I've been thinking a lot lately about Apollo, and how the monumental accomplishment of landing on the moon sometimes seems like the last truly audacious thing that humanity did. Our dreams are pretty modest lately--pathetic, even. For most of us today, the biggest project we see facing humanity is simply to keep it and our biosphere alive through the next century. We've stopped dreaming and are left with merely hoping.
The really dangerous thing about this loss of audacity is that, while courage and intrepid exploration are what got us into the current climate change mess, they're about the only things that can get us out of it. Climate control wedges, recycling, hydrogen and hybrids are all very well--and reducing our footprint on the Earth is of primary importance no matter what else we do--but what's really needed now is a solution as bold as Apollo. None seems on offer.
A curious thing happened a few weeks ago. Robert Bussard, eminence gris of the experimental physics community and co-developer of the U.S. nuclear fusion program, resurfaced after a conspicuous absence of twelve years. He came to the offices of Google, of all places, to ask for $200 million dollars to help him save the world.
His hour-and-a-half long talk was recorded and you can watch it on video; here's the link (A short summary by Bussard himself can be found on the James Randi Foundation website). It turns out that for the past dozen years Bussard has been working on cheap, radiation-free nuclear fusion using funds from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD because the Department of Energy is only funding big-scale tokamak research). As he puts it, the money ran out when Congress killed his R&D budget, but not before he was able to solve all the remaining physics problems involved in building a form of clean nuclear fusion known as Inertial Electrostatic Confinement (IEC). He needs about $2 million to reproduce his last experiment in more controlled circumstances; after that he wants to build a functioning self-sustaining reactor of a design that generates electrical energy without producing nuclear radiation.
Now, perpetual motion machines are a dime a dozen, and there's lots of snake oil salesmen out there. But consider two things about this news:
First, the source. Dr. Bussard is former assistant director of the Controlled Thermonuclear Reaction Division of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, predecessor to today's DOE. The Secretary of the DoE is a member of the Cabinet of the President of the United States. Bussard's boss at the AEC was Robert Hirsch. Together, Hirsch and Bussard oversaw the birth of the US fusion research community in the 1970s. Bussard is no stranger to fund-raising for nuclear research, having raised nearly $18 billion for tokamak research, a program he no longer believes is viable. And together, Bussard and Hirsch built some of the first IEC machines, a program both strongly believed in as long as thirty years ago.
Second: Bussard is not asking for money for himself. He's decided to give away the technology if nobody funds him directly. In fact if you watch the Google presentation closely, he pretty much reveals everything we need to know to continue his research program right there.
But if this was even possible, why hasn't somebody done it already? Well, a couple of reasons. First, there's about a dozen people in the world, by Bussard's calculations, who still know enough about vacuum tube technology to be able to engineer a working IEC device. (How many RF engineers do you know?) Secondly, due in large part to the colossal amount of money poured into the tokamak, IEC fusion research has languished for decades. IEC, if it works, would be orders of magnitude simpler and cheaper than tokamak fusion, while potentially using a reaction that creates no neutron radiation. So unlike laser inertial confinement, IEC is useless for doing nuclear weapons research, and (according to Bussard) IEC doesn't require nearly enough money to fund people's retirement plans; tokamak research does. Disappointed in the way fusion research had become a money machine (the kind of program one wag has described as a "self-sucking lollipop") Bussard set out to do the work himself.
Did he succeed? He's not claiming he did; what he's claiming is that he's proven that it's not impossible:
So we did what we could and finally DID prove the physics and associated engineering physics constraints, scaling laws, etc, albeit at 1/8-1/10 scale. So what? Doubling the size will not tell us anything we don't already know. The next intelligent and logical step is to build a machine big enough to make net power. And THAT is the same 200 M we have quoted to the DoD since the beginning.
Bussard might still be crazy, or lying, or simply wrong. The thing is, there's no way to know without actually building his WB-7 test machine. $2 million is an insignificant fraction of the $12 billion that's being spent on ITER, the international tokamak test platform. It should be a no-brainer for somebody to just test this on the side, and if it doesn't work, shrug their shoulders and move on.
The images we all have of nuclear fusion today are ones of disappointment and absurd scale: of cold-fusion scandals and preposterously expensive and gigantic machines tended by armies of white-coated scientists. Bussard is proposing something simple enough that you could build reactors on an assembly line and stick them into the furnaces of existing coal-powered generating plants. Just stick in the reactor, shut off the coal, turn it on and walk away. This is fusion so cheap and simple that these radiation-free reactors could be installed in container ships. It's truly a Jetson's future.
But it's not likely to happen. Not because Bussard's research findings aren't credible – whether they're right or not is not debatable, it has to be determined by experiment. No, it won't happen because fusion has a bad reputation nowadays, and nobody really believes anymore that grand, Promethean solutions are possible. Surely coal can't be made obsolete at a single stroke by one small team of researchers!
And human beings will never walk on the moon, either. And electric light will never be commercially viable...
Bussard is of a generation that saw miracles--more, he's of the generation that accomplished miracles. He doesn't seem to feel that it's impossible to do it again:
I believe that the survival of our high-tech civilizations depends on getting off of fossil fuels ASAP, and - if we do not - we will descend into a growing series of "oil wars" and energy confrontations that can lead only to a huge cataclysm. Which CAN be circumvented if only we build the clean fusion machines in time.
We're so rich as a civilization that we can afford to try long-shots like this one. But are we audacious enough?