Tuesday, June 29, 2004
Inertial Electrostatic Confinement fusion
Transterrestrial Musings: ...... "The talk in question was presented by J. E. Brandenburg of the Florida Space Institute, titled Microwave Enhancement of Inertial Electrostatic Confinement of Plasma for Fusion: Theory and Experiment. Inertial Electrostatic Confinement (IEC) uses two (or more) nested spherical grids charged to a high relative voltage to accelerate ions towards the common center of the grids, where they collide and fuse. Philo Farnsworth patented an IEC concept he called the Fusor, and there are all the usual conspiracy theories about suppression of his research surrounding the history of the Fusor, though I suspect the truth of the matter has a lot to do with the fact that it didn't really work very well, at least for power generation.
Anyway, back to the point. IEC has seen a resurgence of interest lately (for an overview of what people are up to check out the presentations at the 2002 US-Japan workshop on IEC). Various problems are slowly being worked out and the prospects for IEC for power generation are improving. I talked to Brandenburg after his presentation and he claimed that some experiments were getting within (relative) spitting distance of break-even, bearing in mind that for fusion spitting distance is about a factor of ten or so away.
From a purely technological standpoint IEC is attractive because it does not use magnets, so the power requirements are a lot lower than many other fusion schemes. IEC devices are also compact (grid sizes are 1 to 15 cm in radius), which makes experiments much easier to perform. More interesting to me is that IEC devices are evolvable along an economically viable path. IEC devices are already being sold commercially as neutron sources (see the overview pdf from the US-Japan conference I linked to above for one example). If the market for neutron sources expands (which it may well, since neutron assay is a very convenient way of remotely detecting the elemental composition of things, particularly convenient if you are looking for nuclear contraband), then companies doing IEC can have a near term revenue stream to fund further development." ....
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