Charles Seife article in Slate
Posted: 04 January 2013 07:32 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Charles Seife wrote an article for Slate. The title is “Fusion Energy’s Dreamers, Hucksters, and Loons”. Not surprisingly (Seife is the author of Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking), the article is highly skeptical of any fusion concept ever being developed into a usable energy source. The article is much less informative than the book, so if you want Seife’s full argument (such as it is), I suggest you look for the book in your local library (or read it in a bookstore, as I did wink). However, unlike his book, which was published in 2008, Seife’s Slate article contains a brief reference to LPP:

Given this history, it’s easy to understand why fanatical devotees gravitate to unorthodox approaches to fusion energy, be they cold-fusion moonbattery or schemes touted by startup companies with more cash than brains.

Companies with more cash…? If only.

Incidentally, could someone inform me of what company is linked to at “touted by startup”? I can’t seem to reach the link from where I am.

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Posted: 04 January 2013 11:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Well, the history of fusion development has been pretty rocky, so I understand the author’s skepticism. There have been a lot of hyped claims and false starts. The truth is, fusion is hard. Aneutronic fusion, the kind we’re working on, is even harder. But hard doesn’t mean impossible. Other things have been hard too, like starting a fire, crossing the Atlantic, heavier-than-air flight, putting a man on the moon, decoding DNA, and building a world wide web of computers so people can spout off their opinions about things. Before the Wright brothers made their successful attempt, many other “dreamers, hucksters, and loons” built many variations of gliders with varying degrees of success. The fusion field is in the same situation now, in glider mode with varying degrees of success but without sustained, positive-net-energy output. We know fusion is possible, but we don’t know the best (or any) way to produce useful power with it, yet. To point out the flaws and fakes is one thing, but to dismiss the whole idea is very short sighted.

Heavier-than-air flight is hard but possible. Birds have been doing it for millions of years. Fusion is hard but possible. The sun has been doing it for billions of years. Once we figure out and apply the scientific principles behind something, it can go from theoretically possible to routine occurrence in a relatively short period of time. I applaud the dedicated scientists and researchers who have applied themselves to all of the various challenges and brought us to where we are today. Some people wither in the face of adversity while others endure to find better ways. Who do you think wins the prize?

By the way, the “touted by startup” link referred to Tri Alpha Energy, and they do have a lot of cash to play with. I wish we could say the same for ourselves. smile

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Posted: 04 January 2013 02:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Fun fact: that particular hit piece… er, I mean Slate article… is sponsored by a Statoil sidebar ad.

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Posted: 04 January 2013 04:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Actually, there are two links from the “cash not brains” slur and one is to us. I think people should send in comments. He should not get away with such an offhand dig.

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Posted: 04 January 2013 11:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Most of the article is pretty accurate talking about NIF and ITER.  Fusion has a horrible reputation of meeting expectations and proposed deadlines even after they have been extended more than once.  Even DOE is losing faith as they are not fighting to defend budgets in the face of R&D cuts.  I think the public, politicians and fellow scientists are tired of empty promises of limitless energy while pouring money down a sink hole.

I can understand the dig at LPP and Tri-alpha being not nice but look at it from the outside.  Have dates slipped on FoFu-1?  Are unexpected problems slowing progress that should not be a problem (switches, arcing, etc)?  It seems to be walking a similar path as the other projects.  One might argue that all projects slip on the timeline and unexpected things happen but I would argue that at the end of the day people remember success over slipped dates.  When failure is all you have to offer, slipping dates become a real problem.  I sympathize with the problems of the plasma focus.  I’ve had my share and I was trying to make a neutron source which is easy by comparison. 

I agree that fusion is hard but I don’t know if it is possible using known and possible approaches (leave the gravity generator out of it).  If possible, is it economically viable?  Don’t know.  I’ve done some back of the envelope math a couple times that shows it is difficult without big leaps in key components that may or may not be possible. 

One can argue that outside forces like big oil are conspiring against fusion.  Why would they?  Fusion enjoyed a healthy budget and some of the best minds trying a myriad of approaches for over fifty years (yes, the DPF is in that list as Livermore tried to ride that pony back in the 70’s) without success.  It comes down to how to measure potential.  The upside of fusion his huge, but the downsides are many.  Everyone needs to balance the potential for themselves.  Charles Seife see more downsides than up.  Sadly, the experimental data seems to support his position.

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Posted: 05 January 2013 07:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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asymmetric_implosion - 04 January 2013 11:27 PM

Livermore tried to ride that pony back in the 70’s…

It seems that LLNL is still in training with the pony. Does the back of your envelope calculation look anything like what LLNL presented in 2009? It’s completely over my head, but it’s good to know calculations are being considered. They have access to advanced simulation and diagnostic capabilities, so maybe there’s something to be gained by their research?

The Charles Siefe article is destructive in any case because it adds fuel to the conversation about cutting funding for fusion. This affects people who are on appropriations committees as well as venture capital risk taking. The need for new energy sources is not diminishing however. Charles Siefe seems to opportunistically lump together the entire fusion community as failures with the easy tapping on his keyboard.

The lightbulb developed from a short lived dim glow to a useable source of illumination in around seventy five years. It then went on to vacuum tubes and cathode ray tubes. The electronics industry took off from there. People need dreams and inspiration to help pursue their goals, not just dwelling on difficulties and failures which are inevitable.

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Posted: 06 January 2013 01:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I don’t agree with Asymmetric that the experimental evidence supports Siefe’s conclusion that fusion is impossible as an economical energy source. The international government-funded fusion effort has been on the wrong track for 40 years, when it first narrowed its focus to the tokamak. Not only DPF but all other alternatives have been funded at considerably less than the level needed to even explore their viability. There is also a fundamental misallocation of effort on DT fuel. Lacking direct conversion to electricity, it is unlikely that DT fusion will be much cheaper than existing sources.
I also don’t see that FF-1’s slipped dates are equivalent to the DOE’s. Theirs are based on some fundamental errors, including concentrating on one route, ignoring the problems of DT fuel for economical energy, and ignoring the physics of instabilities that was already known back in the 1970’s. A lot of folk said that the single-track on the tokamak was wrong back then.
So far, our delays have been based on our having too few people with the right skills to rapidly utilize existing technology. We took 20 months to redesign our switches, even though there is no doubt that switch technology can synchronize reliable firing of 12 switches. We took a year to get rid of arcing, even though existing technology shows it is possible to avoid arcing at our current densities. We are held up right now by a leak, even though vacuum much tighter than ours is easily attainable with present technology. So I don’t think our delays—so far—show anything at all about the chance for success. They do show we don’t have enough money to hire enough people that have the skills we need.
Nor is it fair to say we have had only failures—achieving 160 keV ion energy and confining the hot ions for 30 ns is solid success.
What is needed in fusion research is a compete redirection of the government-funded fusion effort to multiple lines of effort and to emphasis on aneutronic fuels, not an abdondoment of the fusion goal.

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Posted: 06 January 2013 02:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I don’t recall saying that fusion is impossible.  I did say that the data seems to support that fusion has more downsides than up.  I maintain my position of I don’t know if fusion will work as an energy source.  NIF is unlikely to meet Q>1.  The experiment at Sandia MAGLIF has some interesting potential.  I’m rooting for those guys as I am rooting for the PF.  Both Z-pinch like technologies will have substantial hurdles to overcome after Q>1.  All fusion approaches will struggle with materials problems.  Pulse power approaches are going to struggle with switches.  Neither problem is trivial and fundamental physics might be a damper. 

When I said outsider, I meant someone unfamiliar with the PF or the program.  I don’t consider the LPP effort a failure, but I think it is in jeopardy in some respects.  I am baffled by the mishaps that keep cropping up.  Lerner has confirmed my concern that the right people aren’t in place to use the machine.  It is a common problem in small groups; sometimes you need a master and you get are jacks of all trades.  It is not an easy problem to contend with.  A questionable team can do more damage than disagreeable physics to the reputation of a field.

I think the lack of the right people is the heart of the fusion problem across many platforms.  The big projects lack imaginative and effective leaders that can use their technical expertise and people skills to find champions in the funding agency that will support them.  They get bogged down in gov’t policy rather than using gov’t policy as a tool to further their programs.  Effective gov’t contractors do this masterfully.  The approach might have been incorrect but good science does not need a practical end in the near term.  Small groups tend to be hampered by a lack of the right people and resources.  Great small businesses get creative to bring in people on the cheap.  I wish I had a suggestion. 

—From the eyes of Charles Seife and folks like him—-

If one wants to compare the LPP effort with the tokamek there are some sobering comparisons.  Let’s take the tokamek achievements: Q>0.5, T and confinement realized but not density.  Realizing two of three of the fusion gain triad of temperature, density and confinement time is failure as ITER and other tokameks are failures or more politely, have not met expectations.  Eric states LPP has reached two of the three necessary parameters.  The inability to achieve the third is failure.  The PF has been touted as a low cost alternative to ITER and NIF but the frequent comment to things falling behind schedule is more money is needed.  Sounds like tokameks and NIF to me…  All we need is 1 kJ of laser energy and now we need 2 MJ.  All we need is 3 MA and tomorrow we need 6 -10 MA which means a new machine and a bigger budget. 

—-Back to reality——

There is the potential for dangerous parallels.  As Eric said, none of the problems encountered so far are difficult to fix.  As someone that has operated PF devices, I am baffled by the length of the delays; a year for arcing and months for a vacuum leak.  Twenty months to design a switch????  My on-going concern with LPP is not the physics; it is the ability to demonstrate the physics due to machine problems that never seem to end.

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Posted: 06 January 2013 10:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Looking at the source becomes very important. It is unfortunate that Charles Seife has had such limited success with his book that he needed to republish excerpts of it, to get notoriety(limited again). Going with the Wright Brother analogy of a simple design in an area where others have been unsuccessful is a pretty accurate analogy. Who was the last developer of a faster than light space ship and engine? Sorry. I guess my emphasis has always been on communication of information in an objective way, and not saying things that could be taken incorrectly. Closing the door completely on new and innovative energy technology says, the old wind mill and water dam will be as good as it gets and we shouldn’t try anything else in the future. Steve Jobs was wrong?  It is not what we want, it is what we think the customer needs and wants. What the customer needs and wants right now is a way out of the socioeconomic situation they are in. Changing the energy picture would help. 

You won’t find a shoulder to cry on when it comes to the frustration of creative discovery. You will find explosive opposing forces and violent reactions and then the sun comes out. That, I think is actually, one of the universal laws.cheese  People do succeed.

I would hate to someone give up on anything, that would cause a change in the way the world thinks.
Technically: Your not in your parents garage. Financially: You need a work around. Politically: Someone is always screwed.

Maybe you just need to tell a story better and be sure not to blind the audience with science.

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Posted: 07 January 2013 01:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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First, to be clear, I think all the members of our present team are absolutely first-rate. The problem is there are too few of them. It is simply impossible to combine in four people (on-site) all the skills and knowledge needed for this project. I don’t really see this as comparable to the problems of the tokamak effort.
Two other factors make for getting slower problem-solving. First, because pulsed power fusion technologies have been so underfunded, the number of people with specialized knowledge is very small. Asymmetric asked about our long re-design of the switch. I would be willing to bet that there are not even 10 people in the US who have designed switches capable of handling 250 kA with 10 ns jitter. That is what we had to do. So you can’t just go out and hire someone to consult with.
Second, a lot of the knowledge in the field is not published.  That is why people sometimes refer to pulsed power as a “black art.” Researchers don’t put the fine details of switches and technique in their papers because they feel it is dull. That stuff is supposed to go into manuals. But pulsed power research groups don’t have the money to pay someone with long experience to sit down and write a manual. For example, through word of mouth, we found out the best way to stop the arcing was using indium. But you will not find that in the literature on pulsed power. So there is a good deal of re-inventing the wheel. Again, more money would help.
That is not the same as throwing money at physics problems that people pointed out as roadblocks decades ago.
With DT fusion, there is no imaginable route to a power source that is cheaper than all existing ones, because the power conversion can’t be any cheaper and the neutrons inevitably lead to the necessity for low power density and very large machines. Fusion with pB11 is, no doubt, very difficult, but there are no built–in roadblocks to cheap energy. Maybe we will find one, but right now we don’t know of any. So the logical place to throw money is where lack of funding is the obvious bottleneck, not where physics problems are the roadbolck.

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Posted: 07 January 2013 06:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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1000 ways NOT to build a lightbulb.

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Posted: 07 January 2013 09:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Lerner:  You don’t need 10 people to design a switch that already exists.  (http://www.amazing1.com/sparkgap.htm)  Scroll to the bottom.  Look at Rail gap.  Typically a 16 week lead.  Switch N2 to Ar-O2 (10%) as listed by Maxwell pulse power and you get a 75 kV, 1 MA switch.  This is not the first time I’ve said it and I’m sure John Thompson has mentioned it to you more than once as John introduced me to the switches.  You need a ~100 kV trigger to take them down with ~10ns jitter.  North Star High Voltage can build it if they have the time.  Richard Adler is one of the best if not the best person for the job.  I have used North Star triggers at ~40 kV with a jitter of 20-30 ns for years and we have never had a problem that wasn’t our own doing.  We run up to ~100 kA per switch for over 10,000 shots without opening the switches for cleaning.  I’ve run over 1000 shots without changing the working gas.  You should be able to get at least 250 shots without any maintenance.  Maintenance is polishing the rails and wiping away any built up deposit.  Takes about 1-2 hr per switch at most.  (Brian L. Bures, Mahadevan Krishnan and Robert E. Madden “Relationship between Neutron Yield and Macro-scale Pinch Dynamics of a 1.4 kJ Plasma Focus over Hundreds of Pulses” IEEE Trans. Plasma Sci. Vol. 39 No 12 pp 3351-3357 (2011) doi: 10.1109/TPS.2011.2170588)

If you don’t like the Rail gap, look for the MMCS switch the French use on the Sphinx machine (50-100 kV, 1 MA).  Sandia uses laser triggered spark gaps with 1 ns jitter so there is always that option if you want to spend the money for four of those. 

You speak of the black art of pulse power and I agree to a point.  I am no pulse power expert, more of a dabbler and user, and there are three (really two as Sandia’s switch costs way too much) alternatives that will work without designing a custom switch and are much faster than 20 mon. 

Vacuum leaks: Derek is on the right track.  Buy an RGA and find the leak with helium.  RGA is 4-6 weeks away from SRS if they don’t have one in stock. 


Joe:  My frustration is that it looks like we will see a 1000 ways to make a PF pulse power system wrong before it is made reliable.  There are at least 3 if not more 300-500 kA machines in this country put together on a shoe string budget.  One might say that they are not as big but they contain all the key parts to make a 3 MA machine.  I know Eric has hardly talked to our group at AASC.  I get it; we are a company.  I know KSU folks helped build the machine but I don’t know more than that.  The UNLV folks used a design by Bruce Freeman, formally of Texas A&M, now with Raytheon (probably designing the new switches).  Bruce operated a 2 MA PF at A&M for years and I’m sure he didn’t have these problems.  NsTec has a 3 MA PF and I’m pretty sure they don’t have these problems.  There are always the folks at NTU/Singapore, DENA or Pavel Kubes.  There are a number of folks in the US and around the world that have solved these problems and moved on to study the physics.  The PF community is very open to new members and very willing to help whether it is physics, pulse power or components.  Great in roads have been made between LPP and physicists around the world (Iran, UK) but why are they not seeking help from an expert in pulse power that would visit and clean up the pulse power problems?  This is my concern for LPP in more detail. 

I really appreciate the small group as the AASC group is only 4-5 and I know the struggles.  The key for us was to bring in folks that were experts as consultants at the right time.  We let them solve the problem and tell us to become users and more slowly advanced users.  We will never replace these experts in skill but we learned to stand on our own.  When we trip, we run back to them asking for more help.  We had a good team in place and we still had to talk to experts to keep moving forward.  I can tell you that it never took the experts more than a few weeks to identify a problem and propose a fix whether it was a switch, transmission line or machining problem.  The parts can take a while but more than a few months seems unreasonable. 

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Posted: 17 January 2013 09:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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assymetric, it seems to me you gloss over the orders of magnitude differences in resources. NONE of the other approaches have been unable to hire the people they need, or shop for state-of-the-art equipment. Your hand-waving suggestions to find and acquire (hypothetically) adequate technologies are disingenuous.

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Posted: 17 January 2013 11:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Brian:  Pun on the name is cute.  But the humor aside, I know the technology exists because I have worked with it for the last five years.  I have a few peer reviewed publications in the area of plasma focus devices and how to build their pulse power systems that I’ve listed below.  Brian, too, by the way.

Brian L. Bures, Mahadevan Krishnan, Robert E. Madden, and Florian Blobner, “Enhancing Neutron Emission from a 500J Plasma Focus by Altering the Anode Geometry and Gas Composition” IEEE Trans. Plasma Sci.  Vol 39 No 4 pp 667-671 (2010)
B. L. Bures, C. James, M. Krishnan and R. Adler “Application of an impedance matching transformer to a plasma focus” Rev. Sci. Instrum. 82, 103506 (2011); doi:10.1063/1.3648117
Brian L. Bures, Mahadevan Krishnan and Robert E. Madden “Relationship between Neutron Yield and Macro-scale Pinch Dynamics of a 1.4 kJ Plasma Focus over Hundreds of Pulses” IEEE Trans. Plasma Sci. Vol. 39 No 12 pp 3351-3357 (2011) doi: 10.1109/TPS.2011.2170588
Brian L. Bures, Mahadevan Krishnan and Colt James “A Plasma Focus Electronic Neutron Generator” IEEE Trans. Plasma Sci. Vol 40 No 4 pp 1082-1088 (2012)
Brian L. Bures and Mahadevan Krishnan “An alternative scaling relationship for neutron production in Z-pinch devices” Physics of Plasmas Vol 19 No 11 112702 (2012)

I’m not a novice talking without some background.  I’ve been in the trenches with PF devices making them work.  If you have a specific complaint about my disingenuous comments related to switch choice or vacuum technology I’d be happy to talk about it.  That is what the forum is about. 

There is a huge difference in funding levels.  No one denies that.  One selling point of the PF is that it is an easier, faster, cheaper path to fusion.  Many millions have been spent on PF device develop and it is far behind the tokamek right now in terms of Q.  It could be made up if the device begins to work correctly.  That is the part I find frustrating.  The tantalizing data that is out there needs some backbone to it and a working device could provide that data.  Time will tell.  The PF has enjoyed application based funding for some years that can viewed as tech base development for FoFu-1.  The Z-pinch community has already addressed many of the pulse power problems as they operated at much high voltages (1-6MV) and currents (1-20 MA) routinely with rise times of less than 200 ns while FoFu-1 operates with >1 us rise times with 1-3MA of current at 35-45 kV.  Even with this tech base I’m sure that the PF program is poorly funded by comparison to the tokamek program.  I think one could find passionate advocates in the plasma and fusion community if the proof of concept experiments were completed successfully.  Use existing tech to prove the physics works and then push for the state of the art tech to make it pretty.  This has been the approach of many successful science programs turned into useful things like commercial products. 

The politics of fusion are really opinions so I can agree to disagree.  Time will provide the answers.

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Posted: 27 January 2013 02:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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asymmetric_implosion - 07 January 2013 09:34 AM

Lerner:  You don’t need 10 people to design a switch that already exists.  (http://www.amazing1.com/sparkgap.htm)  Scroll to the bottom.  Look at Rail gap.  Typically a 16 week lead.  Switch N2 to Ar-O2 (10%) as listed by Maxwell pulse power and you get a 75 kV, 1 MA switch.  This is not the first time I’ve said it and I’m sure John Thompson has mentioned it to you more than once as John introduced me to the switches.  You need a ~100 kV trigger to take them down with ~10ns jitter.  North Star High Voltage can build it if they have the time.  Richard Adler is one of the best if not the best person for the job.  I have used North Star triggers at ~40 kV with a jitter of 20-30 ns for years and we have never had a problem that wasn’t our own doing.  We run up to ~100 kA per switch for over 10,000 shots without opening the switches for cleaning.  I’ve run over 1000 shots without changing the working gas.  You should be able to get at least 250 shots without any maintenance.  Maintenance is polishing the rails and wiping away any built up deposit.  Takes about 1-2 hr per switch at most.  (Brian L. Bures, Mahadevan Krishnan and Robert E. Madden “Relationship between Neutron Yield and Macro-scale Pinch Dynamics of a 1.4 kJ Plasma Focus over Hundreds of Pulses” IEEE Trans. Plasma Sci. Vol. 39 No 12 pp 3351-3357 (2011) doi: 10.1109/TPS.2011.2170588)

If you don’t like the Rail gap, look for the MMCS switch the French use on the Sphinx machine (50-100 kV, 1 MA).  Sandia uses laser triggered spark gaps with 1 ns jitter so there is always that option if you want to spend the money for four of those. 

You speak of the black art of pulse power and I agree to a point.  I am no pulse power expert, more of a dabbler and user, and there are three (really two as Sandia’s switch costs way too much) alternatives that will work without designing a custom switch and are much faster than 20 mon. 

Vacuum leaks: Derek is on the right track.  Buy an RGA and find the leak with helium.  RGA is 4-6 weeks away from SRS if they don’t have one in stock. 


Joe:  My frustration is that it looks like we will see a 1000 ways to make a PF pulse power system wrong before it is made reliable.  There are at least 3 if not more 300-500 kA machines in this country put together on a shoe string budget.  One might say that they are not as big but they contain all the key parts to make a 3 MA machine.  I know Eric has hardly talked to our group at AASC.  I get it; we are a company.  I know KSU folks helped build the machine but I don’t know more than that.  The UNLV folks used a design by Bruce Freeman, formally of Texas A&M, now with Raytheon (probably designing the new switches).  Bruce operated a 2 MA PF at A&M for years and I’m sure he didn’t have these problems.  NsTec has a 3 MA PF and I’m pretty sure they don’t have these problems.  There are always the folks at NTU/Singapore, DENA or Pavel Kubes.  There are a number of folks in the US and around the world that have solved these problems and moved on to study the physics.  The PF community is very open to new members and very willing to help whether it is physics, pulse power or components.  Great in roads have been made between LPP and physicists around the world (Iran, UK) but why are they not seeking help from an expert in pulse power that would visit and clean up the pulse power problems?  This is my concern for LPP in more detail. 

I really appreciate the small group as the AASC group is only 4-5 and I know the struggles.  The key for us was to bring in folks that were experts as consultants at the right time.  We let them solve the problem and tell us to become users and more slowly advanced users.  We will never replace these experts in skill but we learned to stand on our own.  When we trip, we run back to them asking for more help.  We had a good team in place and we still had to talk to experts to keep moving forward.  I can tell you that it never took the experts more than a few weeks to identify a problem and propose a fix whether it was a switch, transmission line or machining problem.  The parts can take a while but more than a few months seems unreasonable. 

As always, watching you & Lerner speak in the same venue is interesting, and informative.  I’m still down with the idea of setting up a tip-jar for Asymetric’s plane ticket so that you can both speak face to face.

I also like the idea of a laser-triggered spark-gap.  Pushed for that idea myself here for some while.

Asymetric: I like the idea of employing/asking experts to contribute their expertise in narrow, but very important, fields to further LPP’s DPF research.  That’s why I think this forum is so important.  It gives people a chance to see what’s going on, what needs exist, and to contribute what they can.  An example I would cite is your own empirical experience with DPFs.

Lerner: I hope that you’ll continue to discuss both the technical problems that you encounter, as well as the results as you develop them.  In depth.  I believe that the more information that you put into these forums, the more that you’ll get from them.  I know that it’s a commitment in time & effort, but this is an easy way to reach a large, and interested, group of people.  The stable of people that read this regularly might be able to fill in the gaps you mention in the papers they print; those dull results that don’t get written up, but are important pieces of hand-me-down knowledge from their own tests.

I think that Asymetric’s contributions make the case for this.

Patrick

 

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