On the energy front, it appears fusion is back in the news.
The claim that fusion power was "only 20 years away" has been made for the past 50 years or so. While science is closer to achieving the goal, it's the means of getting there that has been intriguing. Much of the effort (and the money) has been spent on one of two possible technologies for achieving break-even fusion: high temperature/high pressure magnetic confinement and laser ignition.
The first uses a tokamak reactor, basically a torus surrounded by electromagnets used to generate a magnetic field to contain a high-temperature plasma. The second uses 'pellets' containing tritium or deuterium that are dropped sequentially into the focus point of a large number of laser beams (the National Ignition Facility uses 192 very high power laser beams). The beams are supposed to collapse the pellets to create a high temperatures and pressures in their core which should force the tritium and deuterium to fuse.
The problems with both of these technologies is the expense (billions, so far) and the complexity of the systems. Even if they were able to achieve above break-even yields, meaning they were generating more energy than they were using, commercialization of the technology could take a decade or more and cost additional billions.
But as MSNBC has been reporting, the more promising fusion technologies are those on the fringes.
One in particular, called polywell fusion
, something I've covered before, is showing great promise.
EMC2 Fusion doesn't have tens of millions of venture capital to play with -- but it does have a $7.9 million Navy contract to test a plasma technology known as inertial electrostatic confinement fusion, also known as Polywell fusion. The idea is to accelerate positively charged ions in an electrical cage to such an extent that they occasionally spark a fusion reaction, releasing energy and neutrons. The concept was pioneered by the late physicist Robert Bussard, and carried forward by the EMC2 Fusion team in Santa Fe, N.M.
So far every generation of the Bussard-designed WB ("whiffle ball") reactors has performed just as Bussard's calculations have said they would. Each generation of WB reactors has been larger than its predecessor and each generation's results have scaled likewise.
Should polywell fusion turn out to be something that actually works it will turn the energy industry on its ear, creating a source of cheap and clean power that doesn't have the downsides of present day uranium cycle fission power plants.
Another thing to mention - should polywell succeed, the cost of building fusion power plants will be in the double-digit millions, not billions.