Monday, May 26, 2014

Low Cost Nuclear Reactor Turns to Crowd-Sourcing for Funding

          by Brian Orlotti

A private team of researchers has turned to crowd-funding to help build a proof-of-concept for a new kind of nuclear fusion reactor. If successful, the technology will have far-reaching effects both on Earth and in space.

Overview of the theories and methodologies surrounding the LLP approach to building what is technically known as an aneutronic fusion reactor. It's generally conceded by scientists that a successful aneutronic fusion reactor would greatly reduce problems associated with neutron radiation such as ionizing damage, neutron activation, and requirements for biological shielding, remote handling, and safety. Graphic c/o the Focus Fusion Society.

As outlined in the May 18th, 2014 Gizmag article. "Can crowdfunding give us safe fusion power by 2020?," New Jersey-based LawrenceVille Plasma Physics (LPP) began a campaign on crowd-funding website Indiegogo on May 6th, 2014 under the title "Focus Fusion: emPOWERtheWORLD" with the objective of raising $200,000 USD for the purchase components for a new type of nuclear fusion reactor which utilizes a technology called "focus fusion."

The Gizmag article quoted LPP president and independent plasma Eric Lerner as saying that his team can obtain a berylium electrode for $200,000 USD, demonstrate net power gain (when a fusion reaction produces more energy than it needed to start) with $1Mln USD and deliver a working fusion reactor with $50Mln USD in funding. Assuming their funding efforts succeed, The LPP team says their reactor would cost $500,000 USD (far less than nuclear fission reactors), be safe and small enough to fit in a garage or shipping container, have an output of 5 MW, and produce electricity for as little as 0.06 cents per kWh. The LPP team aims to build a commercial-ready reactor by 2016.

LPP president and independent plasma researcher Eric Lerner. His current work derived from earlier NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory funded studies in 1994 and 2001 to explore whether the dense plasma focus could be an effective ion thruster to propel spacecraft. Lerner is also a popular science writer who stirred up much controversy with his 1991 book "The Big Bang Never Happened: A Startling Refutation of the Dominant Theory of the Origin of the Universe," which rejected mainstream "Big Bang" cosmology in favor of non-standard plasma cosmology theories originally proposed by Hannes Alfvén in the 1960s. Photo c/o CrowdFund Insider

LPP's effort contrasts greatly with government-funded fusion research programs, most notably the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), now being constructed in southern France. ITER, a joint effort of seven nations, has been marred by over a decade of delays as well as doubts  over its long-term economic viability. ITER's cost is expected to exceed the $13.7Bln USD mark and won't begin operations until as least 2027.

The traditional technical approach to developing nuclear fusion is centered around the idea of containing super-hot gas (called plasma) and stabilizing it, which is both technically challenging and expensive. The focus fusion approach is not to fight a plasma's instabilities, but instead harness them to concentrate the plasma in a very small area.

Focus fusion relies on a device called a plasma focus. The heart of the fusion reactor, it can be as small as a few inches in diameter. A plasma focus consists of a central hollow cylinder made of copper, the anode, surrounded by an insulator, and an outer electrode, the cathode, a circle of copper rods. The device is enclosed in a vacuum chamber filled with the fusion fuel (hydrogen and boron gas) and attached to a bank of capacitors.

In a microsecond, the capacitor bank pulses a current of over a million amps from the cathode to the anode. This ionizes the gas, turning it into a plasma. At this point, parallel currents run along each other inside the plasma, generating a magnetic field that forces dense plasma filaments to attract and twist around each other, concentrating the plasma over a small area.

A plasma focus device from the 1970's. Invented in the early 1960s by J.W. Mather and also independently by N.V. Filippov in 1954, they fell out of favor in the 1970's and have only recently been rediscovered for research into fusion power.

The magnetic fields focus the plasma filaments into a donut-shape plasmoid that is only millimeters across and quickly compressing. When the plasmoid gets dense enough, radiation from the center of the plasmoid starts to escape, and that causes a sudden fall in the magnetic field, accelerating a beam of electrons on one end and a beam of ions on the other end. As they leave, the electrons in the beam interact with the electrons in the plasmoid and heat up the area to over 1.8 billion degrees Celsius, which triggers fusion reactions.

Unlike other fusion methods, the hydrogen-boron reaction generates little or no neutrons, so no dangerous radioactive waste is produced. In fact, the end products have a half-life of just over 20 minutes, so the reactor's interior would be radiation-free in only nine hours.

On Earth, focus fusion technology could potentially offer cheap, clean energy free from control by any single nation or group of nations. Viable fusion power would not only enrich the developed world, but help lift the undeveloped world out of poverty. In space, fusion power would enable far faster spacecraft propulsion than chemical rockets, enabling easy access to any planet in our solar system. Fusion power could allow travel times to Mars measured in days instead of weeks.

Brian Orlotti.
Should LPP's crowdfunding initiative succeed, it will be a powerful statement of what the public and  skillful small business can achieve together. Focus Fusion's success will give the phrase 'people power' a whole new meaning.

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and the treasurer of the Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA).

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