EMC2 Fusion has a $7.9 million Navy contract to test a plasma technology known as inertial electrostatic confinement fusion, also known as Polywell fusion.
Some of the leading team members went on leave from Los Alamos National Laboratory to work on EMC2. Rick Nebel, the Los Alamos engineer who led the company since Bussard's death in 2007, retired from the company last November. Taking his place as acting chief executive officer is Jaeyoung Park. The 41-year-old physicist says he's given up his position at Los Alamos to focus fully on EMC2.
"We had a lot of milestones to meet in the last six months or so," Park told me today. "It's been pretty hectic."
The company currently employs eight or nine full-time technical staff members, and relies on about two dozen external consultants, Park said. The ultimate objective is to build a 100-megawatt demonstration fusion reactor, and Park hopes that the current small-scale experiment will show EMC2's scientists and their "customers" in the Navy whether this is realistic.
Based on the experiments so far, Park thinks there's a chance that it could be done in a sufficiently large Wiffleball reactor, costing on the order of $100 million to $200 million.
The WB-8 experiment is about 60 percent complete, which roughly matches how much of the $7.9 million has been spent so far. He acknowledged that EMC2 was originally aiming to finish the experiment by this time, but said the realities of government funding — including continuing resolutions, shutdown threats and other budgetary snags — have dictated a slower pace.
Park figures that the money provided under the WB-8 contract should last until the end of the year, depending on how efficiently the EMC2 team is able to stretch the money out. By then, the engineers in New Mexico and their backers in the Navy should know whether it's worth going ahead with the next step, perhaps even with the big demonstration reactor. Park hopes that WB-8 will be the last small-scale experimental machine EMC2 will have to build.
"This machine should be able to generate 1,000 times more nuclear activity than WB-7, with about eight times more magnetic field," said Park, quoting the publicly available information about WB-8. "We'll call that a good success. That means we're on track with the scaling law."
Don't expect weekly updates about EMC2's progress. "Currently all our funding comes from the Navy," Park said. "That's our customer. Our customer desired that we keep most of our progress confidential. ... They're somewhat concerned about making too much hype without delivering an actual product."
But if WB-8 and the follow-up studies are successful, the Navy won't stand in EMC2's way.
"Our understanding is they want us to be successful," Park said. "They want us to provide something for our sponsors. They also want us to do well commercially as well, as long as we remain US-owned and control the technology."
And if WB-8 fails?
"Sometimes breakthroughs happen, and sometimes you can never solve it, and then maybe it's time to give up — at least for me," Park said. "But I can positively say I tried everything."
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