The 372 million dollar paperweight

Over at the Polywell Blog, we have the story of a fusion system that was designed, built…and never turned on.

    It seems the DOE funded the idea without being totally sure it would work.  John Clarke remembers his boss – the head of the U.S. fusion energy program – saying: “’they are good people at Livermore, they will figure something out.'”[6]   The closing of the project marked a major fall in magnetic mirror machines and the rise of the tokamak as the premier fusion reactor idea.  This was not inevitable.  Many voices, both inside and outside the science community, kept pressing for an alternative idea – in case the tokamak proved unworkable.  “All kinds of ideas were bouncing around: solar, ocean, thermal, wind, synfuels.  And we had only one for a fusion reactor, the tokamak.  What we wanted was a strong design to be number two” said Stephen Dean former director of magnetic confinement at DOE [6].  This implies that at the outset, the funding managers were not sure the tokamak was the only path to fusion.  They authorized 372 million dollars to a promising fusion idea without being certain it would work.  Today, we could test the Polywells’ viability with just 1/5th of those funds.

So what does this mean for the Polywell?  Well for one thing, it means that make no mistake, being cheap may not save it– in fact often, esepcially during budget cutting periods, such as we’re in right now, the cheap projects go first– they don’t have enough of a lobby to be saved.  The suggestions for helping the Polywell along via private investment are good, but maybe don’t go far enough. If the US fails to pursue the polywell, then another possibility is seeking foreign investment– or foreign partners.  India for example spends over 80 percent of her energy budget important material. Japan is in the process of giving up fission powered reactors, or at least claiming she will.

It is unfortunate, but if the US decides to cut funding, then it might be wise to seek out other regions for investment, however painful it will be to see the US having to buy a reactor design that we pioneered– but did not finish.

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3 thoughts on “The 372 million dollar paperweight

  1. Pingback: The 372 million dollar paperweight (via Fusionfuture) | Jasonj0304's Blog

  2. Great Post!
    The wind is really at this machine’s back. The markets are in turmoil – so investors are going to be keen to new investment ideas. US companies are sitting on trillions, so any good idea will have capital to work with. Writers and commentators are saying we are running out of cheap energy – so people will be looking for new energy technologies. We have a white house looking for green energy ideas, promoting the idea of climate change. Forbes online just came out and said “the US will depend on entrepreneurs to re-launch the economy.” We have 9.9% unemployment – which means lots of spare workers willing to jump on new ideas.
    A crisis can be an opportunity. If the polywell can produce cheap, carbon-free, abundant energy, it is perfectly positioned to take off in this environment. People need to make this case. They need to move quickly too. Here is what I would love to see:
    1. Market Analysis: How much $ is out there for a working machine?
    2. Machine Cost: How much $ would it take to prove this works? How much $ would an introductory product cost? Who would you hire to do the work?
    3. The physics of cusp losses: are the electrons reinforcing magnetic containment?
    4. Machine image: someone needs to give the public a physical sense of what these machines look like. They could use movies, 3D models, sketches or pictures.

  3. I agree. One of biggest problems of the Polywell is how few people know about it. Unfortunately, that means when you talk about it, people often only have the Cold Fusion fiasco to fall back on and that drastically harms the ability of polywell (or any alternative fusion advocates) to be taken seriously.

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