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01 June, 2008

Focus Fusion: Will It Save Us?

I've been reading a bit lately about focus fusion – a radically new approach to producing power from fusion reactions. The research is spearheaded by Eric J. Lerner and his company Lawrenceville Plasma Physics Inc. (LPP) and has been financed mostly by Government organisations like NASA and the Chilean Nuclear Energy Commission .

The basic principle is to use Dense Plasma Focus (DPF) to confine a proton-Boron mix (pB11) at extreme temperatures (a couple of million degrees) so that a fusion reaction can take place. The DPF technology has existed for decades but the theoretical work needed to enable a controlled fusion reaction has not existed until very recently. Now, LPP has received a USD600,000 grant from Swedish firm CMEF (the first part of ten million dollars if all goes well) to develop a proof-of-concept reactor.

Focus fusion has none of the major drawbacks the Tokomak programme has laboured under. It doesn't suffer the plasma stability problems Tokomaks do, it does not generate 'hard' radiation like Tokomaks, and it can feed electrons directly into the grid without the need to generate heat to drive turbines. It could potentially generate electricity at a hundredth of the cost of existing power generation techniques. It is also suitable for small-scale, distributed power production (a 5MWatt reactor could fit inside a garage). That means focus fusion reactors could power railway locomotives, lorries, ships and aircraft. What's more, electric cars would vastly outperform petrol (economically). If focus fusion works, we could easily be looking at a completely petrol and coal free world in just a few decades!

Obviously this would be a disaster for the Middle East and for the big petrol and coal companies (and, hopefully, the governments they prop up). It would probably also be a disaster for the major coal-exporting countries like Australia – which is a bit unfortunate since that's where I live. It would also mean the end of renewable energy technologies (I don't suppose anyone will be sad to see the end of wind farms!) and it would, at last, kill off nuclear power as a viable commercial concern.

All-in-all, it would be a miraculous technical breakthrough that would save us from global warming and make electricity virtually free for the whole world. It is estimated that there is enough boron in the world to keep us in power for a billion years and the only wast emission you get from focus fusion is Helium – an inert gas with no greenhouse effect.

Too good to be true? In a world already beset by food riots and the first petrol riots, a world that is just a few decades from a catastrophic climate change tipping point, where the first resource wars have already been fought, for all our sakes, let's hope not.

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