Scientists, Abell Foundation call for Senate hearings to investigate faster routes to fusion energy

Scientists at green energy start-up Lawrenceville Plasma Physics today endorsed the recent call of Abell Foundation Executive Director Robert Embry for Senate hearings intended to accelerate the US fusion energy program.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: Eric J. Lerner, eric@LPPhysics.com, 732-356-5900/908-546-7654
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Middlesex, NJ – Feb. 6, 2013 – Scientists at green energy start-up Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, Inc. (LPP) today endorsed the recent call of the Abell Foundation’s Executive Director, Robert Embry, for the establishment of Senate hearings to investigate if the US fusion energy program is too narrowly focused and needs to be redirected to a broader range of fusion devices, including those that could lead to energy sources cheaper than any now available. Fusion has long been pursued as the “Holy Grail” of clean, cheap, baseload power with no nuclear waste, but the US government has concentrated its funding into just two possible approaches, while ignoring less expensive alternatives that have recently shown new promise.

Mr. Embry made the call for Senate hearings in a January 28, 2013 letter to Senator Ron Wyden (D, OR), the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. In the letter, Mr. Embry points out that “in the past year, a number of events have highlighted the need for a re-evaluation of the direction of the US fusion energy research effort.” In March 2012, the letter states, hundreds of young fusion researchers signed a petition asking that US fusion research not be cut in order to feed more money to the multi-billion dollar ITER tokamak under construction in the south of France. In October 2012, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in northern California missed its deadline to achieve a self-sustaining fusion reaction; Dr. Robert L. Hirsch, former director of US fusion research and an architect of the present Department of Energy strategy that focuses on the tokamak device, said in a speech to a scientific workshop that this strategy was deeply mistaken and that the fusion research program should reorient toward devices that could produce economical energy.

Mr. Embry emphasized to Senator Wyden that “at present I am told no informed scientist believes that either the tokamak approach or any approach derived from NIF will lead to a new energy source that is cheaper than existing ones, and that therefore could compete with them without subsidies.” As Dr. Hirsch pointed out, any fusion device based on the deuterium-tritium fuel required by NIF and ITER will need to be large and expensive, because this fuel produces many high energy neutrons whose damage must be spread out, with energy conversion limited to conventional steam turbines.

“There are paths to economical fusion power that are not, at present, being funded by the US fusion energy effort,” the letter argues. “There exist aneutronic fusion fuels, such as hydrogen-boron fuel, which produce no radioactive waste. There are a number of devices, including the plasma focus device, inertial electrostatic confinement, field-reversed configuration and some approaches to laser-initiated fusion that can, in theory, burn aneutronic fuels. Because the main reaction from aneutronic fusion fuel produces no neutrons, devices to burn aneutronic fuels could be made very compact and therefore very economical. “

LPP strongly endorses Mr. Embry’s call for a Senate investigation that will ask:

1. Is the current 30-year-old concentration of the US fusion energy program on the tokamak device and on deuterium-tritium fuels too narrow to lead to economical fusion energy?

2. Should the US fusion energy program be redirected, by legislation if necessary, to fund a broader range of fusion devices, in particular those capable of using aneutronic fuels, which if successful could lead to fusion energy that is cheaper than any existing energy sources?

“LPP, over the past two years, has published peer-reviewed experimental results that show that the high temperatures needed for aneutronic fusion can be confined in the plasma focus device,” says LPP President and Chief Scientist Eric J. Lerner. “We obtained these results with only $3 million in private investments, including some from the Abell Foundation, based on earlier research funded by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But we and many other researchers are severely constrained by funding. The US Senate should certainly investigate if fusion funds should be used for aneutronic research, which has such a tremendous potential payoff in economical energy that is good for the environment.”

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