Eric Lerner interview.
Mr. Lerner heads the Focus Fusion Society, which is a charitable organization attempting to create focus fusion technology. He believes that his technique is fundamentally superior to Tri-alpha Energy (Colliding beam fusion in the reverse field configuration) and EMC2 fusion (inertial electrostatic confinement/pollywell fusion) because it results in more of the proton-boron fuel being burned. He is confident that this technology could lead to electricity generation at 2 cents per kilowatt hour. We should know if this technology if feasible or not within the next two years. If it is successful as Lerner hopes, this technology could have a profound impact on the world.
Question: Tell us about the DB-11 fusion reactor
Answer: We are using a technique which we call focus fusion. This technology involves using dense plasma to burn hydrogen-boron fuel (PB-11). The advantage of this approach is that the reaction does not produce neutrons but rather charged particles. So we get the energy out in the form of moving charged particles which is already electricity. So we don’t need to use any turbine, and this dramatically reduces size, costs, and energy requirements.
Question: How easy would this fusion reactor be to operate? Would there be any danger of a meltdown, or a terrorist incident with this technology?
: The safe and easy operation of this device is one of its selling features. The amount of fuel being burned at any given time is extremely small, so the possibility of uncontrolled release of energy is nil – a misfire will simply cause the device to stop operating. Furthermore the container will be shielded by water and boron-10, which absorbs neutrons. So radioactivity simply isn’t an issue.
Question: What major milestones has your project achieved?
Answer: We developed the general theory for this back in the 1980s, based on astrophysical phenomena such as quasars and solar flares. NASA’s jet propulsion lab funded us in the 1990s, and in 2001 we demonstrated that we could achieve the extremely high temperatures (over a billion degrees) that would be needed for fusion,. Unfortunately NASA ceased funding fusion in 2001, but with some difficulty we were able to obtain private funding to continue our research. We are now performing experiments which will test out the scientific feasibility of our approach, and trying to obtain net energy production. We will begin to build the energy device within weeks, and we hope to get the experimental data back by fall 2009.
Question: How does your reactor compare to the EMC2 fusion reactor?
Answer: We, Bussard [those who carry on the late Robert Bussard’s fusion project], and a company called Tri-Alpha Energy are all trying to burn the PB-11 fuel, which is difficult to burn but otherwise highly desirable. EMC2 and Tri-Alpha require stable plasma. Our approach, however, uses a very dense, unstable plasma, which results in more of the fuel being burned. On this metric we are several orders of magnitude closer to the goal of maximum fuel efficiency than either EMC2 or tri-Alpha. We strongly support the funding of competing projects but believe we have a superior approach that will yield the quickest results.
Question: Your website claims that electricity could be produced for 1/50th the cost of conventional plants. Is 2/10 cent per kilowatt hour feasible?
Answer: We are confident that 2/10 of a penny per kilowatt hour is eventually attainable for several reasons. First, for conventional energy sources, the equipment for energy conversion production costs about $1 per watt produced. We are planning on building a 5 megawatt generator that when in mass-production should cost approximately $300,000. So that comes out to about 6 cents per watt for the equipment. Second, the fuel itself is virtually free, and each generator only consumes about 5 pounds of fuel per year. Third, labor costs should be quite modest since few workers are required to run these plants.
: Your website mentions 5 megawatt plants, but larger 5 gigawatt plants will be required. Is this technology scalable?
: Not in individual units, since there are limits as to how frequently these machines can be pulsed. It should be possible, however, to build large numbers of modules in one location. So for instance an aluminum plant might want to construct 100 fusion generators at their plant.
Question: You have divided your fusion development projects into stages. What are these stages, and are you meeting the timetables?
Answer: There are three basic stages. We are currently trying to determine the scientific feasibility of our approach. This involves constructing a laboratory device that generates net energy and unequivocally proves viability. This phase has just begun and should be completed within the next two years. The second stage would result in a working prototype, and that will be a much larger project, involving about $20 million and taking about 3 years. The final stage would be implementation – getting our fusion technology out to the economy.
Question: How long do you anticipate between a successful prototype demonstration and commercial production?
Answer: We anticipate having a commercial reactor no more than eighteen months after the prototype is completed. So eighteen months after the prototype there should be significant numbers of reactors being manufactured. If this technology can generate electricity for 1/10 the cost of current approaches, as we believe, then it will quickly supplant them. We could eventually see a million of these units being produced per year.
Question: You have given a talk on fusion at google. Is google or any other corporation funding any of your research?
Answer: No corporation is currently funding our research. The Abell foundation in Baltimore is our only institutional funder, and they have invested a half million. That has constituted half of our budget. We hope that the Federal Government will fund our research, and we are currently applying for a grant from ARPA-E. We are also hoping to garner funding from private accredited investors.
Question: Can this proposed fusion reactor use multiple fuel sources, or is it limited to hydrogen-boron fuel?
Answer: It is limited to hydrogen-boron fuel. Although we plan on experimenting with other fuels, such as deuterium, we don’t anticipate that there is a way of using other fuels to economically generate energy using our fusion approach.
Question: At what point do you anticipate that your company, Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, will become consistently profitable?
Answer: Shortly after the successful completion of our second stage, we plan on selling licenses for the production of these generators, since demand for the product will overwhelm any single corporation. Although we haven’t worked out the details of these license agreements, we intend to ensure that the price of focus fusion power is as close as possible to the cost of production.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
A frequent speaker at corporations, he has been a TEDx speaker, a Singularity University speaker and guest at numerous interviews for radio and podcasts. He is open to public speaking and advising engagements.