Two desktop-printer engineers quit their jobs to search for the ultimate source of endless energy: nuclear fusion. Could this highly improbable enterprise actually succeed?
Nuclear fusion: It sounds futuristic, and yet it's not. It's a story as old as the sun, literally; fusion is how it fuels itself. Two ions collide at such velocity that the electrostatic repulsion between them is broken. They fuse into a heavier atom and give off energy as heat. In terrestrial practice, the idea is that a man-made reaction would produce heat that would then be captured by a heat exchanger to create steam. The steam would power a turbine as in any coal plant and -- voilà! -- energy.
The earliest fusion experiments date back to the University of Cambridge in the 1930s, but the research gained momentum in the 1950s during the Cold War, when both sides were primarily interested in weaponizing fusion. The 1952 American nuclear test Operation Ivy proved that fusion could work as the core of a devastating weapon, when the first hydrogen-bomb test obliterated an entire island in the Pacific.
Two things have conspired to hamper evolutionary leaps in peacetime fusion research. The first is bad press. To the great frustration of people like Laberge and Richardson, fusion's good name has been besmirched by a handful of highly publicized failures, most prominently the cold-fusion experiments of Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann and the "bubble fusion" experiments Rusi Taleyarkhan conducted at Purdue University. Pons and Fleischmann announced in 1986 that they had achieved fusion at room temperature, but later review showed that faulty equipment had failed to accurately measure the results. The U.S. Department of Energy all but called them frauds. In 2002, Taleyarkhan published a paper stating that he had used ultrasonic vibrations to make bubbles in a liquid solvent and that, when the bubbles collapsed, they had created fusion. His results, too, would later be discredited, and last year he was stripped of his university chair.
The failures were bad for fusion's public image, but the larger problem, researchers say, is money. Governments just have not seen a need to pour resources into an idea that they perceive as being decades from reality. In 1982, for example, Congress passed a plan calling for fusion energy in 20 years. "What happened?" says Glen Wurden, who heads up the Magnetized Target Fusion program at Los Alamos. "The U.S. didn't fund it. In the 1980s the U.S. was the world leader in fusion research. [Our funding is] a factor of three behind Europe right now and a factor of two behind Japan."
These days, there are several large fusion experiments happening around the globe; the differences among them have to do with how the plasma is contained. General Fusion uses what's considered an "alternative" method, one of a handful of ideas that lie outside the prevailing model, known as steady-state fusion. Steady-state is the form practiced at nearly all the world's biggest test facilities. It's also the model on which the mother of all fusion experiments, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, will be based.
ITER is funded by a consortium of seven governments: the U.S., Russia, Japan, China, India, South Korea and the European Union. Construction is set to begin this year in the south of France. Like most high-level fusion experiments, ITER uses a plasma-chamber design called a "tokamak," a word transliterated from a Russian acronym meaning "toroidal chamber with magnetic coils." It looks like a gigantic doughnut. Huge superconducting magnets hold the plasma away from the chamber walls. Then they blast the plasma with radio waves and beams of neutrons to trigger a fusion reaction.
Yet aside from reactor design (and obvious contrasts in size and funding), the biggest difference between ITER and General Fusion is a sense of urgency. Conventional wisdom among most in the plasma-physics community -- "the tokamak mafia," as Laberge jokingly calls them -- is that commercially viable fusion is at least 30 to 40 years away. Richardson and Laberge belong to a splinter cell of the industry that points out that fusion has been 30 to 40 years away for 50 years now and that, frankly, the world can't wait that long. "The s- - - will hit the fan in 10 years," Laberge predicts. "It's going to be ugly. As the gap between fossil-fuel supply and energy demand builds up, we will need to put new energy sources in the gap. We may avoid a disaster if we can do that fast enough, but I don't think so without some serious breakthrough in energy production." They're convinced that this breakthrough has to come from private industry.
It's certainly not going to come from ITER anytime soon. The experiment has been delayed innumerable times and is now not expected to go online until 2018. If projections are correct, sometime after that, it will produce 500 million watts of fusion power for a period of 300 to 500 seconds, a gain of 10 times the energy put in to create the reaction. Yet ITER is only a demonstration. A workable power plant is yet another monumental project that will take at least 20 more years.
That's plenty of motivation to pursue other approaches, and General Fusion isn't alone. Wurden, for example, is working on a model akin to General Fusion's: He fills a container about the size of a large beer can with plasma and uses electrodes to "crush" the can and condense the plasma. Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are at work on a project known as NIF (National Ignition Facility), in which the world's biggest laser blasts tiny balls of plasma encapsulated in glass.
In fact, General Fusion isn't even the only private-sector start-up. For a few days in May 2007, the fusion world was abuzz over a rumor that a company called Tri Alpha, associated with a noted physicist from the University of California at Irvine named Norman Rostoker and reportedly backed in part by Paul Allen, had received $40 million in venture-capital money to pursue a method called "proton-boron fusion." Then the company went into stealth mode.
Laberge thinks that proton-boron fusion, if that is in fact what Tri Alpha is up to, is a valid idea, but that it requires much higher temperatures -- generated, most likely, with the same extremely expensive superconductive magnets used in tokamak reactors -- and has other theoretic flaws he feels are far more challenging than the ones in front of him. "I used to say, [proton-boron fusion] is like learning to run before you walk. And I was talking to physicists at some conference, and they say, 'No, no, it's like learning to fly before you walk.' You think we're ambitious? I think they're ambitious."single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.