An Assembly of Pieces

James Anderson Merritt's piecemeal thoughts and observations, and the occasional attempt to put some of the pieces together.
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All material except cited quotations Copyright (C) 2004-2008 by James Anderson Merritt. All rights reserved.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I recently found a Google video of a talk that the late Robert Bussard, physicist and proponent of "fusor-approach" nuclear fusion (as opposed to "tokamak-approach") gave at the Google campus in 2006, a little more than a year before his death. (It's a little more than 90 minutes. You can see it by clicking the highlighted link.)

Bussard, inventor of the Bussard ramjet interstellar drive concept, former assistant director of the Atomic Energy Commission, and former head of the Los Alamos National Labs, talked about the "Polywell" fusor that he and his team developed on a shoestring budget over the past couple of decades. His basic claim was that all the key physics had been worked out as a result of his research, but that realization of a practical Polywell-based fusion reactor faced numerous challenges in engineering, which would cost around $200M to address.

I am both encouraged and depressed by Bussard’s talk and the supplementary material I found to go with it. Encouraged, because before he died, Bussard was successful in getting funding for his company, EMCC, to go ahead with at least the part of the program that would confirm earlier results, and in putting a team together to carry on his work. I was happy to read that the government approved the follow-on project to create a full-scale (100MW) Polywell fusor, apparently footing the $200M bill, assuming that the results of a less-expensive confirmation project are positive.

But I am discouraged that the relatively paltry sum of $200M is such a political football, and that Bussard and his team have had such difficulties in raising it (and, with economic problems and shifting political will, may have difficulties in keeping it), in comparison with the billions that have been tossed down the bottomless pit of Tokamak and similar approaches.

So why am I posting this on Tax Day in the US? On our tax forms, you are asked whether you wish to donate a few bucks to the Presidential election fund. Money spent in this way will go toward electing a President who is almost guaranteed to keep us in Iraq for at least a few years more, at the cost of billions of dollars and many deaths and horrendous injuries on all sides. Moreover, the thousands of dollars that each person remits in taxes will go primarily toward paying interest on the national debt and running this crazy war, with the largest remaining part going to social security and healthcare entitlements, and leaving some left over to fund the government bureaucracy and various discretionary social programs – the combined annual cost being well over a TRILLION dollars per year. Finally, tens (perhaps hundreds) of millions of people each willingly part with many dollars every day to buy government lottery tickets, which offer infinitesimal odds of winning a huge personal fortune.

I can't help but wonder: What would happen if, in disgust at how the government has squandered the resources and the full faith and credit of the American people, everyone who filed a 2007 tax return and everyone who bought a lottery ticket in 2007 would send JUST ONE DOLLAR to the foundation that Bussard set up to collect private funding for his experiments? Maybe the Polywell approach is flawed, a dead-end. I'm not a physicist and I can't vet the concept to the last decimal place. But the ideas seem worthy and the people working on the project are credible scientists, who have shown promising results already and received international recognition (and prizes!) for their work, so a buck or two would certainly seem to be money as well spent as on lottery tickets, the Presidential campaign fund, or business-as-usual in the Federal government. If we lose our money on this gamble, the individual loss will be almost negligible. But if the full-scale Polywell works as the late physicist hoped and predicted, then we can look forward to getting 100MW of power or more (enough to run 100,000 homes, or propel highway-capable electric cars almost 4.4 TRILLION miles in a year's time) from a reactor as small as eight feet square – smaller than most people’s living rooms – without a fuel shortage risk, without residual radiation or waste-product disposal problems, and without greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a huge, world-changing upside.

Today, I donated $5 to Bussard's foundation (link on the page takes you to a page where you can donate via PayPal). I ask all my long-suffering fellow taxpayers to consider making a similar donation. This kind of research seems to be too important to leave to our government. And as just a matter of national pride: I think it needs to be WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, who lead us into a world where it is never again credible to go to war over access to energy. I believe that, if the people lead, the leaders will follow. So let's lead, already. If you donate, please pass this article along to someone else. Thanks.


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