It seems that energy has been on everybody's minds lately. Oil prices, gas prices, wind power, solar power, nuclear power, NIMBY (Not In My Back yard), BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone), hybrids, ethanol, fuel cells, hydrogen, and a whole host of other energy related topics have been making the rounds in the media and the blogosphere. But rarely have we heard about fusion.
What are the advantages of fusion? Probably the biggest one is the availability of fuel. Unlike conventional nuclear plants, which require highly processed uranium fuel that has to be mined, refined, enriched, then put into fuel assemblies, fusion fuel can be found in a glass of water. That fuel happens to be two heavy isotopes of hydrogen – deuterium and tritium.
Fusion research has been going on for decades. And for decades scientists and engineers have been saying that fusion “is twenty years away.” Even after all this time and with billions of dollars already spent and we're still twenty years away from fusion.
So far everybody that's tried to create a sustained fusion reaction have failed. However, someone else is going to give it a try: Robert Bussard. And he may just have the answer everyone's been looking for.
While DOE funded projects have been trying to use inertial confinement, laser induced fusion and tokamak (toroidal magnetic) confinement techniques to create a sustained nuclear fusion reaction for years, none has been able to produce such a reaction for more than a few fractions of a second. The equipment used is very expensive, very large, extremely complex and requiring precision alignment of every part.
Bussard's fusion chamber, on the other hand, resembles a cube with six cylindrical magnets as the sides. No toroidal chambers designed to handle plasmas with temperatures approaching that of the sun. No massive cooling systems. No residual radiation. No high pressure steam pipes or turbines. No precision alignment required for the laser systems. No lasers.
Bussard figures he can build his full power reactor for about $200 million. If he can pull it off, it would mean a revolutionary change in the energy industry. Fusion power plants could be built for a few hundred million dollars, with siting of such plants becoming a non-issue, and fuel being virtually inexhaustible. And, should Bussard succeed, it's quite possible that the cheap electric power generated by these reactors could also fuel the hydrogen economy, making it economic to use electrolysis to generate hydrogen in copious amounts.
This could be the end of the fossil fuel era.
It's about frickin' time.