I had a great time at the NIAC orientation in Washington DC last week, where I got “mugged” with program manager Jason Derleth:
Stephanie receiving her NIAC mug from Jason
The meeting was at the Museum of the American Indian, which was a great venue with so much beautiful art to see, and a cafe featuring unusual native foods from across America (elderberry sauce on the salmon). I had the opportunity to meet the other NIAC Fellows, and put names and faces to the other creative projects selected, as well as meet the illustrious NIAC external council. These experienced folks provide advice and encouragement throughout the NIAC process from their experience as physicists, engineers, biologists, science hackers, and even science fiction authors.
I have to say, my poster on the fusion rocket engine was popular, and everyone wanted to know how it works, why it hasn’t been funded already, and how soon the engine can be ready. Of course, we have yet to actually demonstrate fusion using Dr. Cohen’s heating method, but that is why we need the NIAC study – to flesh out the science and engineering of the rocket application to help bring in funding for building the next generation machine. And yes, let’s get to Pluto in only 4 years the next time! I’m really looking forward to working on the project in the next few months and presenting it at the NIAC symposium in August!
The following image shows SunStation in operation on a bright October day! The load for the day was 12.4 kWh. This includes charging a Nissan Leaf and a Toyota Prius Plugin-in. The total power generated was 40.3 kWh and 21.4 kWh was sold to the grid. As you can see, the installation is much more than carbon neutral with regard to electrical power. It has a gas heating system so is not completely carbon neutral.
The orange line is the state of charge for the batteries. The 14.4 kWh of batteries is enough to keep the home running, charge the Prius fully and the Leaf partially, when the grid is down. The system automatically disconnects itself from the grid when there is an outage.
The house itself is fairly energy efficient with mostly LED lights and a few CFLs. The heating system is high efficiency with a 60 W fan that operates most of the time. The house is air-tight and has a whole house air exchange system that operates continuously. The refrigerator is 10 years old and the washer and dryer are less than 10 years old. As you can see, the typical load is 500 W except when the cars are charging. The efficiency could be further improved by installing a state-of-the-art central air system and replacing the refrigerator.
The Nissan Leaf is 100% electric. On a normal day the Prius operates on battery stored energy about 80% of the time. It visits the gas station once every 3 weeks or so.
Besides saving money on power, the system produces 7 Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) yearly. At current SREC prices, that is about $1500 a year in revenue. The homeowners own the system so all the revenue goes directly to them.
SunStation is in operation! The system produces a peak of 7.8 kW solar power. It has 14 kWh of lithium batteries. The SunStation electronics are shown below. The inverter is on the left. The batteries are in the cabinet on the right.
The SunStation has a web interface. You can see that when this screen shot was made the SunStation was selling 5.1 kW back to the power company! The batteries are fully charged. Usage was very small. The house has a whole house ventilator that is drawing most of the power. The homeowners also own a Nissan Leaf and a Toyota Prius Plugin. The solar array is enough to fully recharge those cars and run the house electrical devices when the air conditioning is not on.
Unlike gasoline, diesel or natural gas systems SunStation provides power year round! There is no noise and no toxic emissions. SunStation has no moving parts and is zero maintenance. Solar power systems are eligible for Solar Renewable Energy Credits which are cash payments for having an operating solar power system. It is estimated that this system will bring in $3700/year revenue between selling power and SRECs.
The first SunStation installation is done! This system includes 14 kWh of Valence lithium batteries and an Outback inverter. Unlike most other solar power systems, the solar panels will deliver power to the house with or without the grid active.
An existing 3.8 kW array was augmented with the new Panasonic solar panels on the right. They are about the same size as the older Sharp panels but much more efficient. In the bottom picture you can see the Outback inverter. The cabinet on the lower right houses the Valence batteries. The system will power the entire house in an outage with the exception of the central air conditioning system.
Unlike gasoline, diesel or natural gas systems this system provides power year round! There is no noise and no toxic emissions. SunStation has no moving parts and is zero maintenance. Solar power systems are eligible for Solar Renewable Energy Credits too which are cash payments for having an operating solar power system so you save money two ways.
Check out our SunStation page for more information!
Nuclear fusion power research started in earnest in the 1950’s. Initially, researchers thought that the work needed to produce a fusion power plant would be comparable to that needed to produce the first fission plants. That turned out to be unrealistic as the physics was not well understood and plasma confinement was much more difficult than expected. Many of the first machines were Stellarators. One of the first was Lyman Spitzer’s Stellarator at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL).
Many machine geometries were tried such as mirrors and pinches. In the 1960’s the Soviets disclosed success with the Tokamak (тороидальная камера с аксиальным магнитным полем). Unlike the Stellarators, Tokamaks have a circulating current that helps confine the plasma. Since then Tokamaks have been the focus of fusion power research. The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory produced 10.7 MW of fusion power in 1994 in the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR). The Joint European Torus (JET) produced 22 MW of fusion power in 1997. In 1998 the Japanese JT-60 produced an equivalent power gain of 1.25, that is 1.25 MW of fusion power for 1 MW of input power. The next step in Tokamaks is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).
ITER is a large-scale scientific experiment to demonstrate that it is possible to produce commercial energy from fusion. Its goal is to produce a fusion power gain of 10 at a power level of 500 MW and to generate this power for 500 seconds. Operation with tritium is scheduled to begin in 2027. The next step after ITER is DEMO which will be a prototype of a practical fusion power plant. Demo will produce between 2 and 4 GW of thermal power and have a power gain of 25. After DEMO the next machine will be PROTO which will be a fully commercial power plant. PROTO is expected to built after 2050.
In parallel with ITER many other magnetic confinement devices are under test. These include the U.S. National Spherical Tokamak (NSTX) and the Princeton Field Reversed Configuration (on which DFD is based) both at PPPL. Many new Stellarators are under test including the Wendelstein 7-X in Germany, the Helically Symmetric eXperiment (HSX) in the U.S. and the Large Helical Device in Japan. These devices may result in more economical fusion machines than Tokamaks. The field of fusion researchis very vibrant and work around the world is serving to improve our knowledge of plasma physics and the help solve the engineering problems. For example, recently a new method for reducing instabilities was developed at JET.
The first commercial reactors will likely use deuterium and lithium as fuels. The reaction (used in TFTR, JET and ITER) is deuterium and tritium but in a commercial plant the tritium would be produced from the neutron bombardment of lithium as the D-T reaction produces most of its energy in energetic neutrons. Advanced fuels like deuterium helium 3 and boron proton that produce fewer neutrons are also under investigation. Deuterium and helium 3 would power the DFD. The boron-proton reaction would power TriAlpha’s reactor.
We will use the Orion spacecraft for transfer from Earth’s surface to Earth orbit, where it will dock with the DFD powered spacecraft. That is what the banner image is portraying! Once the astronauts are aboard the DFD powered spacecraft, they will travel to Mars and back in roughly 10 months, including a 1 month stay at Mars. After they have returned to Earth orbit, the spacecraft will dock with the Orion capsule. The crew can then safely return to Earth’s surface aboard the Orion!
On Saturday April 1, PSS participated in the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab Open House to show case our Direct Fusion Drive and our conceptual nine-month manned space mission to Mars in 2024! Our new fusion engine enables shorter transfer times and total mission durations, critical for interplanetary manned space flight. We had great interest in our human mission and many budding astronauts were ready to sign up for the trip.
Please see our educational page for some fun DFD material for your space enthusiast:
Our SunStation products for Home Back-Up and EV Charging were also on display at the PPPL Open House. SunStation is a green way to provide emergency power to critical loads in your home during an electrical service interruption or to charge your electric vehicle without using any grid power!
We will have exhibits on our Direct Fusion Drive, a collaborative project with PPPL to develop a nuclear fusion rocket engine for space propulsion, and on our SunStations for home electrical power backup and electric vehicle charging.
Do you really want to spend the next 501 days locked in a tiny room with your spouse, hurtling toward the Red Planet just to take a few snap shots from 100 miles away? What about competing with 10,000 people to build the first Martian colony on a “Big Brother”-style reality TV series?
What if you could just go for a few months to do some research? What if you could not only get there quickly but without any of the radiation dangers from fission or even from burning deuterium-tritium fuels?
The Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) is a novel system that we have been developing with the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, and two weeks ago we filed a thrust-augmentation patent for the DFD. Propellant gasses such as deuterium and helium can be pumped into a gas box and weakly ionized. These flow out along the magnetic field lines of the scrape off layer and pass around the closed-field region of the field-reversed configuration. Fusion products fly out into the scrape off layer at 25 millions meters a second and collide with the propellant, heating it up (and therefore speeding it up), and then everything gets ejected through the magnetic nozzle.
If propellant wasn’t added, then the fusion products would give the spacecraft a velocity of around 25 million meters per second but would provide only a fraction of a Newton. By adding propellant, the exhaust velocity drops directly proportional to the thrust. An exhaust velocity of a few dozen km per second is sufficient for many missions and therefore tens and even hundreds of newtons of thrust can be achieved.