At Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, researchers are working on a nuclear fusion reactor that is based on hydrogen boron fuel, known as pB11, instead of traditional deuterium and tritium (DT), and the dense plasma focus device, to create the cleanest and the cheapest type of energy imaginable. Their work was initially funded by NASA, who hoped to use this reactor as a rocket engine, while today they rely on private investors and crowdfunding campaigns.
As announced in a recent article published on nextbigfuture.com website, the long-awaited tungsten cathode, needed for the next step of LPP Fusion experiment should be delivered by mid-February 2015. This is an interim solution towards high-quality beryllium electrodes which are part of the third and final precondition – obtaining 10, 000 times higher plasma density that will allow researchers to finally demonstrate feasibility of their reactor. By doing that, they hope to attract investors to fundraise additional $50 million, needed to build a prototype of a Focus Fusion reactor. It will still be 1000 times cheaper than any other controlled nuclear fusion project.
For decades researchers are trying to bridle the energy of stars locked in atomic nuclei. It requires replicating conditions present in ‘solar nuclear reactors’, where hydrogen atoms, exposed to tremendous temperatures and pressures, fuse together to form helium. This reaction on atomic level releases enormous energy, which can be felt here on Earth in the form of heat, almost hundred million miles away from its source. We can replicate these conditions by confining and heating hydrogen isotopes to 100 million degrees Celsius to overcome electric repulsion between positively charged nuclei and get them to fuse. Such procedure would make sense only if it can produce more energy than it is consumed in the creation of those conditions. The construction of such a plant is a true technological and engineering undertaking. There have been dozens of approaches to useful controlled fusion. The best known systems are: ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), European JET (Joint European Torus), and American NIF (National Ignition Facility). They all use lasers and magnets to hold the fusion ingredients confined for a longer periods of time, needed for a sustained reaction to occur.
Dense Plasma Focus Fusion is one of those alternative approaches that promise to yield energy by direct conversion of high-energy charged particles, which is more efficient and many times more cost-effective than other approaches. It is an ideal type of nuclear energy, known as aneutronic fusion, where there are no radioactive byproducts of nuclear reaction. During the process energy is emitted in the form of x-rays and ion beams, which can be directly turned into electricity.
Reactor units working on Focus Fusion would be significantly cheaper to produce, than those using magnets and lasers. They would be able to generate up to 5 megawatts of electric energy, sufficient to power up to 3, 500 homes for as little as 0.3 cents per kWh, that is ten times cheaper than any other known source of energy. Such generators would be safe to use, and small enough to be deployed even in remote areas. Some 20% of world’s population is still living without electricity. Hydrogen and boron which would be used as a fuel are abundant in seawater.
This reminds us of a similar idea about using small and safe nuclear reactors to generate energy for localized use. Remember Wilson Taylor? In 2008, at the age of 14, he built his own fission reactor in his parents’ garage. His small, modular fission reactor could potentially produce 50-100 megawatts of electricity, sufficient to power between 25 and 100 thousand homes. Such reactor would need refueling every 30 years, compared with 18-month cycle of most nuclear plants, and would have lower risk of melting, since it doesn’t employ high pressures like today’s big fission reactors.
Billions and billions are invested so far by governments in nuclear energy projects which have shown no palpable results so far. Why wouldn’t they for a change back up startups like LPP, which are promising to “provide an inexhaustible supply of energy without pollution or global warming” (Stephen Hawking)?