Dr. Robert Goddard, the inventor of the liquid-fuel rocket engine, conducted most of his pioneering work alone and with a close-knit group of technicians. Working alone, he was derided by scientists and ridiculed by the media during the early pioneering years. The New York Times even published commentary stating that Dr. Goddard "lacked the knowledge of a high-school teacher for "believing a rocket could fly in space with no atmosphere to push against."
The Times printed a retraction 40 years later after Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon in July of 1969 with apologies to the professor once nicknamed the "Moon Man".
And so it is today for an eclectic group of experimenters who have dubbed themselves "fusioneers". Around the world, hundreds of amateur and professional scientists, working in their garages and basements are actively pursuing and sometimes achieving nuclear fusion, much to the amazement and, oftentimes, disbelief of family, friends and neighbors. They build their own reactors using a design known as the "Fusor".
The Fusor is a device originally pioneered by Dr. Philo t. Farnsworth (inventor of the television) and Dr. Robert Hirsch. It's a device that uses magnetic fields to accelerate, confine and compress charged ions - the fuel - into a central core. As the ions reach the center at high velocity, they will collide and occasionally fuse together, producing nuclear fusion. Electrostatic pressure from the magnetic fields on the ions confines the reaction to the central area and was given the term "Inertial Electrostatic Confinement" fusion.
Believe it or not, it works.
Of course, to a layman, the concept of fusion brings thoughts of the hydrogen bomb. A fusioneer is happy to point out that there's nothing "explosive" about the Fusor and that it's about as related to a bomb as a fish is to buffalo.
There's still the "giggle factor" surrounding fusion research and the long-sought goal of using nuclear fusion to provide clean energy for commercial use. Many well-known physicists point out, accurately, that neither the Fusor nor its derivative, the Polywell invented by the late Dr. Robert W Bussard, has demonstrated the ability to generate more power than is consumed. However, there have been significant advances in recent years and the concept is getting close to proving itself.
In fact, a company founded by Bussard, Energy/Matter Conversion, is currently under contract to the United States government to build a series of inertial electrostatic confinement reactors, of the Polywell design, for the purpose of demonstrating the physics of the concept for power generation.
Meanwhile, the fusioneers continue building, tinkering with, and operating their home-made Fusors. One of these experimenters is former software developer turned scientist Matthew Travis, currently Executive Director of the Aerospace Research & Engineering Systems Institute (http://www.aresinstitute.org), based in Melbourne, Florida.
"When I was first introduced to the Fusor in 2002, it seemed tantalizing in its fundamental simplicity; just waiting to be developed into a viable technology," says Mr. Travis. "So I got involved, but, at the time, the state of the art was positively primitive compared to today."
Mr. Travis worked with a business executive and two professors on a proposal called the Spacecoast Plasma & High-energy Electrostatics Research Laboratory (SphereLab) and pitched the idea to universities and private industry. After some promising leads and battling the ever-present giggle factor, the project was put on hold.
"We worked long and hard on SphereLab, many long nights ended after daybreak," recalls Mr. Travis. "I'm still convinced the idea was sound, but I think we may have been a few years too soon. IEC fusion has gained a lot more legitimacy in scientific and academic circles in the last eight years, so perhaps this is the time to try again. Apparently, it's a vision I've just never been able to let go."
Matthew Travis recently re-entered the fusion arena and now considers himself a re-born fusioneer. Now the task at hand is to build and operate a demonstration device. While the basic Fusor is relatively simple in design, it will still take thousands of dollars to build a device usable for scientific research.
"I'm pursuing every option I can find to raise funds," Mr. Travis chuckled during a conversation in a cramped, box-and-book filled office.
To help finance the first experimental reactor, he has turned to the creative fundraising website Kickstarter. Kickstarter provides a platform for artists, writers, engineers and others to pitch their independent projects. Along with project information, creators post updates to their own blogs and can upload photos and video as well. The purpose is to interest visitors to the website and raise funds to support the projects. It's a viable option. A previous Fusor project raised almost $4,000 on Kickstarter.
You can find SphereLab on Kickstarter at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/675784257/creating-busssard-fusor-fusion-reactor-for-spacefl.
Another idea was for his organization, ARES Institute, to conduct its own fundraising, soliciting donations from the public. As part of that, the group is offering rewards for donations with a drawing for another prize when the project is complete.
"It's hard to get financed for an experimental project like this and the costs quickly exceed what one person can finance out of pocket, so I'm aware that I'll probably be spending as much time getting the cash to fund this as I'll spend building the Fusor," Mr. Travis added.
He claims the Fusor is a viable device, commercially and scientifically, even if it still takes more power to generate and sustain the fusion reaction than the reaction itself produces.
For example, the Fusor can be utilized as an efficient source for high-energy neutrons and radioisotopes that can be used in the medical field. It can also be used to create an environment simulating the radiation exposure in space, thereby permitting ground-based testing of hardware before it's sent into orbit.
Most tantalizing to Matthew Travis is the potential for the Fusor to be combined with existing solar power and ion-drive rocket engine technology for satellites. He claims that, in theory at least, an IEC fusion and ion-electric hybrid propulsion system has the potential to become a practical means of sending spacecraft on missions to the outer planets or even outside the Solar System.
"Ion engines are extremely efficient, but they are also extremely low-thrust," says Mr. Travis. "As a result, it takes years for a spacecraft to reach a high velocity and make the trip beyond the distance of Mars orbit. A Fusor-ion hybrid system has the potential for high efficiency and high thrust. This means missions could be conducted without the weight and inefficiency of chemical rocket engines and travel time reduced to something practical for both unmanned probes and eventually manned flights to Mars and beyond."
However, before anyone gets visions of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mr. Travis needs to build his first, modest device. He hopes to have it up and running by next summer, along with lab space to begin to conduct experiments.
Eventually, he hopes to develop the laboratory into something with the capabilities and backing necessary in order to become a facility available for other researchers and even university students to do their own research. In the end, the goal is to take something in the amateur arena and evolve it into a commercially-viable business.
"It's a lot of work, and a long shot I'm sure. But that's definitely the end objective for the lab," he says. "For me, it has to have some significance, some purpose, beyond just being a hobby. It needs to be useful."
Only time will tell, but if the pace of activity in the amateur field and the progress being made by industry is any indication, the age of fusion-powered cities and spaceships might not be too far down the road. If he has his way, Matthew Travis will be in the thick of the action.