Thursday, April 24, 2008

Clean, Cheap, Unlimited Energy: Why You Can't Have It

Imagine an energy source that is unlimited, clean, safe, and available now. An energy source that is so scalable, it can be used to power anything from an 18-wheel truck to a city the size of New York. An energy source for which all the science and most of the engineering has already been done. An energy source so clean that it has a zero carbon and nuclear footprint. An energy source so safe, you could put an infant care center next door to it. An energy source that can be retrofitted to every fossil fired or nuclear fired power plant on the planet. An energy source for which you'd pay a tiny fraction of what you pay today for electricity. A technology which the United States could export and earn trillions of dollars in foreign exchange credits.

Sound like a fairy tale? It's not. It's been available since October 2006, but the Bush Administration killed it because it needed the insignificant amount of money required to fund it's final engineering development for the Iraq War. What's worse, its inventor and project leader died in 2007.

Dr. Robert Bussard, the inventor of what's called the Polywell Farnsworth-fusor, was one of those rare individuals able to bridge the gap between theoretical physics and practical engineering. While at NASA, he developed a nuclear propulsion system that could have taken us at a fraction of current costs in a single-stage rocket from the surface of the Earth to the surface of Mars in two weeks and back again, instead of the months and billions required for multi-stage chemical rockets. It would have reduced our moon landings to day trips. That project was killed as a result of internecine warfare at NASA. NASA's big ticket contractors correctly saw the end of their costlier, less effective systems in that developed by Dr. Bussard and successfully lobbied to kill it. While still at NASA, Dr. Bussard also designed an interstellar ramjet that could propel a vessel to the stars. That, too, still sits somewhere on a forgotten NASA shelf.

When the Navy decided it needed a smaller, safer power plant for its nuclear fleet, it hired Dr. Bussard to make it happen. He succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, coming up with the now scrapped fusion reactor that could have changed human society and history and saved the planet.

There are three obstacles that need to be surmounted before this technology can benefit us. The first are scientifically illiterate Washington politicians in Congress and the White House who seldom make wise decisions on anything more complex than bridges to nowhere. Next are the web of university and private research organizations that benefit from the non-performing but enormously lucrative big ticket programs administered by the Department of Energy. Finally, there are the private energy companies whose fossil fuel and nuclear products will be rendered obsolete by this new technology.

Taken together, these obstacles may well be insurmountable. It may take a private actor like a Warren Buffet or a Bill Gates to provide the roughly $200 million required to fund a demonstration project. Make no mistake, however. If this is funded in the private sector, whoever steps up to the plate will become not only a social icon but the planet's first trillionaire.

For a good explanation of Dr. Bussard's technology, see the WikiPedia article on the Polywell Farnsworth-fusor (also known as Electrostatic Confinement Fusion).

Before he died, Dr. Bussard gave a talk to Google employees about his new fusion technology:

Listen also to this earlier interview.

Dr. Bussard's original website: Digg Stumble Upon Toolbar propeller Furl


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