Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

New ways to create energy on your desk

Practical Fusion, or Just a Bubble? -- by KENNETH CHANG/NY Times

LOS ANGELES — Brian Kappus, a physics graduate student at U.C.L.A., tipped the clear cylinder to trap some air bubbles in the clear liquid inside. He clamped the cylinder, upright, on a small turntable and set it spinning. With the flip of another switch, powerful up-and-down vibrations, 50 a second, started shaking the cylinder.

A bubble floating in the liquid — phosphoric acid — started to shine, brightening into an intense ball of light like a miniature star.

The shining bubble did not produce any significant energy, but perhaps someday it might, just like a star. A few small companies and maverick university laboratories, including this one at U.C.L.A. run by Seth Putterman, a professor of physics, are pursuing quixotic solutions for future energy, trying to tap the power of the Sun — hot nuclear fusion — in devices that fit on a tabletop.

Dr. Putterman’s approach is to use sound waves, called sonofusion or bubble fusion, to expand and collapse tiny bubbles, generating ultrahot temperatures. At temperatures hot enough, atoms can literally fuse and release even more energy than when they split in nuclear fission, now used in nuclear power plants and weapons. Furthermore, fusion is clean in that it does not produce long-lived nuclear waste.

Dr. Putterman has not achieved fusion in his experiments. He and other scientists form a small but devoted cadre interested in turning small-scale desktop fusion into usable systems. Although success is far away, the principles seem sound.

Other researchers already have working desktop fusion devices, including ones that are descendants of the Farnsworth Fusor invented four decades ago by Philo T. Farnsworth, the television pioneer.

Achieving nuclear fusion, even in a desktop device, is not particularly difficult. But building a fusion reactor that generates more energy than it consumes is far more challenging.

So far, all fusion reactors, big and small, fall short of this goal. Many fusion scientists are skeptical that small-scale alternatives hold any promise of breaking the break-even barrier.

Impulse Devices, a small company in the small town of Grass Valley, Calif., is exploring the same sound-driven fusion as Dr. Putterman, pushing forward with venture capital financing. Its president, Ross Tessien, concedes that Impulse is a high-risk investment, but the potential payoffs would be many.

“You solve the world’s pollution problems,” Mr. Tessien said. “You eliminate the need for wars. You eliminate scarcity of fuel. And it happens to be a very valuable market. So from a commercial point of view, there’s every incentive. From a moral point of view, there’s every incentive. And it’s fun and it’s exciting work.”

The Sun produces energy by continually pressing together four hydrogen atoms — a hydrogen atom has a single proton in its nucleus — into one helium atom, with a nucleus of two protons and two neutrons. A helium atom weighs less than the four original hydrogen atoms. So by Einstein’s E=mc2 equation, the change in mass is transformed into a burst of energy.

That simplest fusion reaction, four hydrogens into one helium, works for turning a ball of gas like the Sun, 865,000 miles across, into a shining star. But it is far too slow for generating energy on Earth.

Other fusion reactions do occur quickly enough. Most current fusion efforts look to combine two atoms of deuterium, a heavier version of hydrogen with an extra neutron. For reactions that can achieve break even, the researchers look to fusing deuterium with tritium, an even heavier hydrogen with two neutrons.

The appeals of fusion are many: no planet- warming gases, no radioactive-waste headache, plentiful fuel. Even though only 1 out of 6,000 hydrogen atoms in sea water molecules is the heavier deuterium, that is enough to last billions of years.

“One bucket of water out of the ocean or a lake or a river has 200 gallons of gasoline worth of energy in it,” Mr. Tessien said. “It’s the holy grail of energy technologies, and everybody has the fuel for free.”

Tritium, a short-lived radioactive isotope, has to be generated in a nuclear reactor.

The tricky part is heating the atoms to the millions of degrees needed to initiate fusion and keeping the superhot gas confined.

Mainstream science is pursuing fusion along two paths. One is the tokamak design, trapping the charged atoms within a doughnut-shape magnetic field. An international collaboration will build the latest, largest such reactor in southern France in coming years. The $10 billion international project, called ITER, could begin operating around 2025 and is intended to demonstrate that all the scientific and technological challenges have finally been tamed. Commercial tokamak reactors could perhaps follow in 10 years.

The other mainstream approach is blasting a pellet of fuel with lasers, creating conditions hot and dense enough for fusion. The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California is to start testing that idea around 2010. The cost of the center, with 192 lasers, has soared to several billion dollars. Harnessing that approach will also take decades.

The recurrent criticism of fusion is that its promise has always been decades away. The task has proved harder and more expensive than what scientists anticipated when they started in the 1950s. Even if lasers and tokamaks prove technologically feasible, giant, expensive fusion reactors could still turn out to be too expensive to be practical.

So the mavericks ask: Why not take a closer look at some alternative approaches?

“It’s really a shame the Department of Energy has such a narrowly focused program,” said Eric J. Lerner, president and sole employee of Lawrenceville Plasma Physics in New Jersey, another alternative fusion company. Mr. Lerner has received NASA financing to explore whether his dense fusion focus might be good to propel spacecraft, but nothing from the Energy Department.

The department is spending $300 million on fusion research this year, and President Bush has asked for an increase to $428 million for next year’s budget. Almost all the increase would go to ITER.

The department supports research for many approaches, said Thomas Vanek, the department’s acting director for fusion energy sciences, but that has to fit within tight budgets. “Since the mid-’90s, it has been a tough environment for fusion energy.”

Some fusion scientists argue that fundamental physics makes these alternative approaches unlikely to pay off. Some agree that financing some high-risk, high-payoff research could be worthwhile.

“I personally think there should be more of these smaller ideas funded,” said L. John Perkins, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore. “Ninety-nine might fail, but one might pay off.”

Robert W. Bussard, an independent scientist, advocates a return to the Farnsworth Fusor, otherwise known as inertial confinement fusion. Farnsworth and Robert L. Hirsch, who later ran the Office of Fusion Energy for the Atomic Energy Commission, developed a fusor consisting of two electrically charged concentric spherical grids. They accelerated charged atoms, or ions, to the center.

“It’s like the electron guns in your TV tube,” Dr. Bussard said.

In the process, positively charged ions fly through the center, slow down as they approach the positively charged outer grid, then stop and fall back toward the center like a marble rolling back and forth in a bowl. Sometimes two ions collide at the center and fuse. But too often the ions run into the grids before they fuse. Dr. Bussard, a deputy to Dr. Hirsch at the Office of Fusion Energy in the ’70s, said he had a design eliminating the grids.

Most fusion scientists doubt Dr. Bussard’s assertion that he has solved all the underlying physics issues with inertial electrostatic confinement and knows how to build a working fusion power generator.

Dr. Bussard’s Navy grants dried up two years ago, and he is looking for investors. Dr. Bussard said he needed a few million dollars to restart his research, and $150 million to $200 million to build a fusion reactor capable of generating 100 megawatts. One megawatt is enough power for 1,000 houses.

Mr. Lerner hopes to harness a phenomenon known as dense plasma focus, which is also an old idea. Take two cylinders, put a gas between them and set off a big electric spark. The jolt heats the gas and generates extremely strong, unstable magnetic fields that compress and heat the gas to fusion temperatures.

Mr. Lerner has a three-year, $1.5 million collaboration with the Nuclear Energy Commission of Chile to research dense plasma focus. After that, $10 million and another three years would be needed for engineering development, he estimated. A result could be a compact five-megawatt generator.

“The whole device would fit inside anyone’s good-size garage.” Mr. Lerner said. “If all goes well, we hope to have our first prototype within six years.”

Skeptical physicists say too much energy is lost along the way in dense focus fusion to reach the break-even point. Mr. Lerner said his calculations showed that the very strong magnetic fields reduced the energy losses..

Dr. Putterman of U.C.L.A. and Mr. Tessien of Impulse Devices are perhaps furthest from success. They have yet to show fusion occurring. The phenomenon of glowing light as the sound-driven bubbles expand and collapse has been known since the 1930s, leading to speculation, but not proof, that the bubbles would perhaps be compressed so violently that trapped atoms might fuse.

In 2002, researchers led by Rusi P. Taleyarkhan, now a professor of nuclear engineering at Purdue University , claimed to have achieved fusion in such a system. That result has yet to be reproduced outside Dr. Taleyarkhan’s laboratories.

Neither Dr. Putterman nor Mr. Tessien could duplicate that experiment.

Mr. Tessien, who started his quest for sonofusion 12 years ago, said he had abandoned using Dr. Taleyarkhan’s approach and returned to his own designs. Those use steel spheres, allowing high pressures to be exerted on liquids in addition to the forces of the vibrating sound waves. He is confident that he will find fusion.

“There is zero question that fusion is hiding in some system,” he said. “I just need to figure out the right recipe.”

Dr. Putterman’s group experiments with different liquids like the phosphoric acid in the rotating cylinder. Phosphoric acid, it turns out, gives out much brighter light, but so far no fusion.

Dr. Putterman receives most of his financing from the Defense Department, although he has gotten money from novel sources, including $72,000 from the BBC, which was making a program about sonofusion.

He is philosophical about why more money is not flowing, saying the scientists have not given the doubters a reason to stop doubting. “Maybe that’s the brutal answer,” he said. “People are waiting for it to work. Maybe some explanations are simple.”


At 2/28/2007 4:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought your readers would be interested in looking at these energy technologies and EPS's theoretic base for ball lighting.

Aneutronic Fusion: Here I am not talking about the big science ITER project taking thirty years, but the several small alternative plasma fusion efforts.

There are three companies pursuing hydrogen-boron plasma toroid fusion, Paul Koloc, Prometheus II, Eric Lerner, Focus Fusion and Clint Seward of Electron Power Systems

Vincent Page (a technology officer at GE!!) gave a presentation at the 05 6th symposium on current trends in international fusion research , which high lights the need to fully fund three different approaches to P-B11 fusion

He quotes costs and time to development of P-B11 Fusion as tens of million $, and years verses the many decades and ten Billion plus $ projected for ITER and other "Big" science efforts

Here are the links:

A resent DOD review of EPS technology reads as follows:

"MIT considers these plasmas a revolutionary breakthrough, with Delphi's
chief scientist and senior manager for advanced technology both agreeing
that EST/SPT physics are repeatable and theoretically explainable. MIT and
EPS have jointly authored numerous professional papers describing their
work. (Delphi is a $33B company, the spun off Delco Division of General
"Cost: no cost data available. The complexity of reliable mini-toroid
formation and acceleration with compact, relatively low-cost equipment
remains to be determined. Yet the fact that the EPS/MIT STTR work this
technology has attracted interest from Delphi is very significant, as the
automotive electronics industry is considered to be extremely demanding of
functionality per dollar and pound (e.g., mil-spec performance at
Wal-Mart-class 'commodity' prices)."

EPS, Electron Power Systems seems the strongest and most advanced, and I love the scalability, They propose applications as varied as home power generation@ .ooo5 cents/KWhr, cars, distributed power, airplanes, space propulsion , power storage and kinetic weapons.

It also provides a theoretic base for ball lighting : Ball Lightning Explained as a Stable Plasma Toroid
The theoretics are all there in peer reviewed papers. It does sound to good to be true however with names like MIT, Delphi, STTR grants, NIST grants , etc., popping up all over, I have to keep investigating.

Recent support has also come from one of the top lightning researcher in the world, Joe Dwyer at FIT, when he got his Y-ray and X-ray research published in the May issue of Scientific American,
Dwyer's paper:

and according to Clint Seward it supports his lightning models and fusion work at Electron Power Systems

lightning produces thermonuclear reaction
This new work By Dr.Kuzhevsky on neutrons in lightning: Russian Science News is also supportive of Electron Power Systems fusion efforts .

Vincent Page (a technology officer at GE!!) gave a presentation at the 05 6th symposium on current trends in international fusion research , which high lights the need to fully fund three different approaches to P-B11 fusion (Below Is an excerpt).

"for larger plant sizes
Time to small-scale Cost to achieve net if the small-scale
Concept Description net energy production energy concept works:
Koloc Spherical Plasma: 10 years(time frame), $25 million (cost), 80%(chance of success)
Field Reversed Configuration: 8 years $75 million 60%
(Eric Lerner)Plasma Focus: 6 years $18 million 80%"

Looks like Eric Lerner is moving down the road!!

U.S., Chilean Labs to Collaborate on Testing Scientific Feasibility of Focus Fusion
The learning curve is so steep now, and with the resources of the online community, I'm sure we can rally greater support to solve this paramount problem of our time.

However, short of a Energy "silver bullet" like fusion , Here is a fully DOABLE technology

Time to Master the Carbon Cycle

Man has been controlling the carbon cycle , and there for the weather, since the invention of agriculture, all be it was as unintentional, as our current airliner contrails are in affecting global dimming. This unintentional warm stability in climate has over 10,000 years, allowed us to develop to the point that now we know what we did,............ and that now......... we are over doing it.

The prehistoric and historic records gives a logical thrust for soil carbon sequestration.
I wonder what the soil biome carbon concentration was REALLY like before the cutting and burning of the world's virgin forest, my guess is that now we see a severely diminished community, and that only very recent Ag practices like no-till and reforestation have started to help rebuild it. It makes implementing Terra Preta soil technology like an act of penitence, a returning of the misplaced carbon to where it belongs.

Energy, the carbon cycle and greenhouse gas management

On the Scale of CO2 remediation:

It is my understanding that atmospheric CO2 stands at 379 PPM, to stabilize the climate we need to reduce it to 350 PPM by the removal of 230 Billion tons.

The best estimates I've found are that the total loss of forest and soil carbon (combined
pre-industrial and industrial) has been about 200-240 billion tons. Of
that, the soils are estimated to account for about 1/3, and the vegetation
the other 2/3.

Since man controls 24 billion tons in his agriculture then it seems we have plenty to work with in sequestering our fossil fuel co2 emissions as charcoal.

As Dr. Lehmann at Cornell points out, "Closed-Loop Pyrolysis systems such as Dr. Danny Day's are the only way to make a fuel that is actually carbon negative". and that " a strategy combining biochar with biofuels could ultimately offset 9.5 billion tons of carbon per year-an amount equal to the total current fossil fuel emissions! "

Terra Preta Soils Technology: Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration and 3X Fertility Too

This some what orphaned new soil technology speaks to so many different interests and disciplines that it has not been embraced fully by any. I'm sure you will see both the potential of this system and the convergence needed for it's implementation.

The integrated energy strategy offered by Charcoal based Terra Preta Soil technology may
provide the only path to sustain our agricultural and fossil fueled power
structure without climate degradation, other than nuclear power.

The economics look good, and truly great if we had CO2 cap & trade in place:

Terra Preta soils I feel has great possibilities to revolutionize sustainable agriculture into a major CO2 sequestration strategy.
I thought, I first read about these soils in " Botany of Desire " or "Guns,Germs,&Steel" but I could not find reference to them. I finely found the reference in Charles Mann's "1491", but I did not realize their potential .

I have heard that National Geographic is preparing a big Terra Preta (TP) article.

Nature article: Putting the carbon back Black is the new green:

Here's the Cornell page for an over view:

This Earth Science Forum thread on these soils contains further links, and has been viewed by 17,000 folks. ( I post everything I find on Amazon Dark Soils, ADS here):

Terra Preta Discussion , central data base, and Mail list at REPP-CREST:

There is an ecology going on in these soils that is not completely understood, and if replicated and applied at scale would have multiple benefits for farmers and environmentalist.

Terra Preta creates a terrestrial carbon reef at a microscopic level. These nanoscale structures provide safe haven to the microbes and fungus that facilitate fertile soil creation, while sequestering carbon for many hundred if not thousands of years. The combination of these two forms of sequestration would also increase the growth rate and natural sequestration effort of growing plants.

Ammonia Scrubbing Technology for Fossil Fuel Power Plants Emissions:

Here is a great article that high lights this pyrolysis process , ( ) which could use existing infrastructure to provide Charcoal sustainable Agriculture , Syn-Fuels, and a variation of this process would also work as well for H2 production and Charcoal-Fertilizer, while sequestering CO2, NO2 and SO2 from Coal fired plants to build soils at large scales , be sure to read the "See an initial analysis NEW" link of this technology to clean up Coal fired power plants.
Soil erosion, energy scarcity, excess greenhouse gas all answered through regenerative carbon management

The reason TP has elicited such interest on the Agricultural/horticultural side of it's benefits is this one static:

One gram of charcoal cooked to 650 C Has a surface area of 400 m2 (for soil microbes & fungus to live on), now for conversion fun:

One ton of charcoal has a surface area of 400,000 Acres!! which is equal to 625 square miles!! Rockingham Co. VA. , where I live, is only 851 Sq. miles

Now at a middle of the road application rate of 2 lbs/sq ft (which equals 1000 sqft/ton) or 43 tons/acre yields 26,000 Sq miles of surface area per Acre. VA is 39,594 Sq miles.

What this suggest to me is a potential of sequestering virgin forest amounts of carbon just in the soil alone, without counting the forest on top.

To take just one fairly representative example, in the classic Rothampstead experiments in England where arable land was allowed to revert to deciduous temperate woodland, soil organic carbon increased 300-400% from around 20 t/ha to 60-80 t/ha (or about 30-40 tons per acre) in less than a century (Jenkinson & Rayner 1977). The rapidity with which organic carbon can build up in soils is also indicated by examples of buried steppe soils formed during short-lived interstadial phases in Russia and Ukraine. Even though such warm, relatively moist phases usually lasted only a few hundred years, and started out from the skeletal loess desert/semi-desert soils of glacial conditions (with which they are inter-leaved), these buried steppe soils have all the rich organic content of a present-day chernozem soil that has had many thousands of years to build up its carbon (E. Zelikson, Russian Academy of Sciences, pers. comm., May 1994).

I have joked for years with local farmers that chicken litter is just Iowa top soil imported to the valley in the form of corn, now at least we'll be able to keep it here rather than it running off into the Chesapeake Bay.

All the Bio-Char Companies and equipment manufactures I've found:

Carbon Diversion

Eprida: Sustainable Solutions for Global Concerns

BEST Pyrolysis, Inc. | Slow Pyrolysis - Biomass - Clean Energy - Renewable Ene

Dynamotive Energy Systems | The Evolution of Energy

Ensyn - Environmentally Friendly Energy and Chemicals

Agri-Therm, developing bio oils from agricultural waste

Advanced BioRefinery Inc.

Technology Review: Turning Slash into Cash

International K&K Enterprise Others

The upcoming International Agrichar Initiative (IAI) conference to be held at Terrigal, NSW, Australia in 2007. ( )

If pre-Columbian Indians could produce these soils up to 6 feet deep over 20% of the Amazon basin it seems that our energy and agricultural industries could also product them at scale.

Harnessing the work of this vast number of microbes and fungi changes the whole equation of energy return over energy input (EROEI) for food and Bio fuels. I see this as the only sustainable agricultural strategy if we no longer have cheap fossil fuels for fertilizer.

We need this super community of wee beasties to work in concert with us by populating them into their proper Soil horizon Carbon Condos.

I feel Terra Preta soil technology is the greatest of Ironies.
That is: an invention of pre-Columbian American culture, destroyed by western disease, may well be the savior of industrial western society.


Erich J. Knight
Shenandoah Gardens
E-mail: shengar at
(540) 289-9750


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