THE SPACEMAN Eric Lerner is an unlikely
fusion scientist. He dropped out of a postgrad
physics course and became a successful science writer. In 1991, he published the controversial book The Big Bang Never Happened,
which depicted an eternal universe dominated not by gravity and quantum mechanics
but by plasma physics—a model mainstream
cosmologists consider unworkable.
By then, Lerner had already started doing independent research into fusion devices and had latched on to one called a
dense plasma focus (DPF), invented in Russia in the 1950s. DPF creates a compact toroid of fusion fuel and then compresses it
to tiny size with an electromagnetic effect
known as a pinch. After 10 years of research,
Lerner won funding from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to investigate whether DPF
could be used for spacecraft propulsion.
Seven years later, after spending $300,000,
NASA killed the project and Lerner started
looking for private sponsors.
After another 7 years, he’d raised
$1.2 million, enough to build his own research facility in Middlesex, New Jersey,
under the name Lawrenceville Plasma Physics (LPP). This hand-to-mouth existence has
continued: Lerner raised another $2 million
over the past 5 years from 60 different investors to continue the work. “Compared with
other [private fusion] efforts, we’re the most
technologically advanced but the least well
funded,” he says.
General Fusion’s thumping pneumatic
monster makes Lerner’s device look like
a toy. The heart of the machine is two
cylindrical electrodes, one inside the other.
The outer electrode—a set of parallel bars
arranged in a ring—is just 18 centimeters
across, and the entire device is enclosed
in a vessel filled with a diffuse gas. A huge
electric pulse is discharged from the outer
to the inner electrode, creating a doughnut-shaped sheath of plasma that escapes into
the vessel. Then the magnetic field caused
by the current pinches the doughnut down
into a tiny, dense ball of plasma.
The collapsing magnetic field induces
an electric field, which drives a beam of
electrons through the plasma, heating it
to a temperature of billions of degrees.
If everything goes according to plan, the
ball of plasma—which lasts for only 10 billionths of a second—will get hot and dense
enough for fusion to occur.
Lerner says that the device can achieve
the necessary temperatures but so far falls
short of the needed density of particles.
The problem is copper atoms evaporating
off the electrodes and polluting the plasma.
At the time of writing, LPP had just taken
receipt of a new set of tungsten electrodes
and completed a crowdfunding campaign to
help pay for the $200,000 cost. “I’m pretty
convinced that the electrodes will radically
reduce impurities and increase density by
100 times,” Lerner says.
The LPP team will experiment with the new electrodes
until the end of this year and
then, if everything looks good,
will change over from deuterium fuel to a mixture of hydrogen and boron-11. This fuel
is harder to react but does not
produce high-energy neutrons,
which damage the reactor
and make it radioactive. If he
can raise another $1 million,
Lerner believes he can demonstrate net energy gain by the
middle of 2015. “We’re very far
along compared with the others,” Lerner says. “Tri Alpha is
three orders of magnitude behind.” Tri who?
ENIGMA MACHINE Tri Alpha
Energy is the team to beat
in privately financed fusion,
mainly because it has a huge
cash pile: hundreds of millions
of dollars. “Tri Alpha is singular in the history of fusion as
the only time that amount of
money has been invested in
a private effort,” says Stewart
The company shrouds itself in mystery. It
has no website and makes no public statements. What details are known about its
work come from occasional papers in journals or appearances by its staff at conferences. Company managers declined to be
interviewed for this article, explaining that
they had no need at the moment to publicize their efforts.
Tri Alpha is the brainchild of Norman
Rostoker, a Canadian plasma physicist
who has worked at Cornell University and
the company General Atomics, and is now
a professor emeritus at the University of
California, Irvine. In 1997, Rostoker, who
will turn 89 in August, and two colleagues
published a paper in Science describing the
“Colliding Beam Fusion Reactor” (Science,
21 November 1997, p. 1419). They founded
Tri Alpha Energy, based in Foothill Ranch,
California, the following year.
The company now has more than
150 employees, and investment has come
from the likes of Goldman Sachs, Microsoft
co-founder Paul Allen, and other venture
capitalists. It also has strong connections
with Russian researchers, and the prominent Russian politician and businessman
Anatoly Chubais is on its board of directors. Much of Tri Alpha’s ample funding is
rumored to come from Russian oligarchs.
Eric Lerner stares into electrodes at the heart of LPP’s dense plasma focus device.