Sonofusion: Could the Key to Fusion Lie in Bubbles?

This week’s Science Times in the Tuesday, Feb 27, 2007 edition of the New York Times was just phenomenal. So many things worth writing about!

I’m just going to write one tonight, but I had to give a shout out to their cover story, and one of the coolest technologies I had the chance to investigate years ago, sonoluminescent fusion.

New York Times: Practical Fusion, or Just a Bubble

The basic concept behind sonofusion, also known as bubble fusion, is to take advantage of a unique behavior of liquids when exposed to sound waves. The sound waves can create spontaneous bubbles in the liquid, which then collapse with such force that they actually generate light. This behavior is called sonoluminescence. Here’s the innovative idea: if you use heavy water, which features radioactive forms of hydrogen, it may be possible to actually use sonoluminescence to actually create temperatures high enough to create fusion. And with fusion comes a 50-year dream of using the ultimate form of clean energy, not for weaponry, but for commercial and personal use.

When I was in venture capital, I specialized in software companies, not experimental physics. When you work for a top-tier firm, you get hundreds of unsolicited business plans submitted to you, by email, on a weekly basis. In most cases, an unsolicited submission is the worst possible way to connect with investors.

However, one day I got an email with a business plan for a company in Grass Valley, CA called Impulse Devices. It wasn’t every day I got a plan for a new energy company (this was 2002, and the recent boom in clean energy companies hadn’t begun yet.) Imagine my surprise to find the founders with credible backgrounds, and published material in peer reviewed journals.

Over the course of a few months, I took a few calls with the company, both to better understand the technology and the potential opportunity. It wasn’t a good fit for the firm I worked for, but I was nonetheless curious.

I don’t know if they’ll be able to deliver the addition orders of magnitude improvement in energy generation to generate viable fusion where other approaches have failed. The NY Times piece has a nice summary of current fusion efforts, which, while successful, currently take in more energy than they produce.

Mainstream science is pursuing fusion along two paths. One is the tokamak design, trapping the charged atoms within a doughnut-shape magnetic field. An international collaboration will build the latest, largest such reactor in southern France in coming years. The $10 billion international project, called ITER, could begin operating around 2016 and is intended to demonstrate that all the scientific and technological challenges have finally been tamed. Commercial tokamak reactors could perhaps follow in 10 years.

The other mainstream approach is blasting a pellet of fuel with lasers, creating conditions hot and dense enough for fusion. The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California is to start testing that idea around 2010. The cost of the center, with 192 lasers, has soared to several billion dollars. Harnessing that approach will also take decades.

However unlikely it is that a maverick approach like sonofusion will be the one to succeed where others have failed, there was a great quote in the article I wanted to spotlight:

“It’s really a shame the Department of Energy has such a narrowly focused program,” said Eric J. Lerner, president and sole employee of Lawrenceville Plasma Physics in New Jersey, another alternative fusion company. Mr. Lerner has received NASA financing to explore whether his dense fusion focus might be good to propel spacecraft, but nothing from the Energy Department.

The department is spending $300 million on fusion research this year, and President Bush has asked for an increase to $428 million for next year’s budget. Almost all the increase would go to ITER.

The department supports research for many approaches, said Thomas Vanek, the department’s acting director for fusion energy sciences, but that has to fit within tight budgets. “Since the mid-’90s, it has been a tough environment for fusion energy.”

Some fusion scientists argue that fundamental physics makes these alternative approaches unlikely to pay off. Some agree that financing some high-risk, high-payoff research could be worthwhile.

“I personally think there should be more of these smaller ideas funded,” said L. John Perkins, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore. “Ninety-nine might fail, but one might pay off.”

This is the problem with large, centralized-planning-based approaches to big science, and the reason why private capital markets can be so much more effective at generating innovation.

The big dollars, whether they are from large corporations or from governments will always go to the most practical, the most developed, and the most accepted approaches. The idea of funding 100 ideas, knowing that 90% will fail is not something that seems prudent to stewards of public capital. This is what the venture capital industry, however, enables in the aggregate, and society benefits heavily from that 1 in 100 approach that actually does change the world.

I am so excited now for space exploration, because for the first time, the great giant shackles of centralized government planning for the industry are being broken. Vanity contests and start-up capital are generating more innovation in spacecraft and related technology than the entirety of the post-Apollo space program. That same approach is breathing incredible new life into technologies around clean energy.

So, just in case sonofusion ends up being the miracle that brings practical fusion to the world, just maybe you read about it here first. If not, let’s all hope that another 99 ideas as out-of-the-box as this one get funded.

2 thoughts on “Sonofusion: Could the Key to Fusion Lie in Bubbles?

  1. Fun article! But totally the wrong lesson about the role of government vs. private investment in science. The DOE is a bad example, since they’re basically in hock to Big Energy and have been for years. Private investment is great for trying lots of different things — but in the end they all have to have some plausible profitability (however far-fetched). Most of the big leaps in basic science have come from government funded (federal or public university) programs, large or small. Private firms then take the basic science and run in a bunch of different directions trying to find ways to make money off of it, which is all to the good. But without government funding, we wouldn’t have the Internet, space travel, nuclear power… If you have a crazy small science idea you want to investigate that doesn’t look like it’s going to make any money right away, you want the NSF, not venture capital.

  2. Hi James,

    Thanks for keeping me honest. You are right on basic science, VC and private equity will not fund anything without some sort of business model and relatively short term track to profitability (3-5 years).

    I think my point was actually that even if we, as a society, want to allocate public money to support basic science (which I agree), allocating it top down through agencies like DOE, NSF, or NASA are really recipes to just have all the money go to conventional approaches.

    In the very early days, you may need public investment to fund basic research and initial development. Internet, Space, Nuclear power all fall into that bucket.

    But leaving it in their hands too long is a disaster. Can you imagine the Internet still locked away in the universities? Thank goodness for companies (with funding) like Cisco, Sun and others born out of Stanford & VC. Space travel should have been transitioned to the private sector in the 1970s – imagine where we’d be by now!

    Thanks for posting.

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