EMC2 revives its quest for nuclear fusion

EMC2 revives its quest for nuclear fusion

Geekwire BY ALAN BOYLE on January 29, 2016

Plasma glows inside EMC2 Fusion’s test device during a high-energy shot in 2013. (Credit: EMC2 Fusion)
After languishing in limbo for most of the last year, EMC2 Fusion Development Corp. says it’s back in business with an unorthodox concept for nuclear fusion power plants.

Plasma glows inside EMC2 Fusion’s test device during a high-energy shot in 2013. (Credit: EMC2 Fusion)

After languishing in limbo for most of the last year, EMC2 Fusion Development Corp. says it’s back in business with an unorthodox concept for nuclear fusion power plants.

The concept is variously known as Polywell fusion, inertial electrostatic confinement or magnetic cusp confinement..

If anyone ever finds a way to harness fusion – the reaction that powers the sun – it could usher in an era of low-cost, plentiful, relatively clean energy. Lots of research teams are trying to do it, ranging from the international ITER consortium to private companies such as Lockheed Martin, Tri Alpha Energy, General Fusion, Helion Energy, LPPFusion and EMC2. So far, no one’s produced a net gain in energy.

EMC2’s Polywell approach aims to use a specially designed high-voltage grid to trap ions in a plasma and drive them together so forcefully that they spark a fusion reaction. Beginning in 2008, the Navy gave EMC2 a cumulative total of $12 million in funding to study the approach. That support was discontinued in 2014.

A view of EMC2 Fusion’s lab space in San Diego shows the WB-8 prototype reactor on the left side and a Wiffle-Ball containment test device in the middle of the image, with EMC2 Fusion President Jaeyoung Park standing beside it.(Credit: EMC2 Fusion)

A view of EMC2 Fusion’s lab space in San Diego shows the WB-8 prototype reactor on the left side and a Wiffle-Ball containment test device in the middle of the image, with EMC2 Fusion President Jaeyoung Park standing beside it. (Credit: EMC2 Fusion)

EMC2 Fusion’s president and chief scientist, Jaeyoung Park, then tried to raise $30 million in private funding for a follow-up research program. But he ran into a big roadblock: Citing export control regulations, the Navy said the technology was too sensitive to be shared with outsiders.

The tussle with federal officials went on for months, Park said. In the meantime, he had to hold off from seeking investment. “I was almost paranoid about watching every word,” he told GeekWire.

Park said his concerns were eased this week, thanks to a reassuring letter from the State Department. In an interview with NextBigFuture, he confirmed that a patent application for EMC2’s technology has been published at last, and that he’s once again looking for investment.

Either it works or it does not. We will find out in three years.

The patent application identifies a “missing link” that may have held back EMC2’s past experiments, Park said. In his view, what’s needed is a high-power startup system that can quickly achieve high pressure and strong confinement of the plasma.

“You cannot create heating if you’re in poor confinement,” Park told GeekWire.

The $30 million, three-year program that Park wants to pursue would be aimed at demonstrating a heating system that uses beams of electrons. “After 18 test devices, EMC2 is now down to one specific design of Polywell reactor,” he wrote in an email. “Either it works or it does not. We will find out in three years.”

If it works, EMC2 would seek additional funding to build a scaled-up device that could produce net-gain energy and open the way for commercialization. If not, it’s back to the drawing board – which is an old story for fusion researchers.

Alan Boyle
GeekWire aerospace and science editor Alan Boyle is an award-winning science writer and veteran space reporter. Formerly of NBCNews.com, he is the author of “The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference.” Follow him via CosmicLog.com, on Twitter @b0yle, and on Facebook and Google+.