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http://pesn.com/2005/11/01/9600199_Focus_Fusion/
You are here:
PureEnergySystems.com > News > Nov. 2, 2005

Top 100
Primary Grid Power Potential

Focus Fusion poses competition to $10 billion Tokamak

Purports to be a far more feasible and profoundly less expensive approach to hot fusion, in contrast to what the international project (ITER) in France is pursuing. Lawrenceville Plasma Physics is currently researching and developing the Plasma Focus Device for hydrogen-boron nuclear fusion.

by Sterling D. Allan
Pure Energy Systems News -- Exclusive Interview
Copyright © 2005

(See ITER's response below)


WEST ORANGE, NEW JERSEY, USA -- Imagine a non-polluting power plant, the size of a local gas station, that would quietly and safely power 4,000 homes, for a few tenths of a penny per kilowatt-hour, compared to 4-6 cents/kw-h of coal or natural-gas-powered plants.  One technician could operate two dozen of these stations remotely.  The fuel, widely available, is barely spent in the clean fusion method, and would only need to be changed annually.

That is what physicist Eric Lerner envisions with his focus fusion technology in which hydrogen and boron combine into helium, while giving off tremendous amounts of energy in the process.

The size and power output would make it ideal for providing localized power, reducing transmission losses and large-grid vulnerabilities.  The cost and reliability would make it affordable for developing nations and regions.


Thomas Valone on Focus Fusion
- When asked 'What energy technology looks most promising, that is not getting due attention', well-known and revered energy researcher and U.S. Patent reviewer, Tom Valone, Ph.D., answers: "Focus Fusion".

(Sterling Allan's interview with Tom Valone at the ExtraOrdinary Technology conference in Salt Lake City, July 28-31, 2005; produced by OSEN.)

Cutaway of the ITER Tokamak

Dr. Thomas Valone, of Integrity Research Institute calls it "the most ideal fusion project," and he even points to it as the most feasible, but neglected, energy technology in general. (See interview.)

With proper funding, implementation of Lerner's vision could begin within half a decade. The capital investment of a few millions that he needs seems miniscule compared to the 10 billion dollars being pumped into the multinational Tokamak fusion project in France. (Ref.)

While both processes are considered "hot fusion", focus fusion is not "fission."  As stated on the focus fusion website: "A fission reactor is the type of nuclear reactor we are all used to, and these use chain reactions which can lead to meltdown. They also have problems with radioactive waste."  Focus fusion has no such problems.

Lerner has been pulling together the theoretical basis for this technology for two decades. Since 1994 he has been able to secure funding, beginning with a grant from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. That initial grant enabled him to test key components of his theory. Though that funding has dried up apparently due to cuts in NASA's propulsion research, Lerner has been able to land ongoing funding to keep the research advancing.

It is no wonder that NASA would be interested, inasmuch as the modeling predicts that a craft using Lerner's technology could reach Mars in just two weeks.  The ionic particles would be escaping out the rocket nozzle at 10,000 kilometer per second, compared to the 2 km/s of present rocket propellant.


Efficiency and Safety

In the case of electricity generation, the speeding ionic particles would be coupled directly to the generation of electricity through a beam of ions being coupled by a high tech transformer into currents that are fed to capacitors, which would both pulse the energy back through the device to keep the process going, as well as send excess energy out for use on the grid.

This direct coupling is one of the primary advantages of this technology. It sidesteps the centuries-old approach of converting water to steam in order to drive turbines and generators. That process accounts for 80% of the total capital costs required in a typical power plant. By going straight from the fusion energy to electricity, Lerner's fusion process eliminates that need altogether, enabling streamlining of the process and a much smaller size to achieve equivalent power output.

And his device could be fired up and shut off with the flip of a switch, with no damaging radiation, no threat of meltdown, and no possibility of explosions. It is an all-or-nothing, full-bore or shut-off scenario. Because it can be shut off and turned on so easily, a bank of these could easily accommodate whatever surges and ebbs are faced by the grid on a given day, without wasting unused energy from non-peak times into the environment, which is the case with much of the grid’s energy at present. (Ref.)


How the Theoretical Focus Fusion Reactor Works

The proposed focus-fusion reactor involves two components: the hydrogen-boron fuel, and a plasma focus device. The combination of these into the focus-fusion process is the invention of Eric Lerner.

The plasma-focus technology has been well established elsewhere, and has a forty-year track record. Invented in 1964, the Dense Plasma Focus (DPF) device is used in many types of research. (Ref.)

As described on the Focus Fusion website, the DPF device consists of two cylindrical copper or beryllium electrodes nested inside each other. The outer electrode is generally no more than six to seven inches in diameter and a foot long. The electrodes are enclosed in a vacuum chamber with a low-pressure gas (the fuel for the reaction) filling the space between them.

.

The Dense Plasma Focus device is roughly the size of a coffee can.

Next comes the fuel.  The gas Lerner plans to use in the DPF is a mixture of Hydrogen and Boron.  Their site gives an explanation of the research steps needed to use this type of fuel with the DPF. (Ref1; Ref2.)

According to their site, the way the proposed focus fusion reactor would work is as follows:

A pulse of electricity from a capacitor bank is discharged across the electrodes. For a few millionths of a second, an intense current flows from the outer to the inner electrode through the gas. This current starts to heat the gas and creates an intense magnetic field.

Guided by its own magnetic field, the current forms itself into a thin sheath of tiny filaments -- little whirlwinds of hot, electrically-conducting gas called plasma.

Picture of plasma filaments:

Schematic drawing of plasma filaments:

Photo of hot plasma vortex filaments
Hot plasma vortex filaments pinched together by their own magnetic fields in a plasma focus fusion device.

Photo taken by Winston Bostick & Victorio Nardi using an exposure time of a few nanoseconds. (Ref)

This sheath travels to the end of the inner electrode where the magnetic fields produced by the currents pinch and twist the plasma into a tiny, dense ball only a few thousandths of an inch across called a plasmoid. All of this happens without being guided by external magnets.

The magnetic fields very quickly collapse, and these changing magnetic fields induce an electric field which causes a beam of electrons to flow in one direction and a beam of ions (atoms that have lost electrons) in the other. The electron beam heats the plasmoid, thus igniting fusion reactions which add more energy to the plasmoid. So in the end, the ion and electron beams contain more energy than was input by the original electric current.

These beams of charged particles are directed into decelerators which act like particle accelerators in reverse. Instead of using electricity to accelerate charged particles they decelerate charged particles and to produce electricity.  (Ref. The above quote was slightly edited.)

Some of this electricity is recycled to power the next fusion pulse, at a frequency expected to be optimal at around 1000 times per second.  The excess energy from each pulse is available as net energy, and is output as product electricity from the fusion power plant for sale to the grid – or will be, once this is all proven and implemented.


X-Ray Shielding

While the process would not create residual radioactivity, it does give off strong x-ray emissions, which can be harnessed by a high-tech photoelectric cell for additional energy capture in a process similar to a photovoltaic solar cell.  The primary difference is in the concentration of particles.  "Solar energy is diffuse," said Lerner, explaining that the focus fusion process would be highly concentrated: 10,000 kilowatts per square meter, compared to 1 kw / m2 with solar.  So the cost-to-yield ratio would be extremely favorable in the case of the x-ray energy capture.

There will also need to be shielding from the pulsing electromagnetic fields generated by the reactor.

In addition to x-rays, the process would also yield "low energy neutrons", Lerner said.  These would not produce long-lived radioactivity, but at most would only produce "extremely short-lived elements with very short half-lives. Only 1/500th of the total energy would be carried by the neutrons."

"You could walk into the facility a second after turning it off, and would not be able to detect any radiation above background," he said. The materials of which the reactor and facility are constructed would not build up any radioactivity either, even over time.

For safety, Lerner said that a layer of lead and a layer of boron shielding surrounding the reactor would be adequate protection for the focus fusion plant.

As for possible accidents with the reactor, there is "not really anything that could go wrong," and, because of the way the reaction stops immediately, "there is [no possibility] for runaway." Lerner affirms, "It's 100% safe."

Some heat is vented into the environment, but it is not to such an extent that a generating plant could not be situated in a neighborhood, such as where substations presently are located.

About the worst thing that could happen would be a capacitor failure, but that would not even damage the building, he said.

Of course there are always the risks of electrocution, and shorting-out hazards associated with electricity, but those would be present in any power-plant situation.

Remember, with this technology, on-site personnel are not needed on a daily basis, reducing the exposure of persons to such hazards.  Maintenance would be rare.  One technician could operate a dozen facilities by him or herself.


Politics and Present Status
Cropped view.  The vacuum chamber in Texas with and without insulation. The copper coils were for heating it in preparation for using decaborane fuel.
Cropped view. The vacuum chamber in Texas with and without insulation. The copper coils were for heating it in preparation for using decaborane fuel. (Ref.)

Imagine!  At the flip of a switch, going from room temperature (or from the temperature of boiling water in the case of the liquid decaborane fuel), all the way up to a billion degrees, and then up to 6 billion degrees, all in a fraction of a second; then with another flip of the switch, when you are done, going back down to ambient temperature.  And in the interim, you have produced excess energy from fusion -- safely, cleanly.

Part of that theoretical equation has been proven.  Part has yet to be proven.

Lerner credits the field of astrophysics as playing a significant role in serendipitously developing much of the theoretical basis behind focus fusion, due to the parallels between neutron star research and plasma physics.

Mary-Sue Haliburton, chief editor for PESN and OSEN news, points out that the plasma filaments in the plasma focus are a microcosmic version of the Birkeland currents visible in the sun's corona, as well as in interstellar and even intergalactic space. (Ref [site shows photo of Birkeland current in sun's corona.)

Based on his focus-fusion research done through the grant from JPL at the University of Illinois, his subsequent research at Texas A&M University, and research done at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), Lerner et al. have proven the ability to attain, and even to surpass, the billion degree benchmark
. (Ref)

Valone said that such an achievement should have been front page news in the NY Times and Washington Post. (Ref.)


Though Lerner and his colleagues went beyond the pre-determined performance standard, NASA chose to not publicize that breakthrough. Instead of honoring Lerner et al. with the accolades they deserved, an administrator at LANL threatened the University and the professor involved, saying that they were not to compare their results with pet-project Tokamak. The professor was so intimidated he stopped working with Lerner.

Lerner's persistent quest to find other federal monies has thus far been unfruitful.  "This administration does not want to fund any serious competitor to oil or gas," Lerner said.  He has also approached some foreign governments.

Eric Lerner, physicist, inventor

Executive Director of the non-profit, Focus Fusion.  He is also President of Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, Inc., the corporate interest bringing this technology forward.

Despite the political setbacks, Lerner is pressing forward, and has been successful in acquiring limited funding. However, he needs substantially more to reach the next milestone of building a break-even prototype. To achieve the fusion process with measurable energy output, he needs $1.5 to $2 million dollars. This is a mere pittance compared to the $10 billion being sunk into Tokamak, which Valone considers to be an inferior design.

Once that milestone is accomplished, "funding will not be a problem," Lerner said.

A full proof-of-concept prototype will be next, which will enable the harnessing -- not just measurement -- of the output energy in the form of usable electricity.

Then, it’s a matter of tooling up for production. Lerner expects that the capital cost – estimated at $200,000 to $300,000 for a 20 MW plant – will be much lower than that of traditional electrical generation plants, perhaps only one percent in up-front costs.


Coming to a Car Near You?

Lerner said that the applications of this technology will be limited on the smaller end to local power-plant-sized operations for the near future, and that putting one of these in your garage or in your car will be years yet into the future. Miniaturization is a long-term dream that is sure to be achieved as the technology takes hold, just as it has in other industries such as computers and batteries.

# # #

SOURCES

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:

  • Eric Lerner reviewed this story and offered corrections which have been implemented.
  • Mary-Sue Haliburton provided outstanding editorial input.
  • Marcus Cameron produced the OSEN video footage.
  • Matthew L. Carson shot the OSEN video footage.
  • Spurring article: Focusfusion.org updates - Focus fusion recently updated their site with new info regarding the project's current status. In addition to talking about recent collaboration with the Latin American Focus group, they highlighted some of their group's attempts at fundraising. (ZPEnergy; Oct. 28, 2005)

CONTACTS:

Lawrenceville Plasma Physics
and
Focus Fusion Society
11 Calvin Terrace
West Orange, NJ 07052

Eric J. Lerner <elerner@igc.org>


Lerner's Publications

(Not a complete listing.)

Some of Lerner's results have been recorded in a paper published in the 2003 Proceedings of the Fifth Symposium on Current Trends in Fusion Research, held in Washington, D.C.

Electron, ion energy >100keV in a dense plasma (arxiv.org)

Abstract:
Controlled fusion with advanced fuels requires average electron and ion energies above 100 keV (equivalent to 1.1 billion K) in a dense plasma. We have met this requirement and demonstrated electron and ion energies over 100 keV in a compact and inexpensive dense plasma focus device. We have achieved this in plasma "hot spots" or plasmoids that, in our best results, had a density/confinement-time/energy product of 5.0 x1015 keVsec/cm3, a record for any fusion experiment. We measured the electron energies with an x-ray detector instrument that demonstrated conclusively that the hard x-rays were generated by the hot spots.

Prospects for P11B Fusion with the Dense Plasma Focus: New Results (arxiv.org)
25 pages, 6 figures. Invited presentation, 5th Symposium "Current Trends in International Fusion Research: A Review" March 24-28, 2003, Washington, D.C V.2 corrected typos

Abstract:
Fusion with p11B has many advantages, including the almost complete lack of radioactivity and the possibility of direct conversion of charged particle energy to electricity, without expensive steam turbines and generators. But two major challenges must be overcome to achieve this goal: obtaining average ion energies well above 100keV and minimizing losses by bremsstrahlung x-rays. Recent experimental and theoretical work indicates that these challenges may be overcome with the dense plasma focus. DPF experiments at Texas A&M University have demonstrated ion and electron average energies above 100keV in several-micron-sized hot-spots or plasmoids. These had density-confinement-time-energy products as high as 5.0 x10^15 keVsec/cm^3. In these experiments we clearly distinguished between x-rays coming from the hot-spots and the harder radiation coming from electron beam collisions with the anode. In addition, new theoretical work shows that extremely high magnetic fields, which appear achievable in DPF plasmoids, will strongly reduce collisional energy transfer from ions to electrons. This reduction has been studied in the context of neutron stars and occurs when ion velocities are too small to efficiently excite electron transitions between Landau levels. It becomes a major effect for fields above 5 gigagauss. This effect will allow average electron energies to stay far below average ion energies and will thus reduce x-ray cooling of p11B. In this case, fusion power will very significantly exceed x-ray emitted power. While fields of only 0.4 gigagauss have so far been demonstrated with the DPF, scaling laws indicate that much higher fields can be reached.

 

Comparison of Focus Fusion to the Tokamak

From http://users.erols.com/iri/FocusFusion-Ver6.htm

Reactor Type

Plasma Focus Fusion

Tokamak

Fuel

Hydrogen-boron

Deuterium-tritium

Fuel availability

Abundantly available

Tritium must be bred

Long-lived radioactivity

None

Considerable

Radioactivity of structure

None

Considerable

Power output per unit

2 MW and up

500 MW and up

Unit size

3x3x9 feet

70x70x80 feet

Capital Cost per kW

$100 - $200

$2000 – 3000

Electricity conversion

Direct induction

Steam cycle

 

Response from ITER

ITER was approached on Nov. 2, 2005 for comment regarding Focus Fusion.  The following is their response:

ITER Comment

From: Bill Spears
To: Sterling D. Allan
Sent: Thursday, November 10, 2005 11:46 AM
Subject: Re: comment please: Tokamak has serious competitor in Focus Fusion



Dear Sterling,

Sorry for the delay in replying. It takes time to give you a reasoned reply and not just shoot from the hip. It also takes time to read and understand detailed scientific reports to make sure you are not missing something. I asked Dr. Michiya Shimada, our Head of Physics Unit, to review the material and make a comment. After he and his people reviewed the background papers indicated in your article, he concluded:

"The plasma focus isn't going to be a rival of the tokamak unless there's some very strange physics nobody has seen before.

Using the plasma parameters quoted in their publication, the proton-boron fusion energy obtainable in a plasma focus discharge is estimated to be 0.6 x 10^-4 J, which is a fraction of a billionth of the electrical energy spent to create this plasma (~ 160 kJ). The point is that the plasma volume is very small (~ 6 x 10^-9 cm^3) and the discharge duration very short (~ 1 x 10^-8 s).

The dense plasma focus has been studied extensively in the early years of fusion research. They might find it interesting to compare their results with those obtained a few decades ago to see whether anything new has really been discovered here."

I hope you find that a significantly strong counter-remark to your original article to be worth publishing also this viewpoint.

Best regards,

Bill

Focus Fusion Response

From: Eric Lerner
To: Sterling D. Allan
Sent: Thursday, November 10, 2005 7:32 PM
Subject: Re: ITER response: Tokamak has serious competitor in Focus Fusion



Dr. Shimada did not read the papers carefully enough. His calculation is based on the plasma parameters that we actually achieved in our last experiments in 2001. We did not claim that those parameters are near breakeven. They were not even optimal for the current we achieved, because the radius of the anode (the inner electrode) on this device could not be changed

What the paper does demonstrate is that scaling laws that have both good theoretical foundations and experimental backing indicate that break-even parameters can be achieved with a somewhat higher current but a physically smaller device. With the parameters that we expect to reach in our next set of experiments, fusion yield per shot should be of the order of 5-20 KJ. No strange physics is needed. We are aiming for a 40-fold increase in plasmoid magnetic field and fusion yield (at fixed ion temperature) scales as B^4. Temperature will also be higher.

Eric Lerner

 

Feedback

Slashdot Feedback

  • Alternative to Tokamak Fusion Reactor - The above article was picked up by Slashdot on Nov. 5, 2005.  Read the scores of fascinating, sarcastic, educated, critical, enlightening comments there.
    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Lerner [wikipedia.org] (tartrazine)
      [NJ. Lerner wrote a comprehensive introductory book on the subject of plasma cosmology, "The Big Bang Never Happened" (1991)]
    • ...How this small "coffee can" size device could hold a temperature above 1 billion degrees inside without melting.... (drgonzo59)
      • ...I can give you some examples that show it's not totally insane. The inside of a CRT is something like 100,000F. But it doesn't melt the glass... (NoMoreNicksLeft)
      • It's like walking on coals. Coals get red-hot at about 600 degrees Farenheit, due to black body radiation. People can walk on them, though, because human flesh is much denser. (It also helps if you do it right after the morning dew, and it's a bad idea to linger.) The coals are hot but the total amount of energy isn't that high. It's a bit like having a very high voltage but a low amperage in a circuit. Another example of a plasma having a very high temperature but very low total energy is the temperature of interstellar space: it can be millions of degrees hot, but have a handful of atoms per cubic meter. (sco08y)
      • The coffee can sized device is very similar to a plasma rocket [space.com] engine. The rocket engine trys to keep the plasma symmetrical for nice controlled thrust. Focus fusion "snaps" the plasma filaments like a whip. At the tip, where a leather whip exceeds the speed of sound, the magnetic compression in the plasma is enough to ignite fusion... (CustomDesigned)
      • ...learn the difference between temperature and heat. It takes an equal amount of heat to heat 1 gram of H2 to 1 billion degrees as it does to heat 10 grams of H2 to 100 million degrees (ignoring the effects of the plasma phase transistion; IANA(N/P)P ). His device operates on a very small scale. ... there isn't much time for heat transfer, and those magnetic fields ought to be designed to focus the plasma away from the electrodes.... (Homo Stannous)
    • Assuming the proof of concept works, I can see a number of potential hazards: 1. Magnetic deceleration coils fail.... 2. Fuel metering fails.... 3. Shielding fails... 4. Fuel is contaminated with fusible reactants... (CustomDesigned)
    • I work in a nuclear facility so I'll say a little about safety of this device. [....] Safety is not an issue here, the issue is whether the science works or not. (anonymous)
    • Magnetic deceleration does not exist.... (The_Wilschon)
    • I'm susupiscious because they claim that high energy x-rays can't produce long lived radioactive waste. Apparently they haven't heard of photoneutrons. That and the plasma temperature for the H-B reaction is 10 times that of D-T, making it pretty difficult with standard materials. It looks like a viable research project though.... (zerus)
    • When someone states $200,000 to $300,000 to make a 20 megawatt generator, I just fall down laughing. You can't make a 20 megawatt transformer for probably 10-100 times that price, let alone the cost of the atomic "process equipment" and ion beam to electric current conversion. There may be no "radiation" of dangerous particles or left over radioactivity, but shielding everything and everyone within site from X-Rays is going to also cost a lot.... (BoRegardless)
    • ...[Lerner has] criticised the peer-review scientific process, calling it open to fraud.... (arkhan_jg)
    • (Wikipedia) writes:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokamak
      [wikipedia.org]
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joint_European_Torus [wikipedia.org]
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JT-60 [wikipedia.org]
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D3D_(fusion) [wikipedia.org]
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ITER [wikipedia.org]
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/START_Fusion [wikipedia.org]
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MAST_Fusion [wikipedia.org]
    • Hell, I'd kick in $100 or $200, maybe more. If this was done as a pure open source project and it was community funded I can see this getting $10 million in public funding in a hearbeat. In fact, from the slashdot community alone we could probably come up with the $2 million they need to hit the next milestone. (elrendermeister)
    • It's a shame there's so much automatic knee-jerk cynicism from the Slashdot crowd, and others, in regard of people who are actually out there trying to fix the planet with radical new technologies that they're sweating blood and tears to develop and research despite little or no funding, peer ridicule and threats and worse from big corporate interests.... (BigAlexK)

Toxicity of Decaborane

One possible fly in the ointment: toxicity of decaborane.  Borane, BH3, and Diborane, B2H6, are highly toxic.  Parts per million in the air can kill you.  Nothing is mentioned about the toxicity of decaborane.

-- Ken Rauen (November 21, 2005 5:29 PM)

Reply

Sure it is toxic, as is gasoline. But it is neutralized by being bubbled through ordinary water--it breaks down into boric acid.  Being a nuclear fuel, it is used in tiny quantities, unlike gasoline. Roughly a kilogram will run a 20 MW generator for a year.

-- Eric Lerner (November 21, 2005 9:30 PM)


Related Coverage by PESN

  • Featured / Best Exotic FE: Nuclear > Fusion > Focus Fusion >
    Fission Tragedy Could be Averted - The communications industry pumps 25% of their revenue back into research. The result? Slim iPhones and androids and many amazing communications wonders. Meanwhile, we starve energy research for funds with just 0.3% of the energy budget going to R&D, and wring our hands over oil spills and meltdowns. (PESN; March 15, 2011)
  • Focus Fusion poses competition to Tokamak - Purports to be a far more feasible and profoundly less expensive approach to hot fusion, in contrast to what the international project (ITER) in France is pursuing. Lawrenceville Plasma Physics is currently researching and developing the Plasma Focus Device for hydrogen-boron nuclear fusion. (PESN; Nov. 2, 2005)

See also

Page composed by Sterling D. Allan Nov. 1, 2005
Last updated December 24, 2014

 

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