Bussard’s Fusion Plant

It’s is simple story really. Physicist Robert Bussard claims to have a fusion generator that can solve the worlds energy problems. The machine is small – about 2.5 to 3.5 meters, produces no radiation, and would make enough electricity to power a couple of cities. It also could be used to power ships and spacecraft. It means bountiful, inexpensive energy which in turn means cheap desalinization and fuel production. Like ethanol for 6 cents a liter. He isn’t an outsider like the guys who thought they had discovered cold fusion. Bussard is a member of the nuclear establishment – Princeton, former director of Los Alamos. He and a small team have been working out the physics for the past 12 years with an under the political radar sized grant from the US Navy. The grant is finished and he is seeking 200 million to work out the engineering and build a working machine. The project is at an awkward stage – the science is worked out but the engineering is not and he says the engineering typically costs ten times as much as the science. Its too early for it to be readily attractive to venture capital and it is unlikely to get US government support because the Department of Energy is committed to a different line of fusion research. Bussard is so desperate to get the project going that he gave a talk at Google last November and pretty well laid out the whole thing in the hopes that someone would pick the project up. While I can’t judge the physics, I know something about media and the Internet and I think Bussard was only half right going to Google. I’ll explain why later in the post.

First, his hour and a half talk is here. If you don’t want to watch the entire video I’d suggest watching the beginning until you have had enough physics and then skip forward to Bussard’s summary of the implications which starts at 59 minutes and runs about five minutes. (Just drag the pointer to the right.) The question and answer period that follows is also very much worth viewing because it gives further insight into the politics of energy and government bureaucracy and where Bussard is personally. If you prefer an executive summary Canadian writer Karl Schroeder has the best written introduction I’ve seen here.

My initial reaction was to wish for simpler days when a leading physicist could write a letter to the president and action was taken. I’m referring to the letter Einstein wrote FDR saying that an atomic bomb was possible. Today the world of government and capital raising is very different than it was in the forties and Bussard finds himself going to the private sector – through Google – trying to raise the 200 million. I think he actually gives away a lot of what he has learned out of frustration and to make sure that if no one in the US will build his machine, someone well. He says point blank that if the US doesn’t do it China or India will.

I think he was half right to go to Google because he understands that is where some the best cutting edge thinkers in the world work. Google actually gives their employees 20% of their work time to devote to developing innovations that Google considers funding. (My son talked about it here.) Bussard is trying to tap into the network of cutting edge thinkers and perhaps he has succeeded. Maybe the right kind of people with that kind of money are now considering it. Maybe the Chinese or the Indians are too. But here is where he may have gotten it half wrong. He has gotten 133,000 views in about 7 months. That may not be a big enough base. He hasn’t gotten the large effect on the Internet that could make the project happen. He needs what Glenn Reynolds calls An Army of Davids. Or Eric Raymond calls the bazaar effect in his The Cathedral and the Bazaar. There are two ways that ordinary people on the net could help make it happen. One is the generate political pressure for it to be considered as a separate protected project funded by whoever. Just what Glenn Reynolds is doing with PorkBusters – applying constant pressure to our congressweasels to stop wasting money. The other is for ordinary people using the network to raise the 200 million. I understand that is a big ask. Alota moola. It would break new ground. But I’m not talking about asking people to hit the tip jar. I’m talking about organizing it so people can buy stock in the company and eventually share in the profits if there are any. I think it safe to say that the odds are better than the lottery. But that’s not the point – what I want is the opportunity for ordinary people including myself to invest in this idea. Anyone share my enthusiasm?

9 Responses to “Bussard’s Fusion Plant”  

  1. 1 Dewald

    I suggest some sort of paypal trust account needs to be setup, into which everyone can donate a small amount, the records can be kept and the shares allocted according to the donations. Dr Bussard’s current donation system is slightly unfriendly. If we can raise enough awareness a few dollars per person donated can quickly amount to the 200 million! How about some sort of google ad click campaign, convince google to donate part of a certain add or something.

  2. 2 tom

    yes i share your enthusiasm and actually donated some money at: http://www.emc2fusion.org/


  3. 3 admin

    Well, after following Tom’s link above maybe a PayPal tip jar approach would do some good. I’ll look into what is happening already and post again if I find out anything worthwhile. Thanks for the comments – this would seem to be far more important than most of the news stories for – oh – say the past 50 years. Glad someone is interested.

  4. 4 Julian

    This is a pretty enticing piece of life changing technology. Having not watched the video yet, I would be highly skeptical of the facts in this case if you weren’t my father and I didn’t already trust you to have researched this.

    I would venture a guess that this “I can’t believe it’s true” reaction would represent the reaction of most adults. We need credible people lining up behind this from the scientific, business, philanthropic, political, and non-profit communities.

    Since I’ve always been a business man and marketer I’ll venture the following wearing my business/marketing hat. Why would companies from my tech world NOT want to invest in this from a philanthropic and corporate branding perspective? For a company like Google $200MM is NOTHING. Same goes for Microsoft. They’re buying little pissant companies for more than this every day. If they believe in this technology, then investing $200 MM to buy into this technology would seem like a perfect investment EVEN if it’s outside of their technological core competency. Even if these kinds of companies didn’t want to approach this from a business perspective they could front the money as either corporate branding as a marketing expense or as a charitible gift for the tax writeoff.

    I can’t wait to watch the video when I have the time and after that to getting behind the effort. How could we not?

  5. 5 admin

    I didn’t believe it either at first, and am not qualified to judge the physics. I do know something about the history of science and that it quite possible for a line of research to get dropped that ultimately proves to be the right one while all the resources go into an approach that never does succeed. Do watch enough of the video to see if you think Bussard is just doing a good sales job. I think he believes it and is acting like a man who is desperate to be heard. He admits he is sick and too old and tired to do much more.

    But don’t believe me yet. I haven’t researched it enough. Even if is true that the physics has been worked out, the political problem in the DOE may be a lot bigger than he says. My next step is to follow up the link Tom gives above in his comment where you can contribute to the research and there are more articles listed.

    As you say, 200 million is not that much to the large companies. There is even a logical big company out there – GE. That’s their business, but they are old and set in their ways like the government. So I have to look more closely in to the why isn’t this happening side of things. I wont be able to understand the physics counter argument enough to evaluate it but I think the reason the money is hard to raise is that it is still very much theoretical and that the engineering could take much more than 200 million.

  6. 6 zbarlici

    I cant wait till the ITER prototype in France is built(completion around year 2016.. TOO LONG TO WAIT!) and shown as a failure! Maybe then people will start looking at why Dr. Bussard, one of the original founders of the ITER project left the ITER ream loong ago, to start looking into IEC fusion… http://www.emc2fusion.com

  7. 7 Harshana

    It is a great finding and I heard that U.S Navy has extended the contract for one more year without additional money. May be Navy is going to hide this again because their are ino new news even in the http://www.emc2fusion.com web site.
    But I hope this goes well and If you find some thing mail me hlasith@yahoo.com because I’m really interested in this.

  8. 8 Graham Toquer

    There is something about Dr. Bussard’s concept that I would like to see addressed. He aims to fuse boron and protium. This reaction produces a nucleus of Carbon 12 in an “excited” state which decays, eventually yeilding several helium nucleii and a lot of energy. Well, what if you started with Carbon 12 in the first place? What would it take to “excite” a carbon 12 nucleus so that it would decay? That might be easier to achieve than nuclear fusion. I wonder if anyone is working on that concept?

  9. 9 admin

    Wikipedia tells me Protium is Hydrogen-1 which helps me a bit – but I have little knowledge of nuclear physics so I can’t respond to your question. Your question made me aware that I believe that Dr. Bussard believes in what he is doing because of my knowledge of body language and some very real experience of real con men. That said, i wouldn’t be surprised if – as you suggest – there are untried approaches to our energy problems that are just waiting for the right person to look at them.

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