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Why Google Should Go Nuclear November 21, 2006

Posted by Unreasonable in Energy Matters, Matters Scientific, Matters Technological.

Specifically, I think the Google Foundation should fund a fusion F-Prize.

Robert Bussard recently gave a talk at Google about his fusion work. The first 30 minutes of the video was over my head, but the last 60 minutes was fascinating to me. Bussard shows slides of the evolution of his lab’s confinement devices and describes what they learned with each one. The main points I took away from it are:

  1. Fusion combines atoms to make larger atoms, where fission splits large atoms into smaller ones. The reaction Bussard’s team is using combines Boron 11 and Hydrogen into Helium. There are no radioactive waste products.
  2. Tokamak Reactor - from WikipediaMost physicists are trying to use the tokamak torus to confine the fusion reaction. The tokamak was designed in the 1950s and the idea is to suspend a plasma where fusion takes place within a magnetic field. The application of the idea has been much more challenging than anyone had anticipated. Bussard believes that is because the idea is fundamentally flawed.
  3. Farnswell/Hirsch Fusor from WikipediaBussard was originally involved with the tokamak, but Farnsworth and Hirsch built a simpler electrostatic confinement system in 1967. Elmore/Tuck/Watson proposed inverting the electrostatic design, and Bussard has been trying to perfect that idea.
  4. For the past 12 years, Bussard’s lab has been funded by the Navy instead of the Department of Energy because the DoE is convinced that the tokamak path is the right one, and he was certain he could not get funding to pursue his outside the box research. Because of the funding source, he had to keep a low profile to avoid attracting DoE attention, creating controversy, and ultimately losing the funding source he had. Therefore, he hasn’t published papers, and the funding has been too small to do things right.
  5. Bussard ReactorIn that time they’ve developed a series of small prototypes, improving the design with each one.
  6. In Spring of 2005, Bussard’s lab discovered what they now think was the key flaw in their thinking. However, the Navy cut all funding to energy research at about that time. They hurried to complete a prototype to test their idea.
  7. On November 9-11, 2005 Bussard’s lab achieved stable fusion, but they blew up the containment magnets because they didn’t have a cooling system or proper control system.
  8. They subsequently lost their funding, but SpaceDev currently has their equipment and three of their researchers to continue the work with the goal of developing an engine for space travel (presumably a Bussard Ramjet).

Bussard summed it up himself in a June 23 letter to the JREF Forum. Apparantly it’s not that hard to acheive fusion at a small scale. A few people have been doing that in their basements, but those reactors are not self-sustaining, putting out more energy than they are taking in. I think Bussard is claiming that this reactor will be when it is built full scale, even though it has not been at the small scales they’ve built so far. Bussard clearly says that the physics problems have been solved, and the only remaining problems are engineering problems. I’m too ignorant to judge whether the guy is a kook or not. Hopefully, he’s not, but it seems too good to be true. Even if everything he claims is true, they may still find major problems lurking when they scale it up and try to commercialize it.

I’m not saying Google should fund him. Instead of funding anyone’s research directly, I think it’s a much better idea to offer a prize to the winners that’s large enough to justify the risk by others. Netflix provides a good example. They want a better algorithim for movie recommendations based on customer likes and dislikes. Instead of trying to do it themselves or hiring a firm to do the work, they offered a $1 million prize to the first team to improve their results by 10%.

Steven Levitt says this:

I love the Netflix approach to the problem. They could easily spend $1 million internally hiring some programmers or Ph.D’s to try to improve their algorithm, with uncertain results. Instead, by making it a contest and offering up data to outsiders, they will probably succeed in having 100 times as many person-hours devoted to the problem for the same price—or cheaper because they only pay out the million if someone really improves on what they are doing now. In addition they gets lots of free publicity. Truly a brilliant strategy.

Not only that, Netflix is using the innovative guys that are hard to find. There will be some unqualified lunkheads who will try it, but they will fail on their own nickel. There will be some superstars who are probably better than anybody Netflix has or would find thru traditional hiring, and those guys will work like solving this problem is the most improtant thing in the world. I think the quality and quantity of work that Netflix is leveraging is immense.

We’ve also recently seen the success of the X-Prize and the DARPA Grand Challenge. In the case of the X-Prize, the winners spent something like $20 million to win a $10 million prize. That’s a serious bargain if you’re weighing direct funding vs offering a prize.

The prize has become extremely popular because it makes sense. In fact, I wrote most of this, and then I searched to see if anybody else had thought of it. Of course they had. The Focus Fusion Society proposed it in 2004. Unfortunately, the X-Prize Foundation response in 2006 was less than encouraging. Bussard even submitted the idea of a fusion prize to Congress in 1995.

It’s a good idea. I think the Google Foundation should put together a series of prizes, partially fund them, accept donations from others who agree with a particular cause, and speed up progress where they see fit. In this case, the well known joke is that cold fusion has been 30 years away for the last 50 years. If there were a large prize to win, someone would finance Bussard. We would know if he’s a genius or a nut within a couple of years, and we might actually have fusion within 30 years this time.



1. ITER Pact Signed « An Unreasonable Man - November 22, 2006

[…] In the last fusion post I should have mentioned that the ITER tokamak fusion reactor is about to start. Yesterday the politicians got together to sign the papers. […]

2. Think or Thwim » Green Venture Capital - January 13, 2007

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