Fusion is SO Hot….

Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 11.59.48 AM…it’s on the cover of TIME Magazine this week.

I discovered last night that the cover story of this coming week’s edition of TIME Magazine (dated Nov 2, 2015) is all about the quest for fusion – which is suddenly a hot topic now that it’s starting to attract all kinds of Silicon Valley, tech-titan, and VC money.

Unfortunately, the online version of the story is behind TIME.com’s paywall.  They don’t even let you view a limited number of articles per month, like most digital versions of legacy print media (like the New York Times) do.  They want you to subscribe for $3/mo to read the one article.

Well, pardon me but… fuck that.  Here’s a PDF of the story you can download and read at your leisure:  Time_Fusion.pdf. I suggest you save the article to your own hard drive lest some lawyer for TIME insist we take the link down.

There is some deliberate, conscientious rebelliousness to this act of digital defiance.

Those of us in the “Open Source” fusion community – on this and other sites – adhere to the conviction that, once achieved, the knowledge that makes fusion possible needs to be freely circulated.  It cannot be become the property of any single capitalist enterprise or consortium. It cannot be monopolized like fossil fuel production and distribution.  It should not be any more “proprietary” than that other form of combustion – you know, fire.

So, at the risk of defying the gods of digital commerce, this story is being made available to the “open source” fusion community here. 

You’re welcome.

It’s Not Exactly “Mr. Fusion”

Now, there's a scale that makes sense (even if it is based on a coffee grinder)

Now, there’s a scale that makes sense (even if it is based on a coffee grinder)

There’s been a lot in the cultural firmament this month about the second “Back To The Future” movie – the one where Marty and Doc Brown fly in the DeLorean time machine – now powered by a “Mr. Fusion” reactor – to the date of October, 21, 2015.  They arrive at a time where not only fusion power is a reality, but the Chicago Cubs have finally won a World Series.

So much for the predictive power of 1980s cinema.

So that was on my mind when my daily, multi-source info-feed delivered this article from LinkedIn:

ITER Is Not On A Commercially Viable Path – by Dr. Matthew Moynihan (on LinkedIn).

And what immediately struck me about the article (before I read it, of course) was this illustration that accompanies it:

iter

I’ve been critical of the whole tokamak approach to fusion on the grounds that the approach produces massive, incredibly complex machines could fill a gymnasium.  I only arrive at this obviously negative (and perhaps ill-informed, since I’m hardly anybody’s idea of an expert) bias because my introduction to the subject comes by way of the Farnsworth Fusor, a device that sits on a table top.

Now comes the world’s joint effort to demonstrate magnetic containment – yes, another ginormous tokamak, only this time the largest one ever built, on a scale several orders of magnitude beyond anything that preceded it.

And just look at this photo of the campus that will house this behemoth.  My god, it’s not a gymnasium, it’s a whole fucking city!!  For one experimental reactor!!!

The  article makes a pretty solid case for why this project is little more than a monumental money pit.

Clearly ITER itself will never be commercial.  Supporters will argue: So what? ITER is a government experiment – not a commercial product – the next machine will work.”  There are several evils in this logic.  First, if you admit that ITER is not on the commercial path then stop treating it like it is.  Fund this experiment appropriately along with other experimental options; but do not risk everything on ITER.  That is a bet we already know will fail.  Secondly, delaying the change pushes the world into more dangerous climate realities, with a fusion option further and further away.  This is a dangerous path and it must change for humanity’s sake.

 So, yeah, it’s frustrating to see countless billions being poured down a rat hole when smaller scale projects don’t get serious consideration.  There is a mentality around this research that says “it has to be big.”

No, it doesn’t.

But that’s the mentality that governs the whole field.

And that’s what needs to change.

Oh Boy, More Tokamaks!

I have been taking exception lately to the notion that “Fusion is the energy of the future and always will be.”

For starters, while the line is clever verbiation (don’t bother looking it up, I just made that one up), it is also something of a self-defeating prophesy.

As the protagonist (who just happens to be a dog named “Enzo”) in the novel “The Art of Racing In The Rain” is fond of saying, “that which we manifest is before us.”  In other words, if that’s what you think is true, then, well, by golly… it probably is. For you.

But I get where such skepticism comes from when I read an article like this one that showed up in my Google Alerts (“nuclear fusion”) this morning:

The magnetic fusion device, tokamak, has been a focus for extensive research the world over, and will emerge as the energy option of the future by 2050. Tokamak aims to determine the economic and technological viability of using fusion energy to greater effect to produce electricity.

Did I read that right? “…will emerge as the energy option of the future by 2050…”? Well there ya go, it’ll be in the future… in the future.

Since so much of the research in fusion is devoted to tokamaks, I begin to understand where the attitude comes from.  Whatever their “potential,” tokamaks are so complex that it seems doubtful to me (admittedly a marginally knowledgeable observer) that they will ever achieve “economic and technological viability.” So yeah, sure, maybe the Tokamak will prove viable in another 35 years. Never mind that we’ve already been working with that approach for 50…

Perhaps more revealing is the statement that opens the article:

The Department of Atomic Energy has handpicked a Thapar University scientist to work on a prestigious nuclear fusion program…

I think that tells you all you need to know about institutional magnetic fusion projects.  They’re not about energy.  They’re about prestige.

The Future’s So Bright…

… we really are going to need shades…

Imagine being dropped into the middle of an episode of “The Big Bang Theory.” Then imagine taking LSD. Then imagine that the episode runs for like 12 or 14 hours…

Now you’ve got some idea what this past Saturday was like for me…

The occasion was the 26th annual gathering of HEAS – The High Energy Amateur Science group – a loose-nit gang of high voltage, radiation, and fringe science enthusiasts from all over the country who gather at the home and lab of Richard Hull in Richmond Virginia to talk gizmos.

This was my fourth or fifth time attending this event, but even so I felt woefully “out of my league.” I attended because this is the best chance I have every year to visit with the people who inhabit Fusor.net – the site I started back in 1998 to foster discussion among people who are interested in Philo T. Farnsworth’s approach to nuclear fusion.

I felt out of place, but there I was…

I think the tone of the weekend was set early on, when I was chatting with an 18 year old from Seattle named Noah Hoppis, who pulled a small – wait for it – geiger counter! out of his pocket.  He proceeded to explain how it works, how he got it, what he does with it, etc.

Noah was there with an older friend of his family, a woman named Linda who lives in the area and was providing transportation for the weekend.  I watched as Linda’s eyes glazed over, and at one point she said, “I understand all the individual words, but once he starts stringing them together…. he loses me.”

Which is pretty much how I felt the entire day.

I am at best marginally conversant in these questions of advanced science and physics.  Remember, I’m the guy who basically got flunked out of physics in high-school because I was a pain in the ass for the teacher.  That was in the 11th grade, and I spent the semester in the principals office pulling wires out of an early kind of computer circuit board.  The symbolism is pretty rich…

Despite my failure in any kind of academic scientific pursuit, I have some capacity for staying tuned in long enough to get a sense of the big picture, and maybe even some talent for distilliing the Broad Concepts into language that the average reader can comprehend.  I’ve done it in two books, and occasionally somebody will tell me “you said that pretty clearly” or words to that effect.  I smile and think to myself, “fooled ‘em again…”

So I spent the first two hours being a million miles – light years? – out of my comfort zone… thinking, “I have no business being here.”

After a few hours of that, I finally settled down and got my camera out and started taking some pictures.

First, here is Richard Hull himself, as his fusor runs on the apparatus around him.  Just over his left shoulder is the fusion chamber itself, and over his right shoulder is the video image of the actual “star in a a jar” reaction inside that chamber:

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Now, of course, the reaction that Richard has created is pretty “low yield.”  1-2 million neutrons emitted per second may sound like a lot, but that level is safe to be in the same room with.  Exponentially, that yield is expressed as 1x10E6 (1 times ten-to-the-sixth) “Breakeven” for a system like this is predicted to occur somewhere between 10E12 and 10E14. Let me do the math for you: that would be somewhere between 10 and 100 TRILLION neutrons per second.  We ain’t there yet.

But fear not.  Here’s my favorite single photo of the weekend:

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This is Scott Moroch and Jack Rosky, two students at a high school in Wayne New Jersey who are building – yes – their ow nuclear fusion reactor.   What Scott is holding in his hand is a model of the fusion chamber they plan to build that they rendered in a 3D printer. The model is plastic, the real thing will be stainless steel (and considerably larger).  Now THAT’s using new technology to create new technology…

Finally, my favorite demonstration of the weekend:

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….where in Robert Tubbs looks on and assists as Dr. Kevin Dunn from the Hampton-Sidney College in Virginia demonstrates a form of “Caveman Chemistry” – namely a prehistoric chemical process called “fire.”

Conducted in the presence of the Fusor, it’s an intriguing juxtaposition of “Fire Version One” with “Fire Version 2.” Kevin made the point that “civilization” essentially begins with the discovery and control of “Fire v1.0″ What becomes of “civilization” if/when we finally control “Fire v2.0″?

And, not surprisingly, it is no easy feat to make fire from two pieces of wood. It takes some coordination to rapidly and repeatedly pull the bow back and forth to spin the spindle while pressing the spindle down against the second piece of wood.   It takes a bit of practice and perseverance to get the hang of it.

And I’m sure that, back at the beginning of time, there was one caveman telling the other caveman, “fire from two pieces of wood?!? That’s NEVER gonna work!”

And yet…

Watching these young guys try their hand at making fire – and knowing that they would go home to resume their efforts to build and operate a fusion reactor, I came up with this new rule: You’re not aloud to make “nuclear fire” until you have demonstrated that you are capable of making “carbon fire.”

You know, first things first…

 

The Mad Scientist

No, not really mad… just Richard Hull turning down the lights in his lab while demonstrating his Fusor IV today at HEAS – the High Energy Amateur Science confab at his home and lab in Richmond, Virginia.  More photos and stories when I get home….

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OK, I Want To Have THIS Discussion NOW

by Paul Schatzkin
October 1, 2015

What’s wrong with this picture?

These Titans of Tech are investing HUNDREDS of millions of dollars on nuclear fusion experiments.  Why not invest a few million into the most proven, cost-effective means of generating a fusion reaction demonstrated in the past 50 years?

These Titans of Tech are investing HUNDREDS of millions of dollars on nuclear fusion experiments. Why not invest a few million into the most proven, cost-effective means of generating a fusion reaction demonstrated in the past 50 years?

Tomorrow (Friday, October 2) I will be driving from Nashville up to Richmond, Virginia for the annual gathering of the HEAS – the High Energy Amateur Science club.  This loosely-configured assembly of dedicated science nerds has gathered on the first Saturday of every October for 25 years now – this year will be the 26th.  The event attracts people from all over the country who come to demonstrate and talk about the amazing things they are building in their basements and garages, many of them exploring the most esoteric areas of high voltage  phenomena worthy of the likes of Nikola Tesla.

Richard Hull at HEAS 2011, Fusor IV on the workbench behind him.

Richard Hull at HEAS 2011, Fusor IV on the workbench behind him. (click to embiggen)

This will be my fourth or fifth excursion to meet up with this unique tribe of real-life characters from The Big Bang Theory.  It is held each year at the home and laboratory of Richard Hull, who also happens to be one of the world’s foremost authorities on Tesla, the amazing Tesla Coil, and what Tesla did or did not actually doin his lifetime (apart from the vast mythology that has formed around the cult of his personality in the past decade or so).

I first met Richard back in 2000, after I tacked some information about the Farnsworth Fusor to the end of The Farnsworth Chronicles, which I had posted as as sidebar to “songs.com” – the Internet music site I started in 1995. Once I’d discovered I had the ability to “self publish” whatever I wanted to the web, I scanned and uploaded the Farnsworth biography I’d had lying fallow since the 1970s. At the end I wondered if there was anybody out in the worldie-wide-web who might be interested in the work that Philo Farnsworth – you know, the guy who invented television (I know, you probably didn’t know…) – did in the last two decades of his life.  In the 1950s and 60s, Farnsworth invented a novel approach to nuclear fusion – the same process that drives the sun and stars.

Fusion was then and is now still the holy grail of modern science. Given its history, it’s no surprise that a vast array of skeptics insist that the promise of fusion as the solution to our energy needs (and now pollution-generated climate change) is something that is “twenty years in the future and always will be…”

Now the question  – and the discussion I want to have – is: did Philo Farnsworth find a viable approach to energy generation through nuclear fusion some fifty years ago? And if so, why aren’t we living in the fusion-powered future NOW?

The "star in a jar" - the actual fusion reaction in Fusor IV

The “star in a jar” – the actual fusion reaction in Fusor IV (click to embiggen)

When Richard Hull and I first started to confer with each other, he was just beginning to build his first fusor, spurred on by a fellow named Tom Ligon who was a disciple of another fusion researcher, the late Robert Bussard, who had was developed his own version of the Farnsworth process called the Polywell.  Richard has since been the de-facto leader of the tribe, the most active and consistent participant in the growing, global community that is Fusor.net.

Over the course of the ensuing decade and half, what started out as a simple forum in one of the earliest online bulletin board formats has grown through several iterations into fusor.net – behind which lies a vast database of knowledge compiled by hundreds of people around the world who are experimenting with their own variations of Farnsworth’s invention.  Between them, these (mostly) “amateur” (in the best possible meaning of the word) scientists produce  on a daily basis more actual nuclear fusion than all of the expensively funded experiments being conducted at the behest of governments, corporations and institutions around the world combined.

Robert Hirsch and Bill Blaising with the original "Dessert Cart" fusor, ca. 1964 (click to embiggen)

Robert Hirsch and Steve Blaising with the original “Dessert Cart” fusor, ca. 1964 (click to embiggen)

But here’s the thing: this cadre of “fusioneers” – uniquely accomplished as they are, and in spite of the vast trove of knowledge they have helped assemble over the years – are not really experimenting with the Farnsworth Fusor.  They’re experimenting with what I call the “Hirsch/Meeks Variation” of the Farnsworth Fusor.  This simplified version of the Fusor was first built  by colleagues of Farnsworth’s in the mid 1960s.  Robert Hirsch and Gene Meeks built their version of the fusor on a dessert cart – so that it could  be wheeled in to a meeting of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in order to demonstrate Inertial Electrostatic Confinement.  These events are well documented in the latter chapters of my book, “The Boy Who Invented Television.”

It is this “dessert cart” fusor that the Legion of Fusioneers are building in their basements and garages.

The simple fact of the matter is that nobody has built or tested an actual “Farnsworth Fusor” in more than 50 years.  Think of how far technology has come in those five decades. Imagine a Fusor with computerized controls…

And now we read that the Titans of Tech – innovators and digital industrialists who have amassed unimaginable fortunes over the past three decades – are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into a whole new array of fusion concepts:

America has six private-sector fusion projects underway, according to a new report by the research firm Third Way. PayPal co-founder and Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel has backed Helion Energy of Redmond, Wash.  Microsoft  co-founder Paul Allen has put money behind Tri ­Alpha Energy in Irvine, Calif., which has reportedly raised $140 million. And Bezos Expeditions, the investment fund of Amazon  CEO Jeff Bezos, is backing a Vancouver company called General Fusion, which so far has raised $94 million.

Gene Meeks and an actual Farnsworth Fusor, ca. 1963

Gene Meeks and an actual Farnsworth Fusor, ca. 1963

But the undeniable fact is: none of the approaches to fusion that any of these Tech Titans are funding is anywhere near as simple or elegant as the device that Philo Farnsworth first created in the late 1950s.

In 2001, I got to spend some time with Gene Meeks, the co-creator of the Hirsch Meeks Variation.  Gene was as close to the critical work in the Farnsworth laboratory as anybody, and spoke in guarded terms about his experience.  But when pressed on the subject, Gene finally spoke wistfully of a fusor iteration called “Prime II” and its prospects for achieving “breakeven” – that elusive goal of all fusion research, where the energy coming out of the reaction is greater than the energy it takes to make the atoms fuse.

“We were close,” Gene Meeks said of the Prime II.  ”Very close….”

Gene Meeks in May, 2001 - discussing the only true "Farnsworth" fusor still extant in the world.

Gene Meeks in May, 2001 – discussing the only Farnsworth-era fusor still extant in the world. Unfortunately, it’s mostly a Hirsch design – as evidence by the closed, spherical inner sphere.

If that was the case, then what I want to know – the discussion I want to have – is: why isn’t any money being invested to revisit the Farnsworth Fusor?

Now, I could be completely off base here. Despite having founded this site almost two decades ago, I am arguably speaking from a vantage point of somebody who is only minimally knowledgeable in the field. Unlike the countless contributors who have combined their efforts over a decade-and-a-half to form the vast database that is Fusor.net, I have never built anything more complicated than a slot-car – and that was also 50 years ago.

So maybe they all know something I don’t know. Maybe the discussion is moot.  Maybe it has been proven somewhere that by the mid 1960s, Farnsworth was operating with faculties greatly diminished by decades of substance abuse.  Maybe, as some have contended, the Fusor is a dead end, but fun to experiment with.

Or maybe the the truth is closer to the story I first heard about Farnsworth and fusion, on a hillside in Santa Cruz California in the summer of 1973.

I had first heard of Philo T. Farnsworth in the “Videocity” edition of a publication called Radical Software – this edition named for San Francisco – the city where Farnsworth first demonstrated electronic video in 1927.   Later that summer I went out to the west coast to seek my fortune in the television business.  That September I went up the coast to Santa Cruz, and met a friend of the Farnsworth family. He told me an the apocryphal story he had heard from Farnsworth’s eldest son, Philo T. Farnsworth III about the day his father put aside his fusion work.  The story goes something like this:

The cathode from an actual Farnsworth Fusor, found at the museum in Rigby Idaho in July 2003.  Could this be the "missing piece" that makes the Fusor viable?

The cathode from an actual Farnsworth Fusor, found at the museum in Rigby Idaho in July 2003. Could this be the “missing piece” that makes the Fusor viable?

Imagine a young boy watching from the doorway of his father’s laboratory while the father operates an amazing machine –  a ‘star in a jar.’   The young boy watches as his father puts the machine through its paces, spinning off an eery, other-worldly light as the small synthetic star burns brightly.  And then he watches as his father – satisfied that the device worked as intended – dismantled it in such a way that it would never work again, and placed the piece that made it work on a high shelf where nobody would ever find it. 

That is, essentially, the story I first heard in the summer of 1973.

Two years later, I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Philo T. Farnsworth III. Over the course of the following decade we became good and trusting friends and shared many amazing moments together.  After I’d know him a while, I finally told him about that story, and asked him if there was any truth to it.

“That’s a pretty good story,” Philo said, “if a bit fantastic.  But I’ll tell you this much: the patents that my father filed… are incomplete.”

In other words, something was removed from the public disclosures – the patents – that make all the difference in how the device that Farnsworth built works or doesn’t work.

Maybe the time has come to invest some small portion of the tech millions that are being poured into these new experiments to find out once and for all if the answer has been with us all along.

That’s the discussion I want to have now.

Someday... a fusion powered future.  But maybe not to the species grows up.

Someday… a fusion powered future. But maybe not until the species grows up…

Yeah, That’s Sure To Work…

It's Called

Isn’t this the outfit that got a whole lot of press last year when they got some funding from one of Silicon Valley’s start-up incubators?

“What Helion is trying to achieve is to shoot two plasma balls made of hydrogen atom cores at each other at one million miles per hour to collide within an indescribably strong magnetic field to create a 100 million degree Celsius reaction for a millisecond.”

via Energy’s Holy Grail? You can find it at Redmond’s Helion Energy | Crosscut.com.

The Past is Prologue?

It’s always interesting to see what fusion research looked like in the early days….

The Stellarator, ca. 1953

The Stellarator, ca. 1953

…if for no other reason than because it affords some insight into just why, as Richard Hull (among others) is so fond of saying, “Fusion is 20 years in the future and always will be…”

It is also intriguing to see the subject of fusion being picked up among the tech cognoscenti, as in this article that appeared recently on the popular tech-geared site Gizmodo, which describes Lyman Spitzer’s “Stellarator” – one of the earliest magnetic confinement schemes:

Virtually all plasma physics research throughout the 1950s and 1960s occurred on Stellarators. The Model C, above, was the largest of these devices. … It entered service in 1962 and immediately blew the doors off of the earlier figure-8 design. It incorporated a pair of major innovations—the divertor, which sucked unwanted waste particles out of the stream without disrupting the confinement field, and ICRH that uses radio waves to force the ions to spin around the center axis of the field the same way the wire helix of the earlier models wound around the central core of their support matrix—mitigated earlier models’ issues with plasma loss.

Well, certainly no jargon there!

The Stellarator was an early attempt at “magnetic confinement” of a fusion reaction – in other words, marshalling titanic external forces in the service of confining a plasma and squeezing ions together.  It sounds reasonable enough, but magnetic confinement was once likened to “trying to contain a scoop of jello with rubber bands.”

It strikes me that all that “jargon” is the scientific description of how you keep the jello from escaping.

Fusion Finally Tempts The Startup Crowd

And I dare say it’s been a long time coming…

The Helion fusion process will employ a hybrid of magnetic and inertial confinement models.

The Helion fusion process will employ a hybrid of magnetic and inertial confinement models.

News surfaced this past week that one of the world’s most prominent startup incubators, Y Combinator has taken a stake in a company called Helion, which insists that it will produce a break-even nuclear fusion process in three years:

So it came as a surprise to hear that Y Combinator and Mithril Capital Management are investing $1.5 million in Helion Energy, a Redmond, Washingon-based startup that says it has a plan to build a fusion reactor that breaks even on energy input and output, a challenge whose solution has been considered decades away for, well, decades. Helion CEO David Kirtley says that his company can do it in three years….

…When the team left to form their own company, they did so with the express intention of using electronics advancements from other fields to create a magnetic-inertial confinement fusion reactor.

I suppose it’s good news that this initiative will be using “electronics advancements” in the development of their fusion process.  Lord only knows that the advancements in electronic monitoring and computer control are light years ahead of what a fusion pioneer like Philo Farnsworth had at his disposal in the 1950s and 60s.

But as soon as I read that the process revolves around “magnetic” confinement (even if it is some kind of hybrid with inertial confinement) I become pretty skeptical.  I forget who it was but long ago somebody likened magnetic plasma confinement to trying to wrap jello in rubber bands.  That much has not changed, and billions – maybe hundreds of billions – have been spent over the past several decades on monolithic systems that pretty well prove the point.

Nevertheless, it is encouraging that the Silicon Valley tech/startup community is taking at least a marginal interest in the promise of fusion. And these guys do have the right idea to decentralized, distributed power network:

Instead of building at the scale of a gigawatt power station right out of the gate, the company is looking to compete with smaller, more distributed plants, like large diesel generators in regions where fuel has to be trucked in. It’s a market where the current “best” solution isn’t great and the barriers to entry are far easier to deal with than when competing with the big guys.

But they still have to find a fusion process that actually produces more power than it consumes.

Lord knows, if this server-farm reality we’ve created for ourselves is going to be sustainable, we’re going to have to find some source of electricity other than fossil fuels – and fusion, if it can ever be achieved, offers at least the siren song of temptation for the biggest bang for the buck.

So it’s good to see the Big Bucks that technology has generated finally taking a serious interest in the field.  It’s about time the prospect of fusion energy appealed to some deep pockets other than government funding.