In The Dark

Rick Nebel, the lead guy in Polywell Fusion Research has a few things to say about his current state of knowledge with reference to the Polywell Fusion Reactor. He also discusses some rather technical questions about his research and findings. You can read those by following the link.

To a certain extent we are in the same boat as everyone else as far as the previous experiments go since Dr. Bussard's health was not good when we started this program and he died before we had a chance to discuss the previous work in any detail. Consequently, we have had to use our own judgement as to what we believe from the earlier experiments and what we think may be questionable.
That may explain why the US Navy has contracted Rick's company, EMC2 Fusion, (formerly run by Dr. Bussard until his death) to do several different measurements on the plasma including density, and magnetic fields.

In various Polywell discussion groups a lot of the talk is focused on how little published information there is about Polywell. The above may be part of the explanation.

I must say that this news is a surprise to me. I was under the impression that the knowledge was out there. Now it appears that however much there was a lot of it died with Dr. Bussard. However, some very big names in plasma physics, like Nicholas Krall, who wrote Principles of Plasma Physics are interested in the progress of the Polywell reactor. In fact Dr. Krall who famously said, "We spent $15 billion dollars studying tokamaks and what we learned about them is that they are no damn good.", wrote a paper with Dr Bussard titled Forming and maintaining a potential well in a quasispherical magnetic trap. So despite our current state of knowledge I'd have to say the effort to find out more is very worthwhile. Especially given the relatively low cost of knowledge. So far the US Navy agrees. Here is what Dr. Nebel recently said about what the experiments show.

"There's nothing in there that suggests this will not work," Nebel said. "That's a very different statement from saying that it will work."
If we upped the burn rate of the project from $2 million a year to $10 million a year we could learn more faster. Which means faster decision making. And that is almost always a good thing. Right now we are in the position of not having enough solid information. More is better.

Bussard's IEC Fusion Technology (Polywell Fusion) Explained

Why hasn't Polywell Fusion been fully funded by the Obama administration?

Cross Posted at Power and Control

posted by Simon on 04.07.09 at 02:52 AM


Back when I was in grad school, I worked at the Center for Electromechancis (now defunct) at UT Austin. My thesis project was related to a Tokomak generator that used a single turn toroidal field magnet with a very high current (9 MA) and a 20 T toroidal magnetic field. My thesis advisor had an innovative plan for testing pulsed power Tokomaks but was never funded because the traditional fusion research community wasn't interested in anything that didn't follow the standard paradigm (low-current, many windings). While it may not have led to a working generator, his proposed experiments could have significantly advanced our understanding of plasma behavior in a fusion reactor.

Hopefully Polywell Fusion will have more success but at the time (15 years ago) anything that wasn't ITER was not being funded.

Bolie Williams IV   ·  April 7, 2009 3:31 PM

Everyone is frustrated about our energy options. The technically obvious choices of coal and nuclear have been culturally and politically tainted.

That frustration makes us gullible. Look at all the wonderful new and unproven methods bubbling up for public attention - like the Polywell.

It might work but the burden of proof is on the promoters. Bring me a useful generator, even in prototype, and I'll give you a hearing. Until then, you're selling snake oil until you prove otherwise.

Whitehall   ·  April 7, 2009 5:05 PM


What is your point? Without experiments it is difficult (maybe impossible) to decide what will work. So dismiss alternatives without doing the experiments because the alternatives are unproven?

You will note that funding experiments is what I suggest. Which is a bit far from promoting snake oil.

In any case the experiments are on going (thanks to the US Navy) and will tell us if this device has promise. What I want is an increased rate of funding so the answers will come sooner.

M. Simon   ·  April 7, 2009 9:42 PM

Whitehall: You obviously have not been following the news and discussion concerning the Polywell, and have come up with a content-free generic slam on anything that's new and unproven. There ought to be a word for someone that is the exact opposite of "gullible" - for people that violently reject anything that is not already a known, official fact, signed off by "experts". Skeptic does not cut it, because skeptic implies critical analysis and inquiry - and your response has none of that, just name calling.

That is not to say that caution is not needed when looking into more obscure subjects like the Polywell. It is. There are many things that are scams and BS, even sometimes sincere BS.

Dr. Nebel has built a new Polywell based Dr. Bussard's design under Navy contract. It is producing data, not all of which is completely understood, and this data is being independently reviewed. No-one is claiming that this thing will definitely work. However it is showing a lot of promise, and is worth pursuing on that basis because the device is relatively cheap and quick to build compared to the the big-science approach of ITER.

It's becoming clear that ITER is not going to get anywhere practical any time soon, and we are running out of time. As mentioned by Bolie above, the big-science approach to fusion has tended to strangle all other possible competitors for government funding in the cradle - because of this, we don't even know what we don't know about the subject.

And we are not dealing here with the classic scam pattern: A secretive (paranoid) inventor with a closed black box looking for funding from gullible investors who are not experts in the relevant field. Instead, the design and principles of the device are widely known, related smaller devices (Farsworth fusors) have been built by hobbyists and for high-school science projects for years (now some are also attempting to build small-scale Polywells on their own), there is discussion and design ongoing in public forums (see the links above), with some resident sharp critics that help to provide rigor and grounding to the discussion.

Now, I am no expert in physics, beyond a general-science background - so you can take what I say with a large grain of salt. I personally cannot provide the proofs you demand. But I do know what an open-source community working on an active project looks like, and the Polywell community has all the same flavor as any active OSS tool project; Apache, Linux, Gentoo, etc. It's simply does not smell like a scam or fraud. It's technical and interested people collaborating to achieve a common goal, and having a good time doing it.

(Note that I agree with what you are saying concerning coal and nuclear - or even our untapped domestic oil, of which we have more than some let on.)

Eric E. Coe   ·  April 7, 2009 9:53 PM

Regardless of what else we do, we should be allowing the exploitation of existing domestic resources, building more nuclear plants, and continuing to clean up coal power.

The biggest problem I saw with ITER was that its goal was to build a working fusion reactor. All of the work was being done to develop working fusion reactor systems. This was before anyone knew for certain a working fusion reactor was possible or how it would work. They were spending hundreds of millions of dollars to develop subsystems that would be used in reactor but weren't willing to spend the same amount for an experiment that would verify the behavior of plasma undergoing fusion.

My impression was that ITER was a way to fund professors and grad students in perpetuity. If they were to succeed, they'd probably end up losing their funding... so they were in no hurry.

I like the x-prize model... here's $1 billion dollars. Whoever builds a working fusion reactor gets it, tax-free. Adjust the amount and/or criteria accordingly.

Bolie Williams IV   ·  April 8, 2009 3:10 PM

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