One interesting point is that the University of Wisconsin has 100 people and about 10 million in budget per year that is devoted inertial confinement fusion. They are obviously aware of the Bussard approach. It would seem obvious that they would try to adjust their own setups to try to achieve the potentially greater efficiency. Also, if the EMC2 fusion [bussard team] achieves success than the university of Wisconsin fusion department should be immediately trying to replicate and build on the work.
Currently, the most promising path toward electrostatic fusion runs through Santa Fe, N.M., where a team at EMC2 Fusion Development Corp. is currently trying to validate Bussard’s results. The team’s leader, Richard Nebel, told me this week that it’s still too early to gauge how promising the Bussard fusion device could be.
“We’re getting high-power plasma,” he said. “We don’t have answers … [but] we’re far enough along that we know we’re going to get answers.”
“We’re losing our lead to other countries in the world,” Gerald Kulcinski, director of the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
ITER’s path to fusion isn’t the only one [and EMC2 is not the only one working on inertial confinement fusion]: For more than three decades, the University of Wisconsin’s institute has focused its research not only on magnetic containment, but also on the other two “legs” of fusion research: laser-powered inertial confinement, which is to be developed in the United States at the National Ignition Facility; and inertial electrostatic fusion, which has been in the news recently due to the work of the late physicist/engineer Robert Bussard.
The institute is funded to the tune of about $15 million a year, with 150 people working on fusion, Kulcinski said. Inertial confinement fusion currently accounts for about two-thirds of the technology development work being done at the institute.
If Kulcinski had to pick a favorite in the decades-long fusion marathon, it might well be the dark horse in the race: electrostatic fusion, which involves packing ions densely within a negatively charged grid or a cloud of electrons. He and his colleagues have been experimenting with electrostatic grid reactors for years.
“We’re not even close to break-even,” Kulcinski said. But the devices do produce enough high-energy protons to create short-lived radioisotopes for medical applications.
Kulcinski foresees a day when every hospital could have its own little fusion reactor churning out oxygen-15 and other isotopes for diagnostic purposes. (Right now they’re created in cyclotrons.)
He said fusion devices could also be used to detect hidden nuclear weapons and buried explosive devices. They could even disable nuclear weapons. “We probably shouldn’t discuss that, but there are ways,” he said.
The real promise of the electrostatic devices, at least the way Kulcinski sees it, is that the electrostatic devices can be used for fusion reactions using helium-3. His group has been experimenting with a deuterium-helium-3 combination as well as with pure helium-3.
About 40 tons of helium-3 would produce all the electricity we use in the United States in 2008.
He sees electrostatic fusion reactors using helium-3 as the best long-term option. “We could put the thing right downtown,” he said.
There is a new writeup[H/T again to Power and Control and IECfusiontech] by Tom Ligon which discusses the inertial confinement fusion work and theory of the Bussard fusion team.
This has the potential to be a huge game changer for energy and technology in general.