly into electricity. How?
On the Web, links lead to an analysis by Mike Hopkins calling your results “not even wrong.” What is your reply?
Dr. Hopkins’ analysis misses the whole point of our July 2012 paper, which was about our demonstrating record-breaking temperatures in our confined plasma. Hopkins complained that we had not demonstrated record-breaking fusion yields. But yields depend not only on temperature but on densities as well and we were not claiming any superior density or yield. The paper was about the record temperatures. It was demonstrating that this temperature—sufficient to ignite hydrogen-boron fuel, was indeed confined in a small plasmoid that made our paper the most-read one of 2012 in Physics of Plasmas, the leading journal in our field. Evidently a lot of our colleagues got the point, even if Dr. Hopkins missed it. As to densities, we expect to greatly improve them and achieve record fusion yields as well in our next series of experiments.
What’s the big difference between Focus Fusion generators and current nuclear reactors?
In current nuclear reactors, energy is produced through nuclear fission. Here, a neutron breaks apart a uranium nucleus releasing energy and more high-energy neutrons. The nuclear fragments produced are highly radioactive. They naturally decay and give off their own energetic radiation. In addition, the neutrons smash into the nuclei of atoms in the reactor structure, transmuting them to radioactive nuclei as well. All of these radioactive atoms constitute nuclear waste.
The form of nuclear fusion that the U.S. government has funded, which uses deuterium and tritium as fuel, also produces some radioactive waste, although far less than fission. Tritium, a form of hydrogen with two additional neutrons, is itself radioactive. When deuterium and tritium nuclei fuse together they produce nucleus of harmless and non-radioactive helium and a neutron. But the high energy neutron that carries most of the energy of the reaction can again smash into the reactor’s structure making it radioactive.
In Focus Fusion, however, none of this occurs. The fuel that will be used consists of hydrogen and boron. Both are harmless, non-radioactive substances. When hydrogen nuclei (protons) and boron nuclei fuse together at extremely high temperatures, they produce only helium nuclei and no neutrons.
A secondary reaction occurs when some helium nuclei fuse with boron nuclei, which does produce some neutrons. But these reactions are rare, and only 1/500th of the energy is emitted in the form of neutrons. More important, none of these neutrons have enough energy to transform the materials they hit into long-lived radioactive materials. So no such radioactive materials are produced in the reactor, rather generator. Hydrogen-boron generators would be free of long-lived radioactivity, and the small number of neutrons emitted could easily be absorbed in several inches of shielding.
Focus Fusion generators are so safe that anyone could safely enter the generator room seconds after it had been turned off, even if it had previously been functioning for a year. Short-lived radioactivity within the shielded plasma focus chamber would be below background levels of radiation that is always present in the environment in several hours, allowing the chamber to be safely opened and maintained. More details on generator safety are here.
How would Focus Fusion bring down the cost of energy?
Focus Fusion generators will produce electricity in a fundamentally different and much cheaper way than previous energy sources because they will avoid expensive turbines and generators.
Since Edison’s time, there has been one main way to produce electricity. A heat source boils water to produce high temperature steam. The steam is fed under pressure to a turbine. The spinning of the turbine feeds power to a spinning electric generator producing electric power. Whether the source of heat is coal, oil, gas, or nuclear fission, the basic process is the same. The majority of the cost of a modern power station comes from the turbine, electric generator, and the associated plumbing to handle the steam and water. So simply replacing the heat source cannot produce cheap electricity.
A Focus Fusion generator would produce electricity very differently. The energy from fusion reactions is released mainly in the form of a high-energy, pulsed beam of helium nuclei. Since the nuclei are electrically charged, this beam is already an electric current. All that is needed is to capture this electric energy into an electric circuit. This can be done by allowing the pulsed beam to generate electric currents in a series of coils as it passes through them. This is much the same way that a transformer works, stepping electric power down from the high voltage of a transmission line to the low voltage used in homes and factories. It is also like a particle accelerator run in reverse. Such an electrical transformation can be highly efficient, probably around 70%. What is most important is that it is exceedingly cheap and compact. The steam turbines and electrical generators are eliminated. A 5 MW Focus Fusion generator may cost around $300,000 and produce electricity for 1/5th of a cent per kWh. This is ten times less than the cheapest current technology. Fuel costs will be negligible because a 5 MW plant will require only five pounds of fuel per year.
Is this like cold fusion?
No, it is quite different. Cold fusion involves claims that fusion reactions can be produced at room temperature in a simple cell with a solution and electrodes. For cold fusion to work, some new physical process must be taking place. That’s possible, but it will take a long time to understand what is going on.
The situation is very different for Focus Fusion. The process that leads to fusion in the plasma focus device is well understood using existing physical theories. Experiments have demonstrated that the very high temperatures, plasma density, and confinement time needed to fuse hydrogen and boron have been achieved. Theoretical models of the plasma focus based on these experiments indicate that the conditions for net energy output are obtainable with devices not much larger than existing ones.
In addition, the energy produced by cold fusion is heat, so it again must be transformed into electricity by conventional turbines and generators. This means that the cost of electricity could not be much lower than it is at present, even assuming cold fusion could be successfully understood and then developed.
Given the promise of Focus Fusion, why is the government still concentrating on the tokamak?
There have been institutional obstacles to funding small scale fusion projects including, but not limited to, Focus Fusion. For the past 30 years nearly all fusion funding has been concentrated in one technology, the tokamak. The tokamak is an intrinsically large machine where the containment field is provided by external magnets. The tokamak is aimed at burning deuterium-tritium fuel. In addition, the large size and complexity of a tokamak reactor make many scientists doubt that they could ever produce energy at competitive costs. But within the fusion program, as with many government programs, there is a political prejudice toward large projects because of the way that money is allocated. Large projects with corporate sponsors which generate significant numbers of jobs are supported by Congress. Small projects lack such political support.
What more could the government do to support Focus Fusion?
The government, through the DoE or another entity, could allocate research funds to develop this potentially revolutionary energy source. Focus Fusion represents a fundamentally different approach than the vast majority of existing technologies. Since the innovation of the steam engine, most technology has aimed at controlling nature by producing conditions that are stable and homogeneous, close to equilibrium. Instabilities (rapid changes that create inhomogeneities) are avoided as they decrease predictability. The tokamak, for example, functions by attempting to produce a plasma that is stable and quiet.
In contrast, the plasma focus device functions by using instabilities that nature provides. It is natural instabilities that cause the plasma filaments to form and later to compress themselves into an ultra dense plasmoid to generate fusion temperatures. Such instabilities are common in nature and, as Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine has emphasized, are the way that nature evolves and creates new structures and new types of order.
While the stable, homogeneous approach to controlling nature has produced great advances, it is limited and at times highly destructive. Yet the stability approach dominates. As a result, funding agencies such as the Department of Energy have had difficulty accepting the instability-based approach of the plasma focus device.
More generally the government needs to abandon the failed strategy of concentrating on just one device, and fund many competing approaches to fusion until one is clearly shown to work in a prototype generator. Especially devices that have some hope of using aneutronic fuels need to be funded, as such fuels are the only ones that offer hope of a truly safe and cheap source of power. Over fifty scientists from around the world have signed an open letter suggesting such a change in the international fusion program.
If Focus Fusion really could work, won’t the Powers That Be just shut it down before it threatened oil and gas profits?
The idea that the Powers That Be are all powerful is one that has always held back needed change in society. It’s not true. When feudal lords were the Powers That Be, they fought against the use of coal, which threatened their fuel monopoly based on the woodlands. But in the end, they lost. If people act collectively for their common interests, they too can become a power—the Power To Be. An informed population can make it politically impossible to prevent the implementation of Focus Fusion once it is technologically developed. And that can turn the Powers That Be into the Powers That Were.