BILLIONAIRES AND FUSION FUNDING: STANDARD THEORIES AND UNUSUAL ...May 1, 2016
Mr. T.M. found this story and shared it, and it's on one of those topics we follow here: fusion, and its investors. In this respect, the story is important to pass along. But there's some things here hiding in the text that also ought to ring a bell, if you take my meaning. Here's the article:
We've all heard the recent story of the various Rockefeller foundations divesting themselves of petroleum stocks, and that means they probably won't be buying shares of Saudi Arabian Aramco, nor Saudi soverign bonds. I commented on this story some time ago, and at the time, my suspicion was that a move that large would not happen unless there may be some news percolating privately through the backchannels of financial power. This BBC article raises a similar prospect with respect to a very secretive fusion engineering company, Tri-Alpha energy:
Around 1,300 miles (2000km) south of General Fusion's headquarters, you'll find another firm in the vanguard of venture-backed fusion – or, more likely, you won't. Tri Alpha Energy, based in Orange County, California, has been notoriously secretive since it was founded in 1998: until last year, it had no public address, no readily available contact information – not even a website. Two of the company's scientists approached for this story did not reply. This low profile hasn't kept investors from noticing the company: Tri Alpha's backers include Paul Allen; the Rockefeller family's venture-capital firm, Venrock; and the Russian government's nanotech-investment arm, Rusnano. (In keeping with the theme of secrecy, Allen's company, Vulcan Inc, doesn't list Tri Alpha in its investment portfolio, and a Vulcan spokeswoman declined requests to interview someone there about the fusion firm.)
Now, you'll notice something about the approach that Tri-Alpha is taking:
Tri Alpha has staked its claim on a reactor design called a “field-reversed configuration.” This type of device has more in common with Iter's tokamak-style reactor than General Fusion’s machine: it uses magnetic confinement and heat, rather than compression, to induce fusion, and it produces energy continuously, instead of in bursts.
The advantage of a field-reversed configuration over a tokamak is that its engineering is much simpler. But from a physics perspective, the technology is far less well-developed. Zarnstorff, who has visited Tri Alpha's headquarters, says the company is still “orders of magnitude away” from the plasma temperatures and confinement times needed for fusion.
And the fuel Tri-Alpha plans to use is no less unusual:
To make matters more difficult, Tri Alpha is aiming to use a fuel made up of the isotope boron-11 and a proton, rather than the more basic deuterium-tritium blend. This fuel would produce less radioactivity than deuterium-tritium, but would demand much higher temperatures, and experts are dubious of its feasibility. “That is so extremely difficult, I'm not sure anybody will ever be able to do it,” Fowler says.
Like other private fusion firms – and in contrast to public efforts – Tri Alpha is taking an engineering-first, physics-later approach to fusion, says Zarnstorff. “They're almost saying, if I simplify it in these ways, can I get it to work?”
...Boron...enegineering, not theory, first, and even Rockefellers. Tuck those things in the back of your mind.
Earlier in the article, the more unusual approach of General Fusion, a firm backed by amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is mentioned, and in fact, this approach has been around for a while, and I even blogged about it many years ago, so many years in fact, that the blog may now be lost. But to make a long story short, Global Fusion's Michael Laberge's different approach is summarized by the article here:
Laberge knew there were lots of off-path fusion approaches out there. “All those alternative ways of doing fusion were very little supported,” he explains, because the mainstream methods “were swallowing up most of the resources.” The approach he decided to pursue, called “magnetised target fusion,” was one such alternative.
Here's how it works: first, magnetic fields are used to confine a superheated plasma of volatile deuterium and tritium isotopes. This plasma is then injected into a sphere, where it's briefly contained in a vortex of liquid metal. Next, pistons converging towards the centre of the sphere simultaneously strike an anvil at the end of their cylinder, sending a shock wave into the plasma. This burst of energy causes the plasma to compress and the deuterium-tritium fuel to ignite – producing, in theory, a tremendous burst of energy.
There you have it: vortices, i.e., rotation, a plasma contained within that rotation under magnetic confinement, and then... shockwaves.
Bow if you're paying attention, this sounds a bit like Ronald Richter's fusion experiments for Juan Peron back in the 1950s: there too, plasmas were put into rotation, and then shocked, not with acoustic shock waves, but high voltage electrical arcing. The result - at least according to Richter, not his detractors - was a fusion process that transduced additional energy from the zero point energy (his phrase, not mine). As the article itself observes, these acoustic shock waves are caused by pistons that have to be set off simultaneously in order to cause symmetrical compression of the shock waves, something only achievable with computers. There's another odd resemblance here to previous fusion projects as well, and that is the strangely siimilar appearance of Global Fusion's apparatus to that of Philo Farnsworth's plamator and fusor devices which were patented in the early 1960s. In those devices, magnetic "virtual" electrodes were used to confine a plasma which achived fusion energies by the concurrent bombardment of nuclei shot into a central region. And there's one final odd little bit of data that caught my attention, and that is the use of Boron by Tri Alpha's process. Again, for those paying attention, it will be recalled that Richter "doped" his fusion experiments, which were apparently using lithium-deuteride (with high concentrations of lithium-7...Castle Bravo afficionados take note), with(you guessed it) boron.
So what am I getting at here? Well, most of my high octane speculations will have to await part two's installment of this blog tomorrow, but basically, there are a number of suggestive and qualitative resemblances of these approaches to the fusion experiments that were conducted decades ago. And that raises the prospects considerably, in the form of two questions: (1) did this work continue, privately, and secretly? and (2) if so, why the corporate, and in particular, Rockefeller, interest in it now?
That high octane speculation will have to wait until tomorrow. Until then, I'll...
...see you on the flip side...