Recently, at the IEEE-APS International Conference on Plasma Science in Banff, Alberta, Canada I announced experimental results that promise cheap, clean, non-radioactive energy. The results demonstrated the viability of a compact fusion device called the plasma focus, opening the door to a new energy source possibly 100 times cheaper than oil and gas. The experimental work was performed last year at Texas A&M University in a project funded by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA. Other scientists congratulated us on the success.
Yet, instead of hailing this new work, a Los Alamos National Laboratory manager threatened two members of our research team with firing if they didn't repudiate the results. Funding for the research has been cut off, and the mainstream press has ignored both the new discovery and the effort to suppress it. What's going on here?
The new results are important because they show that the high temperatures -- over a billion degrees -- needed to burn hydrogen-boron fuel can be reached. A plasma focus reactor using hydrogen-boron fuel would serve as an almost ideal source of energy. It generates no long-lived (more than a few minutes half-life) radioactive byproducts. The fusion energy is released mainly as a beam of charged alpha particles, which can convert directly to electricity without the use of expensive steam turbines. A plasma focus device, with a core about the size of a large coffee can, costs less than $500,000 to build. Once fully developed, focus-based fusion reactors would also be small, making possible decentralized sources of power. With the reactors so economical, the successful development of plasma focus hydrogen-boron reactors could eventually render oil and gas nearly worthless.
We achieved these high temperatures, together with high densities, last August and posted a scientific paper describing the results to an online physics archive (http://arXiv.org/abs/physics/0205026
) in May, as well as submitting it to the journal Physica Scripta.
Then came the attempt to suppress this work. In May, Dr. Richard Seimon, Fusion Energy Science Program Manager at Los Alamos, demanded that Dr. Hank Oona, a Los Alamos staff physicist involved in the experiment, dissociate himself from comparisons that showed the new results superior in key respects to those of the tokamak and to remove his name from the paper describing the results. The tokamak, a much larger and more expensive device, has been the centerpiece of the U.S. fusion effort for 25 years. The demand was particularly outrageous since Oona was neither funded by Los Alamos nor at Los Alamos while participating in the experiment.
Seimon didn't dispute the data or the achievement of high temperatures. He objected to the comparisons with the tokamak, arguing that it was biased against the tokamak. In addition, Seimon pressured Dr. Bruce Freeman of Texas A&M, another co-author of the paper, to advocate the removal of all tokamak comparisons from the paper.
Both of my colleagues, who did tremendous work on this experiment, had carefully reviewed and approved the paper originally and had endorsed its conclusions. For them to be forced to recant under threat of firing is outrageous. It undermines the very basis of scientific discourse if researchers aren't allowed by their institutions to speak honestly to each other. Los Alamos has no more right to tell scientists what to think than the Catholic Church had to tell Galileo.
Why would Los Alamos try to suppress this work? For 25 years, government officials and program managers have based the fusion program exclusively on the tokamak, nearly eliminating all other approaches such as the plasma focus. Tokamak devices can't lead to drastically cheaper energy. Tokamaks use deuterium-tritium fuel, which creates high-energy neutrons. These neutrons would then be used for conventional steam turbine generators. Most of the capital cost of electricity comes from the steam cycle, not the energy source, so a significant reduction in energy costs is not possible with the tokamak. Unlike the plasma focus, they pose no threat to oil and gas.
The Department of Energy, which funds Los Alamos and many other labs, defends the tokamak tooth-and-nail in part through sheer bureaucratic inertia. But the Department's leadership has become increasingly indistinguishable from that of the oil and gas corporations, and it has no interest whatsoever in funding research that might eventually threaten those corporations.
The plasma focus does pose a real threat to the existing fossil-fuel energy multinationals, the Exxons and Enrons of the world. Not only would focus fusion reactors be cheap, producing energy at the equivalent of a oil at a dime a barrel, they would be decentralized, with each reactor producing perhaps 20 megawatts, enough for a town. This would both reduce transmission costs and inhibit corporate control of energy supply.
At the moment, there is NO U.S. government funding for focus fusion research. The NASA program that was funding this research, at a very low level, has been cut. Research at some 15 plasma focus groups in other countries is also crippled by lack of funds. Yet the amount of money needed is tiny; the next step in the research will require only about $500,000.
The amount of money needed is so small that it can be raised from the general public. To do this, we have set up the Focus Fusion Society (www.focusfusion.org
) with the aim of developing focus fusion on a non-profit basis. The more results we get, the more difficult it will be to suppress this technology. We can all support this work by joining this society and by spreading the word about it; forwarding this message to email lists and organizations that have an interest in cheap, clean, decentralized energy; holding meetings; getting on local radio shows; and writing letters to local papers. By taking matters into our own hands, we can change energy policy.
As engineers and scientists, we frequently find that work we do with benefits to society is frustrated by corporate interests and governmental polices that serve them. Often, all we can do is protest. This time, instead of just protesting, we have the opportunity to actually do something about energy policy. We can ensure this technology gets fully researched and developed and not suppressed.
Eric Lerner is president of Lawrenceville Plasma Physics in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, a small research and consulting firm. An independent researcher in plasma physics since 1979, he has become internationally known for his studies linking plasma astrophysics and laboratory plasma physics.