Star in a jar
A Grass Valley miracle? A working nuclear-fusion reactor that uses bubbles to produce power at a fraction of today’s energy costs and creates almost no pollution.
Just who does Ross Tessien think he is? Even Ross Tessien wonders.
“To think some goofy mechanical engineer from Chico State is saying, ‘I know how to drive nuclear fusion.’ It’s … “ he trails off, as if he isn’t sure what to make of himself.
His company, Impulse Devices Inc. (IDI), is navigating a strange and obscure corner of science called “sonofusion,” or sometimes “bubble fusion.” Tessien believes it is possible to use acoustic waves—sound—to squeeze together hydrogen atoms and force them to fuse with each other, releasing tremendous amounts of energy in the process. If they are right, the discovery will turn the field of nuclear-fusion research upside down. It also could do the same to the global energy industry.
Tessien and his colleagues at IDI in Grass Valley already have filed several patents and believe they could be the first company in the world to bring this almost-magical technology to market, perhaps in the next 10 years.
The fuel that would drive such a fusion reactor, a naturally occurring isotope of hydrogen called deuterium or heavy hydrogen, can be culled easily from water. In fact, one gallon of water potentially contains enough deuterium for the equivalent energy of 300 gallons of gasoline. And fusion, if it ever becomes a reality, promises to be a much cleaner energy source than most.
But IDI is making a tremendous, and risky, leap of faith. The company could end up with nothing, and Tessien’s sonofusion reactor might wind up in a junk heap along with so many perpetual-motion machines and assorted free-energy hokum.
After all, innumerable scientists at the top research institutions around the world, with billions of dollars at their disposal, so far have failed to come up with a fusion reactor that produces more energy than it consumes.
And just three years ago, the field of bubble fusion nearly was written off as the new “cold fusion”—a load of wishful thinking and bad science.
But around the country, supporters of the bubble-fusion theory are racing to prove the viability of a potentially revolutionary new approach to nuclear fusion. Heartened by some recent breakthroughs in bubble fusion, and flush with a few million dollars in venture capital, IDI has pressed on.
If bubble fusion can be proven to work—and there’s growing agreement that one day it will—the man from Chico and his cohorts could become fantastically wealthy. They might even change the world.
Tessien just celebrated his 50th birthday, though his lean build and sandy hair suggest a younger man. For someone who is trying to save the planet, he is remarkably nonchalant. When he speaks, he speaks softly and carefully. Before embarking on his quest for fusion 10 years ago, Tessien had a lucrative machine-shop business. He probably could have plugged away until retirement and had a pretty comfortable life. Instead, he invested all he had in IDI.
“Worst-case scenario, I’ve devoted my life to something that doesn’t work,” Tessien explained. But the simplicity, the elegance of sonofusion—and the possibility that it could actually work—have spurred him on. “I’ve risked all that because my confidence is high. I can’t see anything in my mind’s eye but success.”
Long before the discovery of the atom, alchemists sought to turn lead into gold, to transmute the elements and, though they hadn’t completely imagined it yet, to fiddle with the very structure of the subatomic world.
There’s a whiff of alchemy in the air at IDI’s lab in Grass Valley. The building is part high-tech nuclear-science facility, part do-it-yourself garage. IDI boasts a $100,000 pulse neutron generator, a piece of equipment that you would find only in the most serious and well-funded academic institutions. In contrast, IDI engineer Rick Satterwhite regularly buys used refrigerators from area swap meets and thrift stores at $50 apiece and retrofits them for use in their experiments.
The lab uses exotic radioactive isotopes that require carefully controlled licenses. But the lab also uses cheap amplifiers from Radio Shack to help ferret out their quarry.
IDI’s chief scientist, Felipe Gaitan, is internationally known, a pioneer in the field of acoustic physics. But the group’s leader is Tessien—a tinkerer with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from California State University, Chico, who chose Grass Valley for its proximity to the ski slopes as much as the good business climate for tech start-ups.
What makes this start-up so unusual is the remarkable product they want to one day bring to market: a working nuclear-fusion reactor that produces electricity at a fraction of today’s energy costs and creates almost no pollution.
For decades, nuclear fusion has been the holiest of Holy Grails in the worlds of energy production and high-stakes science. It is so desirable because the energy yields are so great. Physicists have been able to drive fusion in colossally expensive research facilities scattered around the country. But the energy, and cost, required to operate such massive fusion reactors have far outstripped any energy produced in their experiments. Billions of dollars have been poured into the field over the past 30 years. Still, “break-even”—the point at which the energy produced is greater than the energy put into the experiment—remains a far-off dream.
All fusion technologies, including bubble fusion, attempt to manipulate the basic building blocks of matter, the subatomic particles.
Atoms are built out of three main particles: protons and neutrons—which make up the atomic nucleus—and electrons, the negatively charged particles that swarm around the nucleus and help atoms bond to one another to form molecules.
Most of the energy we use, such as burning gasoline, comes from chemical reactions. These involve the electrons and breaking or making the chemical bonds they form.
But the real juice is in the nucleus. These kinds of interactions, of atomic nuclei fusing together or splitting apart, are millions of times more potent than mere chemical reactions. In a nuclear reaction, a part of the mass of the neutron turns into energy, and the energies released are a million times those of mere chemical reactions. Chemical energy will move your car well enough. It is fusion energy that drives the stars.
The nuclear power that most of us are more familiar with is nuclear fission. The basic goal in fission is to take a heavy, unstable atom, like an isotope of uranium, and shoot a neutron at it. When the atom splits, energy is released, and the atomic fragments smash into other uranium atoms, releasing more energy and atomic fragments, and so on, creating a chain reaction.
We are all familiar with the problems presented by fission power. Uranium fuel is a limited resource. The radioactive byproducts of fission have proven extremely difficult, and costly, to dispose of safely.
Fusion is the process of forcing atomic nuclei together, rather than ripping them apart.
Instead of working with big, heavy and unstable atoms like uranium and plutonium, fusion works much higher up on the periodic table. In fusion reactions, light elements with small nuclear masses like hydrogen and helium are forced together under conditions of extreme heat and pressure. The only byproducts of fusion are other light elements, like helium, and a tiny amount of radioactivity that quickly dissipates.
Humans have managed to drive some rather impressive fusion reactions, if you consider the hydrogen bomb. But controlling fusion, and harnessing its power for peaceful means, has been much more difficult.
The most venerable of fusion technologies, the tokamak, first was experimented with in the 1950s. In a tokamak, hydrogen gas is suspended inside a magnetic field and heated to 100-million-degree plasma. The other strong candidate is laser fusion. Hundreds of powerful lasers are aimed at a pellet of fuel, from all directions. The heat and pressure ignite the fuel, and the shockwave from that explosion travels inward toward an even smaller pellet of deuterium inside. Both approaches have gobbled up billions in research dollars. And while each have successfully driven fusion, both are decades away from actual energy production.
Sonofusion, in theory at least, sidesteps some of the problems that have dogged other approaches to fusion. It takes advantage of an intriguing but little understood form of mechanical energy: the power of collapsing bubbles.
In 1995, Ross Tessien read a Scientific American article by professor Seth Putterman about the strange phenomenon called sonoluminescence. It has been known for years that collapsing bubbles generate heat, and sometimes even light.
By the mid-1990s, scientists were just beginning to understand how much heat was being created. Putterman, basing his research partly on previous work by physicist Gaitan, was among the first to speculate that the tiny bubbles might be made to create enough energy to drive fusion. He called the phenomenon “the star in a jar.”
Around that time, Tessien’s future partner, Gaitan, was working on sonoluminescence at the University of Mississippi. It was there that Gaitan discovered “single-bubble sonoluminescence,” the method of controlling one tiny bubble in liquid with acoustic energy, causing it to collapse and measuring the light it emits.
(While at Ole Miss, Gaitan served as a consultant (without pay) on a quickly forgotten Hollywood treatment of sonofusion. The film, Chain Reaction, was loosely based on Gaitan’s work and the speculation surrounding sonoluminescence as a potential fusion technology. But it was much heavier on chase scenes than science.)
Putterman’s article got Tessien’s attention. Certain that one day somebody somewhere was going to come up with a functional bubble-fusion reactor, he began working on the problem. In 2000, he lured Gaitan to Grass Valley to help.
It wasn’t until 2002 that anyone claimed to have solid evidence that sonofusion was something more than a fantasy, fodder for an unlikely sci-fi thriller.
That year, another physicist, Dr. Rusi Talyarken, then working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, claimed to have used sound waves to drive nuclear fusion. It was a controversial claim—one that prompted Tessien and Gaitan to intensify their efforts.
And it caused Putterman, another of the godfathers of sonofusion, to become one of the theory’s most outspoken skeptics.
Tessien now spends most of his days with his nose pressed against a chilly glass window, staring into a flask of clear liquid with tiny bubbles popping away inside. One finger is on the dial of a machine that creates sound waves inside the flask. He keeps another eye on a computer screen that monitors neutrons—tiny subatomic particles that give an atom its mass—that come careening out of the liquid at 20,000 miles per second.
He’s looking for evidence that the bubbles he is creating inside the flask are collapsing with enough force and creating enough heat to cause trace amounts of deuterium inside to fuse together. If his computer monitor shows the right number of neutrons escaping from the jar in just the right pattern, then Tessien will know he’s made a breakthrough.
The words “nuclear reactor” may call to mind the great cooling towers of a conventional nuclear-power plant. In sonofusion, a nuclear reactor is much smaller and simpler. At IDI, an experimental fusion reactor consists of just a few parts.
The first piece is a cold box—one of Satterwhite’s refurbished refrigerators. Inside is a clear flask, sometimes cylindrical and sometimes spherical. Inside the jar is liquid. All of the air inside the glass has been pumped out through a hose attached to the top. And the liquid is chilled to nearly zero degrees.
Mostly, IDI uses a liquid called deuterated acetone. It is very similar to the common solvent acetone. But deuterated acetone costs about $1,000 a liter because all of the hydrogen molecules in the acetone are replaced with deuterium, the fuel needed to create fusion.
Around the flask of deuterated acetone is what looks like a collar or ring attached to wires. This is the transducer, a piece of piezoelectric material that vibrates and gives off sound waves when you run an electric current through it.
The transducer sets up a standing wave in the jar, sometimes visible at the top of the liquid. While the waveform that you see on top of the liquid, and on the lab’s oscilloscope, appears to be standing still, the molecules of acetone are vibrating back and forth tens of thousands of times a second. Since there is almost no air inside the flask, the liquid is under a tremendous amount of stress from the acoustic wave.
At 14, 15 or 16 kilohertz, the transducer produces a low hum. But then Tessien turns up the transducer to 60 kilohertz, well above the range of human hearing. That means that 60,000 waves are moving through the liquid every second.
Then, after a few moments, engineer Satterwhite introduces “the source.”
The source is a piece of metal on the end of an approximately 4-foot pole. The metal is a mixture of americium and beryllium isotopes. These elements are radioactive, and millions of neutrons are shooting out of the source in every direction—even into the bodies of those observing the experiment.
As soon as Satterwhite pokes the source near the glass cell, the liquid inside starts to sizzle and ping. It sounds something like a pan of water on the stove beginning to boil. The neutrons flying off of the source are tearing very small, almost microscopic, holes in the liquid, or “cavitating” it in the language of the physicists. You can see bubbles appear, flickering around the inside of the jar, most of them concentrated in the center of the liquid, where the sound waves are focused.
The bubbles pop and form, pop and form, over and over again, at 60 kilohertz. Each time, an acoustic wave is ripping the liquid open and then collapsing bubbles even more violently. Imagine smacking a piece of bubble wrap with a hammer. Now imagine hundreds of tiny spherical pistons, hammering away.
What happens inside the bubbles when they collapse still is somewhat mysterious to scientists. But Tessien thinks that the imploding bubbles follow some pretty well-understood physical laws. When gasses are compressed, they heat up. And when a vapor gets hot enough, it glows and gives off heat. In a sonofusion reactor, the gas inside these bubbles is being compressed so violently that it sometimes gives off the tiniest of sparks.
At sufficiently high temperatures, the vapor still does more interesting things. In March 2005, Ken Suslick, working on sonoluminesence at the University of Illinois, discovered that the temperatures inside these collapsing bubbles can get to at least 20,000 degrees Celsius. That’s four times hotter than the surface of the sun.
Tessien and other scientists working the field say there is indirect evidence for much higher temperatures, 10 million degrees or more, enough to drive a thermonuclear reaction.
Above 20,000 degrees, vapor turns into the fourth state of matter, called plasma. Chemical bonds are broken, and even the electrons are disassociated from their atoms, so the nuclei float about freely in an incredibly hot atomic soup.
If the vapor inside Tessien’s bubbles gets hot enough to turn into plasma, then the chemical bonds of the acetone will break completely. That frees the deuterium from the deuterated acetone molecule. At 10 million degrees, deuterium atoms should begin to fuse with each other, just as they do on the inside of a star.
In a small device like those used in Tessien’s lab, fusion would happen on such a small scale that you wouldn’t even know it, at least not without some very sophisticated detection equipment.
So, you look for two pieces of evidence, in order. First, you should detect neutrons—a lot of neutrons—coming out of your reactor. Then you must make sure that the neutrons you see are the result of a bona fide nuclear reaction, not the neutrons that were introduced into the experiment on purpose, and not the millions of neutrons that might show up from naturally occurring background radiation.
Tessien said that false alarms aren’t uncommon. “It happened to Rick last month,” he explained. Satterwhite had been running one of IDI’s reactors, trying out different acoustic frequencies and power levels, when “he started to see the huge peaks” on the lab’s neutron detector. “Then he was jumping up and down in the middle of the shop, yelling, ‘I did it! I did it!’” Tessien recalled.
But what Satterwhite didn’t know was that the powerful acoustics actually had cracked the reactor’s glass. That caused the neutron detector to malfunction and create a false signal. The exact same thing had happened to Tessien before, so he discovered the problem quickly. “But it was sure exciting,” he said.
If one day the right neutrons do show up, then the second crucial piece of evidence is an even more exotic isotope of hydrogen called tritium. Tritium has one proton and two neutrons and doesn’t occur in nature at all. You should find neutrons and tritium in equal amounts. Lacking that evidence, no fusion has occurred. So far, Tessien and company have measured plenty of neutrons. But they’ve yet to detect the right neutrons, let alone tritium.
Even if they were successful, Tessien said, “at first we wouldn’t believe it.” It would take weeks of trying to sort through all the possible ways that their data could be wrong, and then weeks more trying to figure out what they did right and trying to do it again.
“Then, after we’ve verified everything, we’ll go have margaritas on the beach.”
Tessien and his colleagues at IDI are trying to prove what a colleague of theirs has been saying for over three years now. Talyarken, a physicist at Purdue University, says not only that sonofusion is possible, but also that he has done it.
In 2002, working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Talyarken published his first paper claiming to have achieved sonofusion. His neutron detectors were picking up tens of thousands of the particles “at several hundred percent greater than background,” Talyarken explained.
But the paper had some major problems. His critics said Talyarken didn’t sufficiently show that the neutrons he was measuring actually were from fusion, and not from some other source, either background radiation or the neutrons that he introduced into the experiment to create bubbles. Sonofusion was battered by criticism, including from Seth Putterman. And the whole project started to sound a bit like “cold fusion.”
In 1989, researchers at the University of Utah announced that they had achieved nuclear fusion simply by running an electric current through a flask of heavy water (water in which the hydrogen atoms were replaced by deuterium). Their findings were announced at a press conference, before any other scientists had reviewed their claims and before any researchers had replicated their experiments. When it turned out that scientists at other universities could not copy the cold-fusion experiment and get the same results, Utah scientists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann were excoriated. “Cold fusion” was declared a fake and even came to be shorthand for any claim in the fusion field that sounds too good to be true.
Talyarken’s claims certainly sounded too good to be true in 2002, and to many they still are. But in 2004, Talyarken published another paper. “This time, over 100 referees took their shots at me,” Talyarken told SN&R. “Before, about 90 percent of people disbelieved us. Today, I’d say it’s reversed; only about 10 percent think it isn’t real.”
Now, even Seth Putterman agrees that the 2004 experiment featured much better controls for measuring neutrons. But until somebody can replicate Talyarken’s experiment independently, he remains unconvinced.
Earlier this year, a BBC science program called Horizon staged an experiment using Putterman’s lab at the University of California, Los Angeles. The experiment was declared a failure, but Talyarken said that’s because Putterman’s experiment was not an exact replica of his work.
“So far, he has not given us the exact parameters,” Putterman countered.
That could soon change. Putterman and Talyarken have signed a contract with the Department of Defense for enough funding to work together on re-creating the experiment. Putterman is both hopeful and skeptical. “I believe that someday, someone will use imploding bubbles to create fusion,” he explained. But without independent verification, and repeatability, bubble fusion remains little more than a wonderful idea—a belief, rather than a fact.
Talyarken and Tessien aren’t the only alchemists out there working on shortcuts to nuclear fusion. In fact, there are a whole suite of other approaches, some being studied in universities, others hashed out in people’s garages. In January of this year, Michel Laberge was quoted in the London-based science magazine New Scientist, claiming that he had evidence of fusion in his own experimental machine.
Laberge, a Quebecois currently living in British Columbia, is the founder of General Fusion, another start-up that is trying to find an alternative path to nuclear fusion. Laberge studied laser fusion and got his Ph.D., but he couldn’t find a job in the field in Canada. He went to work engineering laser printers until he quit two years ago, leaving behind a good salary, to pursue another kind of fusion. It is called ultrasonic bubble fusion, and it borrows from both sonofusion and laser fusion.
“My wife thinks I am nutso,” Laberge explained in a thick French-Canadian accent. In his device, a layer of foil is exploded inside a chamber that also contains a single bubble of deuterium fuel. The explosion creates about 1 million atmospheres of pressure inside the chamber, more brutal than anything being done at IDI.
After several tests beginning last summer, Laberge thought he had measured a strong neutron signal, indicative of thermonuclear fusion. But in early March, Laberge learned that his neutrons were just “electromagnetic garbage.”
“I’m pretty pissed right now, you know?” Laberge explained. When his neutrons went bust, a major investor pulled out of his company. With resources dwindling, he’s hoping to keep the company and his research going as long as he can.
“You only live once. Fusion is much more fun than making laser printers.”
And much more profound, should one be lucky enough to make the breakthrough.
Lefteri Tsoukalas, who heads the nuclear-science department at Purdue, quotes Archimedes: “Give me a place to stand, and with a lever I will move the whole world.”
Tsoukalas thinks acoustic energy could be that simple, elegant machine with which to poke and probe the subatomic world in ways never before seen.
Aside from energy production, sonofusion, because it can conceivably be done as a “tabletop” device, would open a whole new world of research possibilities. Astrophysicsts, even at smaller schools, could have their own “star in a jar,” to explore the lives of stars.
The same would go for all sorts of disciplines, specifically scientists who don’t have access to tokamaks or other particle accelerators or the like.
But more thrilling is what fusion energy could mean for the world. Talyarken, who comes from India, talks about humanity “standing up fully for the first time.”
“What keeps us going is that it will transform the way people live,” Talyarken said.
And Talyarken says Tessien and company are well-positioned to take advantage of the revolutionary lever. He has been in constant contact and consultation with Tessien and Gaitan, who have been among his most faithful students. With a recent infusion of cash, and working in close cooperation with Talyarken, IDI may be in the best position of anyone to create an actual application in this field.
About $4 million has come from a variety of venture capitalists, some of them prominent Bay Area real-estate developers, said Mark Ludwig, IDI’s money guy (the man who pitches to potential investors). As such, IDI is the best-funded research and development operation in the field.
Putterman said that if bubble fusion can be replicated, much more money will flood into the field. “It will be revolutionary.” The little Grass Valley company would be on the cutting edge of what venture capitalists call “disruptive technology,” an invention that changes everything.
Ludwig likens Tessien to the Wright brothers, people actually good at making stuff. “The Wright brothers weren’t a couple of egghead professors. And I’m sure everybody in academia looked at the Wright brothers like they were just a couple of kooks with a bike shop,” Ludwig explained.
For his part, Tessien feels a conflicting mix of awe and circumspection.
“This is so important, you know? If it works, the payoff would be huge. Potentially, you’re going to make a bunch of money, and save the planet at the same time.”
Success could come tomorrow, he said. Or it could take decades, or even not come at all. So, he and his colleagues at IDI keep trying to transmute the elements, running through different combinations of acoustic frequencies, power levels and different types of glassware. They are convinced that one day, perhaps entirely by accident, the right combination of conditions will converge, and their computer monitor will show an orderly burst of tens of thousands of neutrons.
“It’s like an Easter-egg hunt, every day,” Tessien said, trying to explain what it feels like when he goes to work. “The kid is excited and enthusiastic, but he knows it’s going to take a long time.
“We know we’re on the right track,” he added. “We’re so close we can feel it.”