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Energy Insights: Energy News: Focus Fusion: Has cheap, clean Earth-saving fusion power been right under our noses all along?

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Focus Fusion: Has cheap, clean Earth-saving fusion power been right under our noses all along?




Focus Fusion device, with Eric Lerner

While the world’s only major fusion power effort — ITER — continues to trundle along, with an eventual first-fusion date of 2027 at a cost of more than $20 billion to taxpayers, there’s a small lab in New Jersey that says it can produce fusion power within a year, with a total spend of just a few million dollars. This lab uses a much cheaper and easier method to reach nuclear fusion — called Focus Fusion — with the massive added benefit that its fusion reactors are small enough and safe enough to deploy domestically. To be honest it sounds too good to be true — but rest assured that Focus Fusion, at least to my eyes, is the real deal. This isn’t some kind of magical, inexplicable witchcraft like cold fusion: Focus Fusion appears to be based on cold, hard science. This could actually be it.

The key to Focus Fusion is a dense plasma focus device and a form of fusion called aneutronic fusion. These are both completely unlike current controlled fusion systems — such as the American NIF, European JET, or international ITER — which use massive magnets or lasers to create magnetic and inertial confinement fusion. Both inertial and magnetic confinement fusion require massive, billion-dollar setups that are hard to build and tough to fund.

The following video neatly explains what a dense plasma focus device is.

The advantages of Focus Fusion

There are two key advantages to deep plasma focus fusion (hereafter shortened to Focus Fusion). The fusion of the fuel (hydrogen and boron) creates very few neutrons (it’s aneutronic), which means almost no nuclear waste is produced – you could walk inside one a few seconds after a Focus Fusion generator has been turned off without any ill effects.

The second major advantage is that Focus Fusion emits most of its energy in the form of an ion beam and X-rays, both of which can be converted very efficiently into electricity (conventional deuterium-tritium fusion power produces heat, which is then turned into electricity via huge steam turbines).

Combined, these advantages allow for the creation of small (~5 megawatt) generators that can be located within a neighborhood or town. This reduces transmission losses, and reduces the risk of mass power outages following a disaster or cascading grid failure. It could also help with rolling out reliable power to countries without an established grid.

So, what’s the catch?

So far, so good — but what’s the catch? Surely if there was a new form of fusion power that could solve global warming, save millions of lives (and trillions of dollars), and revolutionize power distribution, the big boys would be all over it? Apparently not. According to Eric Lerner, chief scientist of the lab that’s developing Focus Fusion, most governments decided 40 years ago to focus on the tokamak (magnetic confinement fusion) — and we’ve been stuck on that path ever since. [Read: Fusion power at home, or, how small science will defeat big science.]

The target chamber at the National Igniftion Facility, where 192 lasers combine to create fusion

The target chamber at the National Ignition Facility, where 192 lasers combine to create inertial confinement fusion.

But except for funding, Lerner seems confident that Focus Fusion is the future. The science is already there — it’s now just a matter of building the first Focus Fusion device that creates more energy than you put in — the seemingly mythical break-even point. And to build that device, Lerner and the other scientists at LPP Fusion need your help. LPP Fusion has already secured $3 million in funding over the last six years — and now it’s trying to raise some more via an Indiegogo campaign. With your help, Lerner and co will be able to buy some beryllium electrodes that will (hopefully) allow it build a deep plasma focus fusion device that becomes the first controlled fusion experiment to generate net energy — to surpass the break-even point. They’ve raised over $100,000 so far, so there’s obviously a lot of interest (though not as much as Solar Roadways, of course…)

With only 1/1000th the budget of the huge government funded projects, we are closer to affordable, unlimited, and ultra-clean energy than anyone else in the world,” says Lerner. The question, of course, as with all breakthroughs that seem too good to be true, is whether you believe him or not. Compared to cold fusion, Lerner appears to at least have solid science on his side. Personally, considering how controlled fusion power would solve most of Earth’s problems, I think we should give Lerner and LPP Fusion the benefit of the doubt.

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