What makes fusion interesting? For starters, because of it’s AWESOME power. Did you know there is enough energy inside one measly gram of hydrogen to power a 100 watt light bulb for well over 28,000 years?!
There’s four fundamental forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetism, weak nuclear, and strong nuclear. The strong nuclear force is what holds the neutrons and protons of an atom together and is the strongest of all the forces. Fusion energy literally taps into the amazing power inside the nucleus of atoms. It is a demonstration of Einstein’s famous E = mc2 equation. The only other conceivable energy source that could provide more energy is the annihilation of matter with antimatter, but that remains in the realm of science fiction.
Which brings me to the second reason fusion is interesting. Because it’s within the realm of achievable physics. Scientists achieve fusion in the lab all the time and many are working towards making fusion the energy source of the future. Nobody has achieved net energy (more power out than put in), yet. But scientists are working towards that goal. Doing it in a way that is SAFE is something to get excited about. The impact would be revolutionary
So how is it possible to get clean energy from fusion? The answer is you have to use the right fuel source. When most people speak of fusion they are speaking of proton-proton fusion. This is much better than current fission reactors, but still produces nuclear waste and uses radioactive isotopes. But other fuels can be used, such as proton-boron. This fuel source is not radioactive and doesn’t produce radioactive waste. This is because it produces helium ions and x-rays, instead of fast moving neutrons (which creates radioactive waste).
Wow. So if proton-boron fusion is so much better why haven’t you heard of it? Because it’s much harder to achieve than proton-proton fusion. It has a higher barrier of entry. For this reason, most people reasonably assume that it makes no sense to even attempt net energy with proton-boron fusion before regular proton-proton fusion has achieved it. But it turns out it does make sense IF we think outside the box.
Conventional approaches to fusion require the neutrons as a heat source to turn a steam turbine (old-school approach). This is INCREDIBLY wasteful and it’s this kind of thinking that will always lead to a system that creates radioactive waste (because it requires neutrons to extract energy). The dense plasma focus (DPF) device used in Focus Fusion has a different approach. It takes the ions created in the hydrogen-boron reaction and focuses them into a beam that can be directly converted into electricity! That’s a mind blowingly awesome idea. The huge gain in efficiency makes up for it’s higher barrier of entry.
Is anybody working on this?!!! Fortunately, yes, there is a small group working on this at Lawrenceville Plasma Physics (LPP) and they have come amazingly far considering how little they are working with. LPP has successfully demonstrated record breaking temperatures of 1.8 BILLION DEGREES C. That’s not a typo. This is over 200X hotter than the center of the sun! This meets the temperature requirement for hydrogen-boron fusion and is published in a peer-reviewed journal. LPP has also nailed the required confinement time. All that’s left is to figure out how to increase the plasma density. And they think they know how to do it.
So why should we believe LPP is as close as they say they are? A good way to judge a scientists credibility is to get some perspective from other scientists in the field we already know are credible. A recent review by a scientific committee led by Dr. Robert L. Hirsch, a former director of fusion research for the US Atomic Energy Commission and the Energy Research and Development Agency, concluded their review with these statements:
“The committee was pleasantly surprised at the innovative thinking and experimental results achieved thus far by Mr. Lerner and his team at LPP. We commend him for developing a theoretical model to guide the effort. In the committee’s view, their approach to fusion power based on their DPF findings to date is worthy of a considerable expansion of effort.
While a number of near-term physics issues remain to be resolved, it is likely that with adequate financial support, these matters could be addressed in a relatively short period of time, e.g., a few years. Further effort in this area is definitely justified.”
LPP was originally funded by NASA until NASA dropped funding for all fusion research in 2001. Since then, they have turned to private investors and raised 3 million dollars (very little in the scheme of things).
Of course, LPP has their fair share of skeptics but that’s to be expected in the field of fusion and we encourage open-minded skepticism. It is fair to say this is interesting research, nonetheless. And the only way to know for sure if this will work is to test the science through experimentation. That’s exactly what LPP is doing and their planned future experiments are a BIG deal because they predict they can reach net energy.