Best attempts to save the world

Pop into a greener future with flying cars, nuclear fusion and other homegrown sci-fi marvels

Outsiders may not think of Sacramento as a hotbed of innovation, but once you’ve been around a while, you realize the place is a magnet for inventors. Not just inventors, but people who specialize in saving the world—or at least bringing some sci-fi awesomeness into it.

Local innovative companies run the gamut from the well-funded to the fanciful. Among the former is the California Fuel Cell Partnership in West Sacramento. The facility, part laboratory and part showroom, brings together big automakers, energy companies and government agencies to promote the commercialization of hydrogen fuel cells. The cells will power cars and emit only harmless water vapor from their tailpipes.

The CFCP is an important star in Sacramento’s hi-tech constellation, but perhaps not as well-known as Davis inventor Paul Moller and his famous—or infamous—Moller Skycar.

For years, Moller has talked up a future in which his skycars will crowd the skies, or at least crowd the airspace at about 10 feet above ground, and revolutionize traffic jams. But so far the skycar concept has yet to get off the ground. While Moller has garnered plenty of press over the years, he’s also attracted a costly lawsuit alleging fraud. Moller filed for bankruptcy last year.

Seventy miles east of Davis, in a tree-shaded office park in Grass Valley, a low-profile firm called Impulse Devices Inc. is trying to unlock the power of the sun and solve the secret of nuclear fusion.

The nuclear power we’re familiar with (think Rancho Seco or Three Mile Island) is driven by nuclear fission, the process of splitting the atom. Nuclear fusion—forcing lightweight hydrogen atoms to fuse together—is much more difficult and much, much more powerful. Scientists believe nuclear fusion will generate only a tiny fraction of the nuclear waste that is associated with fission.

Many approaches have been tried. There is the multimillion-dollar tokamak plasma reactor, which can only be constructed with international agreements. There’s also the notorious “cold fusion” farce of the 1980s, in which two scientists claimed to have achieved nuclear fusion by running an electrical current through palladium electrodes submerged in heavy water. Ever since, “cold fusion” has become shorthand for scientific hucksterism and claims that are too good to be true.

The approach chosen by Impulse Devices, called sonofusion or bubble fusion, has been controversial. At the heart of the experiment are tiny bubbles bombarded by sound waves. The sound waves cause the bubbles to expand and collapse, like a piston, thousands of times per second. Inside, the liquid vapor (rich in deuterium, or heavy hydrogen) is subjected to enormous pressure and extreme temperatures. Sometimes flashes of light are emitted.

Impulse Devices’ chief scientist Dr. Felipe Gaitan and his work with this phenomenon, called sonoluminescence, inspired the movie Chain Reaction with Keanu Reeves. So, there’s that. However, no one has proven sonofusion actually works. The few scientists who claim to have achieved nuclear fusion this way have been attacked and even accused of trying to pawn off another cold-fusion hoax.

Still, scientists have recorded temperatures inside these bubbles as high as 10 million degrees, which is getting into the ballpark of nuclear plasma.

“That’s as hot as the surface of the sun,” said Impulse Devices’ Dr. Peter Nelson. The sun is powered by nuclear fusion. Nelson said the company is finally closing in on reliable nuclear-fusion reactions. “We’re about a year away, maybe a little less,” he said.

If true, that accomplishment would be historic and would salvage a few reputations that have been smeared along the path to bubble fusion.

Of course, it’s another matter altogether to create a device that puts out more energy than scientists put into it. “‘Break even’ is not going to be tomorrow,” Nelson admitted. From there, scaling the whole thing up into a workable fusion reactor is even more difficult.

It’s no wonder that, given the challenges here on Earth, some pioneers look off-world for their fortunes. One of the most successful has been Aerojet General Corp., which has been making rockets in Sacramento since the beginning of the space program. The company currently is in the mix as a subcontractor for NASA’s proposed Orion spacecraft, the successor to the space shuttle program—which is due to be mothballed next year.

Many Sacramentans are familiar with Aerojet history, but they may not know as much about its founders’ ideals. In the book Strange Angel, George Pendle tells the bizarre life story of self-taught chemist and rocket man John Whiteside Parsons. Parsons was one of the driving forces behind the creation of Aerojet in the 1950s, and was also a follower of Aleister Crowley and somehow managed to get his wife stolen by his pal L. Ron Hubbard. He also founded his own Los Angeles-based sex cult and later blew himself up doing experiments in his garage. None of this shows up on the Aerojet corporate Web site.

More modern, and presumably less explosive, personalities like John Powell, founder of JP Aerospace, are alive and well in Sacramento. The Rancho Cordova company, which bills itself as “America’s other space program,” wants to commercialize spaceflight though the use of balloons.

Every now and then, Powell and his cohorts trundle their high-altitude balloons, loaded down with computer and camera gear and onboard experiments, out to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert—also the home of the annual Burning Man festival. From there, they send their experimental craft to the edge of space.

The real show is back at the hangar in Rancho Cordova, where they keep perfecting the design of a giant V-shaped inflatable spaceship they hope will one day put NASA out of business.

Sure, none of these ideas have panned out yet. Most of us don’t live in space, and we haven’t unlocked the secrets of nuclear fusion. We can’t take to the skies for our morning commutes or even drive a car that is totally pollution free. But whether the next world-saving technological breakthrough is one of these or some as-yet-unknown marvel, it just might come from Sacramento.