From the comments, on a fusion reactor

by on October 18, 2014 at 2:12 am in Current Affairs, Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

Geoff Olynyk writes:

So for once I can intelligently comment on a Marginal Revolution article. (I have a Ph.D. in applied plasma physics and fusion energy; I worked on the “conventional” fusion reactor design, the tokamak). Lockheed hasn’t released many details of their concept (at least, not enough details that it can actually be evaluated in technical detail), but it looks like it’s a combination of a magnetic mirror and a levitated dipole. The magnetic mirror was studied in detail in the 1960s and 1970s and didn’t work out (due to [detailed plasma physics reasons]) and the levitated dipole has a fundamental flaw as a power-producing reactor in that the superconducting magnets are inside the neutron shielding – neutrons destroy the magnets.

It’s tough as a scientist to be able to comment on things like this, because it’s “science by press release”, i.e. there’s a big media hype but the actual researchers don’t release enough technical details to actually evaluate it. One wants to remain cautiously optimistic, but with fusion in particular, we’ve been down this road many, many times. Thus I predict that the most likely outcome is that as they scale their device up, they’ll find that the confinement (a measure of how well the device holds a fusion plasma) unexpectedly drops off due to some different types of turbulence turning on at higher temperatures / higher pressures… and it will quietly go away.

I hope that I am proven wrong.

There are other interesting comments at the link and Kottke offers more.

1 Ray Lopez October 18, 2014 at 3:58 am

I believe Olynyk is mistaken if he compares 60s technology to today’s, and further misstates the fact that the magnetic field will surround the plasma and not touch it. In addition, the link by Kottke cites a certain math professor and journalist “Charles Seife*” as the authority on fusion, who simply points out the Lockheed schedule may have slipped by a few months due to a press release from earlier. Obviously fusion is a hard problem to crack, and the same thing is said about the disease “MS”, in that progress is constantly being made but the disease still is uncured.

Essentially the arguments by Olynyk and Seife are variants of “if man had wings, he’d would fly” meaning: if it hasn’t happened by now, God or nature intends it never to happen.

As I’ve said: offer a trillion dollar prize for the first team(s) to invent fusion according to certain milestones, and you’ll get fusion in no time. The way existing patents are structured, they are too short for pioneering inventions, and it pays to simply milk a sponsor for perpetual development funds, since the inventors working on these projects will not personally profit if they succeed quickly (as they have assigned their invention to their employers already), but will profit from a steady salary. In short: the incentives society has now for innovation encourages gold-plating and procrastination.


*Seife holds a mathematics degree from Princeton University (1993),[1] an M.S. in mathematics from Yale University and a M.S. in journalism from Columbia University.[2]

2 Jan October 18, 2014 at 5:59 am

You obviously have no idea what you’re talking about. No amount of money will allow you to break the principles of nature.

3 prior_approval October 18, 2014 at 10:51 am

‘No amount of money will allow you to break the principles of nature.’

Just for fun –

‘A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.

* The New York Times, January 13, 1920. The Times offered a retraction on July 17, 1969, as Apollo 11 was on its way to the moon.’

Or this – ‘Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. – Lord Kelvin (1824-1907), ca. 1895, British mathematician and physicist’

And this one is directly applicable – ‘…no possible combination of known substances, known forms of machinery, and known forms of force, can be united in a practical machine by which man shall fly long distances through the air… – Simon Newcomb (1835-1909), astronomer, head of the U. S. Naval Observatory.’

4 The Other Jim October 18, 2014 at 11:50 am

Jan made a witty and salient point, and you attempted to refute it by pointing out that the New York Times printed something incredibly stupid in 1973. This is comedy gold.

I think I also read in the NYT that if I liked my health plan, I could keep my health plan.

5 Aj October 18, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Not witty, not salient, not comedy gold, not even true or provable, but other than that, Jan’s comment added a lot to the discussion. You too. Keep it up. The world awaits your next missive.

6 msgkings October 18, 2014 at 1:11 pm

Every other poster in this thread is an order of magnitude smarter than you, The Other Jim. Even as they disagree, they prove expertise. You, not so much. Stop embarrassing yourself.

7 Nathan W October 19, 2014 at 9:46 am

Which principle of nature are you referring to?

The one that powers the sun?

8 Anon October 18, 2014 at 6:05 am

I agree. On this subject I would go with Ray Lopez’s opinion any day over someone who has a mere Ph.D in Applied Plasma Physics. Sure, trillion dollar prizes will guarantee everything : cure for cancer and immortality are next in line.

9 chrisa October 18, 2014 at 6:25 am

Anon and Jan – nuclear fusion is clearly not against the principles of nature (the sun is a fusion reactor and we have also created some pretty powerful fusion reactions on the earth). I tend to agree with Ray – the problem is that the current research grant industry is a bit like the fund management industry. The research granters are not actually handling their own money. So they tend to go with the bets that no-one would criticize them for. So the same people get the money and there is little diversity in research. If, like the Manhattan Project, the main research is on the right path, no problem, this probably gets us there sooner. However for fusion reactors I don’t think we will be that lucky. The other problem with diverse funding is that the externality of a successful fusion reactor vastly outweigh the potential returns to any investor. So the investment by private individuals is less than socially optimal. So I agree that prizes are worth trying. The worst thing that could happen, if Ray and myself are wrong, is that the prize is not won. So no harm and plenty of upside. What’s not to like?

10 Anon October 18, 2014 at 7:21 am

As a former Grad student in Physics (alas no Ph.D) , I am aware that Fusion is not against the laws of nature and that the Sun gets its energy making Helium out of its Hydrogen fuel.
However as a former Grad Student in “History of technology ” ( yes, the field exists ; ) , it is my impression that there are a lot of misconceptions of how technology develops . Somehow we seem to believe that incentives and wiping away of bureaucratic morasses miraculously transform the landscape out there into achieving whatever goals we envision.
Technology is not always teleology.
Could you clarify further about ‘externality of a successful fusion reactor vastly outweigh the potential returns to any investor. So the investment by private individuals is less than socially optimal” ?

11 Ray Lopez October 18, 2014 at 11:15 am

@Anon: “Could you clarify further about ‘externality of a successful fusion reactor vastly outweigh the potential returns to any investor. So the investment by private individuals is less than socially optimal” ?” – if you can’t figure out the plain meaning of this sentence, you probably flunked out as a historian of science too (hint: many automakers existed 100 years ago, but only a handful exist today; the inventors of the first electric car went bust.). BTW have you read George Sarton? Does it even ring a bell? Further, technology development of yesteryear is vastly different than today. The low-hanging fruit has been picked, so we need a different approach. Prizes are indeed all upside and little or no downside. The Pentagon in fact uses prizes, indirectly, when they have competitions between contractors to build the next war machine, and it works fairly well. “People respond to incentives” says an Econ101 textbook by some dude named Mankiw.

12 Dude October 18, 2014 at 12:08 pm

As a grad in “History of Technology”, you probably are aware that prizes have a LONG history of successfully nurturing technological innovation.

13 TallDave October 18, 2014 at 1:05 pm

The Sun is actually a terrible fusion reactor, has the mass-equivalent energy production of a compost heap. It’s just really big.

No one really knows for sure if controlled fusion will ever be commercially viable, so the benefits to research funding might actually be zero. Even after fossil fuels run out, there are thousands of years of fissionables.

This is why ITER and NIF are so annoying. They suck up tens billions of dollars in funding for designs that we already know have little commercial value, when there are literally dozens of other concepts out there going unfunded that might.

14 Al October 18, 2014 at 1:16 pm

Re: “Even after fossil fuels run out, there are thousands of years of fissionables.”

Just curious, because I’ve heard what seems like contradictory statements elsewhere. I hope that statement is true, but can you point us to some paper or outside discussion which supports this statement? Thank you.

15 Geoff Olynyk October 18, 2014 at 2:29 pm

+1 for the sun having the energy density of a compost heap. We always used that one when giving tours at the tokamak lab.

16 TallDave October 18, 2014 at 4:19 pm

There’s a couple papers around, the one I recall was from 1999 by the AEC iirc. The range given was 1,000 to 250,000 years, because of the uncertainty around thorium in seawater. Sorry, don’t have a link handy, I know it’s on Talk-Polywell somewhere.

17 ChrisA October 18, 2014 at 8:42 pm

About to get on a plane so no maths but I would bet that a compost heap has greater energy available per surface area than earth based solar PV. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you could make economic energy conversion devices with this level of energy density ( assuming you don’t need the massive pressure containment).

18 TallDave October 18, 2014 at 10:24 pm

AI — by the by, don’t confuse “known reserves” with “total estimated reserves.”

The demand for uranium actually fell enough to put low-grade ore mines out of business, and there hasn’t been much new exploration.

19 Al October 18, 2014 at 11:02 pm

Thanks, TallDave.

I didn’t find that paper, but I found a couple of other links that address this question too: – “Cohen calculates that we could take 16,000 tonne per year of uranium from seawater, which would supply 25 times the world’s present electricity usage and twice the world’s present total energy consumption.”

20 Nathan W October 19, 2014 at 9:48 am

Here’s the business plan: if anyone ever points out that there is a possibility of zero return, cancel the project.

Then we will advance really fast.

Who needs limited liability when you have risk-free planning?

21 Geoff Olynyk October 18, 2014 at 11:04 am

Hi Ray, I posted a longer response below, but I want to be clear that I think breakeven controlled nuclear fusion is absolutely possible, and will be demonstrated (probably in a tokamak, but possibly in one of these “alternative” devices). My skepticism is based on the history of controlled fusion research, and how perilous it has been in the past to extrapolate results to larger devices.

On a separate note, I find Seife’s “Sun in a Bottle” to be extremely unfair to the field. The book deliberately focuses on the outsized personalities (Teller and the H-bomb) and pathological science (bubble fusion, cold fusion) rather than on the much more pedestrian mainstream end of the field (hot fusion in tokamaks and stellarators) that has been making steady progress, supported by good science and with complete transparency.

A much better history is C.M. Braams & P.E. Stott “Nuclear Fusion: Half a Century of Magnetic Confinement Fusion Research” from 2002. It is pitched at a higher level than Seife’s book, but should be easily readable by a university-educated person, even if you have to skip some of the technical sidebars. (It is understandable in full if you have an engineering or science degree.)

22 Yancey Ward October 18, 2014 at 11:32 am


Well, you could offer super-large prizes for such things, but I wonder if it really is as beneficial as you think. Someone still has to fund the day to day research that leads to winning the prize at the end of the process. If you think scientists and others are gold-plating today, I am not sure how that is changed- there aren’t any Tony Starks out there of which I am aware.

23 Ray Lopez October 18, 2014 at 11:49 am

@Yancey Ward–I would tend to agree but for one experiment done in Los Angeles when I lived there. An earthquake from the 1990s destroyed a vital connection to the Santa Monica freeway and I-405, which is a very busy choke-point. The contractors rebuilding this road said it would take a year or so to complete. Some bright person had an idea to give an incentive contract so that if the interchange got built faster, the contractors would make a lot more money. With the construction crews working feverishly day and night, the project was safely completed in a month. People respond to incentives.

24 TallDave October 18, 2014 at 1:13 pm

The prize a great idea, if the fine print is well-thought-out, though I’d say $100B is enough. DARPA is doing something similar, on a much smaller scale, and has some good guidelines.

25 dearieme October 18, 2014 at 7:18 am

Why so impatient? It’ll be working in forty years.

26 The Other Jim October 18, 2014 at 11:44 am

> It’ll be working in forty years.

Funny, I heard that in the 70s.

One of my favorite SNL moments of late was seeing a John Belushi skit from around 1973. He was on a rambling rant and he mentioned how everything was going to be solar-powered in a few years.

>”No amount of money will allow you to break the principles of nature.” Brilliant. Taxpayer-funded scientists always claim the opposite, of course.

27 Bill October 18, 2014 at 8:41 am

I smell a RFP from DARPA funding someone’s research. Didnt George Will, last year, lament the cutback in fusion research at his alma mater, Princeton.

Will Lockheed be spending its own money, or yours.

28 Geoff Olynyk October 18, 2014 at 9:29 am

Hello everyone. Let me start by saying that I am confident that controlled fusion is possible and will be achieved – something that I didn’t make totally clear in my original comments. And I think it’s fantastic that there are creative scientists and engineers outside the mainstream “conventional” fusion labs working on this problem. Places like General Fusion, Helion, Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, even EMC2 (the Polywell), and now Lockheed – it’s nothing but a good thing when private money is added to the quest.

Positive sentiment about the field aside, my skepticism about this particular proposed device’s ability to reach fusion breakeven in such a short development time comes from looking at the history of other fusion devices such as the tokamak and stellarator.

Essentially, from what I understand of Lockheed’s work right now, it’s not a working device, it’s some small-scale tests, and an optimistic extrapolation to what will happen when they actually build a device.

This sounds a lot like the (very simplified) history of the two mainstream fusion devices (the tokamak and the stellarator): the confinement (ability of the device to hold and insulate a hot plasma away from the walls) seems promising at small scale. Then you build a slightly bigger one, draw a trend line, extrapolate it out, and say “Look, we can get breakeven fusion at Y size!” But then you actually build a device of Y size (or Y/2 size) and whoops, there’s some new type of turbulence or some new instability that didn’t manifest itself until you built the larger device, and the whole extrapolation fails.

To be a little more numerical about it, say you build a 30-cm device that contains plasma at 50 kPa pressure, and you get some fusion rate (say X). Then you build a 60-cm device that contains plasma at 200 kPa pressure, and you get some much greater fusion rate (say 16X). Looks great! Pressure is scaling like radius^2, and fusion power is scaling like p^2, so fusion power is scaling like size^4. Let’s say breakeven occurs at 10000X. Awesome, all you have to do is build a 3-m device (10 times the size of the original device) and you’ll get breakeven and humanity will worship you forever!

So then you go and to be safe, build a 4-m device, and … whoops. Fusion power is only 1000X (ten times lower than exepected!) Because when you got to ~500 kPa pressure, a new type of micro-instability (turbulence) turned on that wasn’t predicted based on the lower-pressure results, and which causes heat to leak out much more quickly than was expected. So you end up with a power vs. size graph that flattens out on a log-log scale, rather than continuing up as a straight line to the expected breakeven point.

This is more or less what happened with tokamaks in the 1960s and 1970s – and why there were some optimistic predictions made in the early days of the time it would take for fusion to be putting watts on the grid 🙂

Since then, the tokamak field has been determining ways to improve the confinement at a given size through better control of the plasma, while also planning and constructing a much bigger reactor than any that has been built before, the ITER device in the south of France. The stellarator people have done much the same thing, with their current largest device being the Wendelstein 7-X in the northeast of Germany.

So turn back to Lockheed’s device. Again, I have to stress that the press releases and news articles are vague about what was actually built and working there – I can’t tell if they have a complete small prototype, or working equipment for some parts of the device, or even just computer simulations.

Thus my conclusion: It might work, but going with what has been released so far and based on the history of these things, one should be skeptical. (Not against it, just skeptical.)

29 derek October 18, 2014 at 10:59 am

Wasn’t the press release about small scale devices? The desire for larger capacity is obvious, utility applications as well as return on a very large non production upfront costs. Would these small devices work? There are lots of small plant applications out there.

30 Ray Lopez October 18, 2014 at 11:38 am

@Geoff–thanks for the book link, but it’s only available to Amazon UK subscribers, looks good. Re your skepticism, it’s well grounded for magnetic confinement devices, since they must be scaled up to break even, but I am speculating, along the lines of “derek”, that the Lockheed device is a compact ICF (laser fusion) device. I looked up Lockheed’s published patent applications here ( and they all seem to be directed to ICF. So this could be an improved ICF fusion device, which could fit on the back of a truck. Chances that it will work? If I was to bet, I’d say < 5%. So call me a skeptic too!

31 Adrian Ratnapala October 18, 2014 at 1:52 pm

To what extent can Lockheed benefit from science already done in other kinds of reactors? On the one hand the field geometry is different, on the other hand the temperatures and pressures and even the local field gradients can’t be that different. Presumably the bottle+mirror geometry has a lower loss rate than a toroid, so can they hope to be able to get to break-even while remaining regimes of temperature, pressure and radius that are already understood?

32 Dan Lavatan October 18, 2014 at 11:14 pm

I don’t think the goal is to scale the individual devices. Properly construed, everyone would have their own personal fusion reactor in their home, car, etc. and we could get rid of the grid entirely.

33 The Anti-Gnostic October 18, 2014 at 10:16 am

I can’t tell if they have a complete small prototype, or working equipment for some parts of the device, or even just computer simulations

The fact that the statement is so ambiguous you can’t tell which is troubling to me, coming from a field (the Lockheed team that is) which prides itself on dealing with iron principles of the physical universe. It’s like they’re using the language of marketers and bureaucrats rather than the language of scientists and engineers. (Recall Richard Feynman’s pointed questioning on the Challenger commission.)

Remember the EmDrive? I like Jerry Pournelle’s approach:

“Hang the apparatus on a swing; 720mNs will be more than enough to cause it to hang measurably off vertical. When it comes to rest off vertical you know you’ve got something, and it will be a lot easier to rule out other errors. A torsion pendulum is far too sensitive for this work.”

This “propagandistic” approach to science is troubling. In some very important areas, the model has become the reality, and all the metrics become slanted towards proving the model and not the other way around.

It’s like living in the Soviet Union, with all the experts assuring everybody that what they see with their own eyes is not really happening. That’s not what’s going on here, but it’s also characteristic of totalitarian regimes to assure the populace of some great technological breakthrough which will solve the shortages, any day now.

34 Anonyanon October 18, 2014 at 12:29 pm

Is Lockheed known, in general, for keeping their promises? For example, if IBM made a press release like this in my field, everyone would know that they’re full of it, since they’re known for making promises they can’t keep in their press releases. How does Lockheed do in that regard?

35 Geoff Olynyk October 18, 2014 at 2:27 pm

That’s an interesting question. How should this be evaluated differently, given that the reputation of a huge defence contractor like Lockheed is potentially on the line? Maybe I’m not evaluating the announcement with the right Bayesian priors (or whatever the phrase is).

36 carlospln October 18, 2014 at 5:24 pm

Lockheed: ‘keeping its promises?’ [COUGH]

btw, “The Pentagon in fact uses prizes, indirectly, when they have competitions between contractors to build the next war machine, and it works fairly well”

@ Ray Lopez: for whom??

37 Ray Lopez October 19, 2014 at 4:18 am

The F-35 was made obsolete by drones, which can be made much cheaper. It’s not the fault of the prize system: taxpayer got a machine that the Pentagon wanted (at the time) but is now, due to unforeseen circumstances, obsolete. It should therefore be scrapped.

38 TallDave October 18, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Meh. This is only a story because it’s Lockheed and SkunkWorks. It doesn’t sound like they’ve even counted their first neutron, they appear to be still working with helium plasmas (typical testing scenario).

If you don’t follow alt-fusion, you might be forgiven for not realizing that Lockheed is only saying what virtually every alt-fusion outfit says: good results from small machine, model, ten years to commercial fusion. Some of them have been saying this for more than ten years. FRCs, Polywells, Focus Fusion (dense plasma focus), General Atomics piston-driven fusion, I could go on…

Small machines are usually done as proof-of-concept, because in theory gain scaling is a simple and enormously powerful R^7 (that is, doubling the radius gives 2^7 power production, assuming magnetic fields are also scaled with radius), but small machines also generally give overly optimistic results, because the fastest loss mechanism can change at larger sizes, and the fastest loss mechanism dominates losses. Basically, it’s really hard to predict losses, which is why 60 years after the first fusion bombs there are still no fusion reactors.

All that said, I do like Lockheed’s approach: build a new small machine every year. You generally learn a lot from each generation, which is a nice way of saying your models are always wrong. It took Dr. Bussard about ten iterations to get to a machine (WB-6) that actually did what Polywells are supposed to. Dr. Nebel, who worked on Polywells, joked about his time in mainstream fusion research that they once plotted predictions against actual, and it looked like you shot the chart with a 12-gauge.

Can Lockheed do this? Probably not, but they’ve picked up some hints from Polywells and other alt-fusion attempts. I wish them luck.

(Size is the universal criticism of the ITER>DEMO>ARES “mainstream” line of research. Even the most advanced designs have plant power densities an order of magnitude below today’s light water fission reactors. Roughly speaking, that means the power will cost ten times as much. But it’s worse than that. Those ITER-based reactors will be titanic. They may have to be 10GW reactors just to operate at Q>5. And that creates big problems in distribution. And they’re not reliable enough for 10GW baseline power anyway, unless you want to go without power for a few months while they replace reactor shielding. So basically, all the problems of solar and other renewables, plus they’re too big.)

39 Ray Lopez October 19, 2014 at 4:09 am

Nice critique by TallDave, but my link upstream shows most of Lockheed’s published patents the last few years are in ICF fusion, so maybe this is a tiny laser powered fusion device? Probably not, since lasers need a lot of space. Also 10 GW reactors only will supply power to: 10 000 000 kw = 10M homes/people (depending on which country you are in; people if USA, homes if in Philippines). That’s big but not unnecessarily big.

40 John Schilling October 18, 2014 at 12:53 pm

The claims of truck-sized generators are also problematic. Fusion reactors can be constructed so as to produce little radioactive waste, but for all plausible near-term reaction the prompt radiation will still be quite lethal in the immediate vicinity of the reactor. Not “contagious”, it goes away the instant you turn off the device, but while in operation you still need substantial shielding. Which won’t fit on a truck, except possibly as a stunt. Almost certainly the bit about fusion-powered airplanes is a gross exaggeration at this point.

So the press release is not accurately describing the capabilities of the supposed reactor. This, plus the conspicuous lack of any explicit claim of having built and tested a breakeven device, plus the lack of parallel scientific publications with any real technical detail, plus the inherently dubious claim of 100% beta, strongly suggests at least 90% hype.

And Olynyk’s other comments are spot on. I don’t need to repeat them, but FWIW I also have a Ph.D., in astronautical engineering with particular expertise in high-energy plasma devices. In my field (advanced spacecraft propulsion), we collect failed fusion schemes and put them to good use. People trying to squeeze hot plasma to high density almost always find that some unexpected instability causes it to squirt out one side of the device at an ungodly high velocity. They can’t use that, but we sometimes can 🙂

After fifty years of boys crying wolf, the standard of proof is a wolf pelt.

41 TallDave October 18, 2014 at 1:19 pm

Good points, the p-B11 fusion is supposed to be “aneutronic” or about 1/100,000th the radiation of D-D/D-T, but the funny thing is that turns out to not save you all that much in shielding, even assuming you don’t have problems with side reactions in the thermal tails.

Spacecraft are really the wheelhouse, because specific impulse is so important when you’re lifting stuff out of a gravity well.

Pretty good wiki here.

42 JWatts October 18, 2014 at 8:11 pm

“After fifty years of boys crying wolf, the standard of proof is a wolf pelt. ”

LOL, that’s a good line.

43 Ray Lopez October 19, 2014 at 4:12 am

@ John Schilling re space fusion propulsion: I did notice a few Lockheed patents in this area too, but does it bother anybody that you are polluting space with radioactive byproducts that will sit there for a long time? Probably not since space is not that well traveled yet, but in the future?

44 Komori October 19, 2014 at 12:51 pm

I doubt anyone cares about a few extra neutrons in space, which already has plenty of them flying around.

Unless you’re confusing fusion with fission for some reason.

45 John Schilling October 20, 2014 at 12:17 am

First, as already noted, fusion reactors (and even more so space drives) can be constructed so as to produce no radioactive waste, only prompt radiation. Or, more generally, Radiation Is Not Contagious! Most sorts of radiation go away, truly and forever, when you turn off the switch. There are some exceptions to this, but we aren’t dealing with them here. This is one of the things Hollywood, and most journalism, gets so infuriatingly wrong as to make it almost impossible to discuss the subject in public.

Second, the not-quite-fusion-reactors that we are trying to use for space propulsion, are not quite fusion reactors. They never get the plasma hot/dense enough to ignite, so there’s no fusion reaction in the first place. Really, we don’t even bother to load them with fusion fuel, just a convenient inert gas. Then pump in some energy from an external power source (probably a solar array) as if we were trying to ignite fusion, then watch the plasma squirt out the back. Electricity in, thrust out, very clean.

Third, there’s a five hundred trillion trillion watt completely unshielded fusion reactor right next door. That’s big enough to power fifty million time-travelling DeLoreans for ever man, woman, and child on Earth. Whatever harm might be caused by using fusion power in space, it’s already been done.

46 TallDave October 18, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Thus I predict that the most likely outcome is that as they scale their device up, they’ll find that the confinement (a measure of how well the device holds a fusion plasma) unexpectedly drops off due to some different types of turbulence turning on at higher temperatures / higher pressures… and it will quietly go away.

It will be interesting to see if that’s a problem, because curvature is good everywhere, if I understand their design, so no ELMs, etc. It looks like they’re going to do neutral beam heating though, which means they probably aren’t operating at the quasineutral limit. But if they have a “wiffleball”-like driven-cusp confinement system maybe the electron optics don’t matter so much. In fact it looks a lot like a variant based on a comment from Dr. Nebel, who pointed out Polywells should have 62,500x the power of ITER at the same conditions, even without ion focussing. High beta is really the sine qua non of alt-fusion.

47 Geoff Olynyk October 18, 2014 at 2:23 pm

Good curvature, sure, so stable against macro (ideal MHD) instabilities, but what brought the original magnetic mirrors down is phase-space instabilities.

Again, it’s all speculation, until they release more details about what it actually is.

48 TallDave October 18, 2014 at 4:26 pm

I guess my comment got eaten for links?

We know it’s a mirror from the Aviation Week pieces. Mirrors typically have bad cusp confinement, but wiffleballs and recirculation are supposed to solve that in Polywells.

Sorry, apparently I can’t link, but there’s discussion at Talk-Polywell.

49 TallDave October 18, 2014 at 4:27 pm

Overall, McGuire says the Lockheed design “takes the good parts of a lot of designs.” It includes the high-beta configuration, the use of magnetic field lines arranged into linear ring “cusps” to confine the plasma and “the engineering simplicity of an axisymmetric mirror,” he says. The “axisymmetric mirror” is created by positioning zones of high magnetic field near each end of the vessel so that they reflect a significant fraction of plasma particles escaping along the axis of the CFR. “We also have a recirculation that is very similar to a Polywell concept,” he adds, referring to another promising avenue of fusion power research. A Polywell fusion reactor uses electromagnets to generate a magnetic field that traps electrons, creating a negative voltage, which then attracts positive ions. The resulting acceleration of the ions toward the negative center results in a collision and fusion.

50 mulp October 18, 2014 at 3:12 pm

DARPA-E has opened the “competition” for fusion energy funding Congress added to the budget back in January. It takes time for regulations to go through the mandated process and then time for the rfps to be posted and so on…

I’m not sure I understand the process, but I think joint proposals across multiple institutions are being encouraged to increase the sources of funding for the projects.

Congress added the funding because the sequester reduced fusion funding down to the amount committed to ITAR so that outside the US corporate participation in ITAR, no money would be available to fund corporate research from DARPA-E or NASA.

Congress punted on the budget until after the elections.

The sequester is cutting the budget.

Lockheed has suffered from sequester budget cuts.

Lockheed needs to put pressure on Congress to earmark money for Lockheed in the usual opaque ways or Lockheed will layoff those people.


The only buyer (since deregulation*) of vapor is governments.

But buying vapor from your congressional district creates jobs in your district.

* in the days of strong utility regulation, the rates were set on a straightforward ROIC where capital was bought and depreciated over the expected life and the rates were set to return 8-10% on current capital book value plus operating costs. If that were the regime today, the capital book value would be extremely low because the 40-60 year old coal plants would have book values of 10% of 1960 prices – the entire set of coal plants might have a capital book value of a billion or two, instead of the hundred billion market cap

Nuclear power plants were attractive to utilities because of the high capital cost and long useful life which would justify higher rates to hit the allowed ROIC. PUCs were enticed by the low operating costs which would eliminate rate fluctuations based on fossil fuel price instability.

If the power industry had developed like Bell and AT&T and had setup Bell Labs, they could have sold a small contribution to R&D everywhere as a capital investment funnelled into a Bell Labs for advanced research – government would be funding fusion research by a slight rate hike on electricity that is a “tax” that goes to the power company.

The US nuclear power plants were mostly R&D projects at more advanced stages, but they were not off the shelf mature technology. They took a decade to build because lots of problems were found which required engineering solutions be developed. But they were approved capital investments, so the spending added to the C in ROIC even when the C was a decade from generating power. But the laws required the PUC to boost rates when a utility added to its capital, so the nuclear plant construction added to their rates. In the 70s, bunker oil and natural gas prices soared for different but related reasons. So rates soared because capital costs boosted rates and operating cost increases boosted rates.

The laws changed and that meant the utility could not hike rates until capital was generating power.

Except in Georgia. Where the construction of nuclear power plants are hiking rates, and the costs of building are going up, and the time until construction is completed is slipping out. Thus the Atlanta Tea Party is opposing nuclear in favor of wind and solar, and in particular, homeowner owned solar, and eventually homeowner battery storage. Wind and solar capital spending is followed quickly with power generation. The permitting cost which might be lengthy and costly is ultimately a small part of the capital cost of a completed process.

Still, spending ten billion constructing nuclear plants means ten billion dollars worth of jobs, with a high portion of the jobs in the area of the construction.

51 lxm October 18, 2014 at 3:36 pm

Let’s assume, for the moment, that Lockeed’s work leads to a breakthrough and fusion energy becomes cheap and available everywhere, at least after the defensive efforts of the coal, oil and solar industries are defeated.

Ok. We are now in a world of essentially unlimited energy.

So what are we going to do? What is the point? Do we still keep playing King of the hill and Making babies? Or is there another game in the offering?

And, if there is another game, what will it be called?

Mars or the Stars?

I’m filing for a copyright tonight!

52 dixie October 18, 2014 at 9:42 pm

@lxm Re: “fusion energy becomes cheap and available everywhere”

Fusion reactors are export controlled, e.g. for Canada “Export Control List Group 5 includes … nuclear fusion reactors.”

53 Tom October 19, 2014 at 1:45 am

Since my comment on the last post was also misunderstood let me expand a bit.

We are at a stage in fusion research where nothing is happening and nothing will happen without public funding. That’s not surprising or unusual in such theoretical fields. I would argue that we are actually still in that stage even with solar, as with all components considered the EROEI of solar is still negative on average globally, and the only reason there’s a market for panels is all the various kinds of public buyers and subsidies.

So I’m commenting mainly about what I see as the naive excitement over this news which appears to be mainly motivated by libertarian ideology and what appears to be mistaken belief that this news is about a substantial private investment in fusion research. That’s not what’s happening here. Lockheed has put a small amount of money ahead including for a PR campaign in hopes of winning substantial public funding. That’s how the government contracting business works. Lockheed is after all primarily a government contractor, and one of the world’s biggest and most sophisticated. Lockheed is not claiming to have tested this idea or to have made any scientific discovery. They are putting forward an idea on paper and seeking funding to test it.

I’m not a nuclear scientist and I’m not at all judging the prospects for this idea to eventually work or not. But I do know enough to caution that it’s unlikely that any of us will be using fusion power in our lifetimes. Even the elusive “break even” is optimistically at least a couple decades off, and that’s only a very preliminary step. I’m not writing any of it off and I’m all for funding, within reason, whatever leading scientists think are the most prospective ideas. But I also know that an idea does not guarantee eventual success.

54 Tom October 19, 2014 at 2:21 am

Meanwhile on Earth, Asia is looking forward to importing cheaper American coal.

55 Nathan W October 19, 2014 at 9:44 am

Sounds like good advanced planning. Wait until the coal runs out and then start wondering what’s next.

What’s next?

56 Nathan W October 19, 2014 at 9:43 am

Not quite a PhD, but I remember doing a project on this in high school physics class (our school was lucky to have attracted a university physics professor who taught one physics course per year at the high school). I was amazed to learn about the basic principle of fusion, and once I understood the conditions under which we observe it working, it didn’t surprise me that efforts can easily take more energy to maintain than they produce, and thus are a far cry from economic.

I always wondered if it would be possible to use magnetic fields, but I never understood plasma well enough (does anyone?) to have a clue whether this is even theoretically possible, let alone technically feasible, let alone economic. But if a magnetic field can hold one kind of thing in place, can’t it contribute to holding a different kind of thing in a particular kind of way?

57 Nathan W October 19, 2014 at 9:51 am

Potential payoff: essentially unlimited energy for any timeframe that is meaningful to just about anyone.

How about investing 0.02% of global GDP into it?

Another suggestion in the meantime: invest another 1% of global GDP into wind farms and carrots for solar research. Wind farms are unlimited energy forever, but at least the forever (plus maintenance and replacement costs) part isn’t all that far off the mark.

58 Abelard Lindsey October 19, 2014 at 10:44 pm

A nice summary of all of the private efforts to develop fusion power at NextBigFuture.

You will note there are 6 of them.

59 li zhi October 20, 2014 at 8:02 am

Given the beliefs of some here, I wonder when they, and like minded individuals, will offer a prize for immortality? I’m sure a lot of people would bankrupt themselves for that. Hard to believe those beliefs are consistent. Prizes work, but not for the really important stuff… I mean really?
Given that fissionable fuel is in such plentiful supply, we should just harness H-bombs in really big pistons. My problem with magnetic confinement (and I include inertial confinement with that since light/matter is just electromagnetic fields) is that when you look at the energy we want, and the fundamental properties of our materials, there is a huge mismatch. I’m guessing we’ll never get there from here…but that is not the attitude required. We know its hard (or impossible) so we seem to be plugging along on the ‘optimum’ path. I suspect, by the turn of the century, we should know (or at least our silicon/germanium compadres will) whether its possible. What’s strange is we already have a source of abundant energy which is sufficient for our needs, spending time looking for a snark is unlikely to end well. OTOH, we won’t know until we try.

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