“This is the good part of my theories. You must continue this work.” –Albert Einstein – despondent after Hiroshima and Nagasaki – to Philo T. Farnsworth in 1948
“I’ve seen all I need to see.” –Philo T. Farnsworth – to his wife after conducting a clandestine, late-night fusor ‘run’ in 1966
“We were close. We were very close.” – Eugene Meeks, Farnsworth colleague, in 2001
The Waterstar Project seeks build an endowment to fund the recovery of a promising approach to controlled nuclear fusion that was abandoned more than fifty years ago.
Controlled Nuclear Fusion has been a Holy Grail of modern science for more than 80 years. Utilizing the same reaction found in our Sun and all the stars, controlled fusion offers the promise of a clean, (relatively) safe, and inexhaustible source of industrial energy derived from the Earth’s most abundant resource: seawater.
But first the process must be harnessed here on Earth.
The concept presents a tantalizing scientific riddle: how do you bottle a star?
What sort of “container” can withstand the heat of the sun without either extinguishing the star or melting the bottle? Science has wrestled with this conundrum since the middle of the 20th Century, with little to show for the effort other than considerable expense of mostly public treasure.
We believe that experiments conducted more than 50 years ago demonstrated a promising approach to controlling nuclear fusion. We will attempt to explain why such a promising pursuit could go unrealized. More importantly, we will show how the mystery will never be resolved short of a renewed, full-scale laboratory effort. We will then propose an outline for just such an undertaking.
2. Background: The Fusor
Since the middle of the 20th Century, governments of the industrialized world have assumed authority over most fusion research, and have collectively invested billions of dollars in what can only be described as “monolithic” approaches to the fusion problem: large, complicated and costly machines that use either massive magnets or powerful lasers to compress atomic particles into a fusion reaction. The most successful of these efforts have succeeded in producing only minimal bursts of fusion at an astronomical reaction-per-dollar ratio.
Meanwhile, mostly ignored by the established interests in nuclear research is the work of Philo T. Farnsworth, who died in 1971 after devoting the last 20 years of his life to the pursuit of fusion.
Farnsworth is best known as the inventor of electronic television during the 1920s and 30s. During the course of two decades spent refining his seminal television patents, he learned a great deal about vacuums, the properties of electrons and other atomic particles and phenomena. From this unique body of knowledge, Farnsworth synthesized the principals of “inertial electrostatic confinement” (IEC) as a means of producing nuclear fusion. In the 1960s he developed a series of devices he dubbed “The Fusor” to prove his theories.
The Fusor is an elegantly simple device that harnesses the properties of electrical fields to concentrate charged particles into the center of a spherical core not much larger than a softball. During the course of Farnsworth’s experiments in the 1960s, the Fusor produced fusion reactions of many minutes duration and neutron counts (the evidence of fusion) numbering in the billions per second. This is far more actual fusion than any other approach has produced before or since.
Despite these startling results, the Fusor research, which had been funded by what was by then the Farnsworth division of ITT, was discontinued in 1968. ITT management stressed that – despite its diversified interests – the company was not in the nuclear energy business and deferred its judgment re: funding to the Atomic Energy Commission. By the mid 60s the AEC was fully committed to magnetic confinement, and resisted diverting any funds for IEC.
Patents were filed and granted before the ITT program was curtailed. These patents expired in the mid-1980s, placing the underlying technology of the Fusor in the public domain. However, according to Farnsworth family lore, “the patents are incomplete.”
3. A Reasonable Proposition
There is no question that the Farnsworth Fusor produces fusion, and substantial amounts of it. Arguably, the Fusor produces more fusion, for longer periods, than any other method. Yet, the critical questions remains unanswered: Is the Fusor capable of producing enough fusion so that there is more energy coming out of the reaction than goes in to start it? Can such a reaction be sustained indefinitely?
We are unshakeable in our conviction that the answer to both of these questions is “yes.” At the very least, the record shows that nobody can answer the question with an unequivocal “no” – least of all the people who have made certain in the decades since that the available funding for further research goes elsewhere.
Simple logic seems to dictate that there is merit to revisiting the question.
There is no greater authority on nuclear fusion than Robert L. Hirsch, who worked in Farnsworth’s laboratory during the 1960s and went on to direct fusion research for the U.S. Department of Energy in the 1970s. When asked in the year 2001 why there is no conclusive answer to the question of whether or not the fusor offers a viable approach to controlled fusion energy, Hirsch answered simply “not enough money.”
Which is ironic, because compared to those monolithic magnetic and laser-powered machines, the cost to build a fusor is almost nominal – thousands or tens of thousands as opposed to hundreds of millions or billions.
With modest funding, we propose to mount the sort of full-scale laboratory effort that Farnsworth himself ever had at his disposal in order to clear up the mystery once and for all.
4. Finding The Trailhead
This project is borne of the conviction that Philo T. Farnsworth was on the right track with his pioneering explorations into fusion energy in the 1950s and 60s. He possessed not only a uniquely keen insight, but a unique body of experience that affirmed that insight over several decades – not the least of which was the delivery of television into the modern world.
As his work ripened and matured, it entered new realms. As Farnsworth’s eldest son said of his father:
He was into a new cosmology. Every once in a while he’d get to a place where new ideas would occur to him and he’d start talking about it… these discussions went well beyond Einstein, into a realm of his own personal math and his own personal cosmology.
Farnsworth shared his evolving concepts with Albert Einstein himself in a phone call in 1948. At the end of their conversation, Einstein implored Farnsworth to “publish the math” when it was ready. But Farnsworth’s widow Pem, in her memoir “Distant Vision,” recounts how one of his colleagues at the time altered some of the equations in order to make them more acceptable to the scientific mainstream before subjecting them to peer review. “Those are not my ideas,” Farnsworth said, and the paper was withdrawn from publication.
We believe that retracing Farnsworth’s steps, finding the path to that new cosmology, is the key delivering his second great discovery – practical fusion energy – to the planet.
Before we can begin to follow his path, we will need to establish a trailhead.
To that end, we have assembled several critical components:
–The Unpublished Journals: Over the ensuing decades, his descendants have diligently preserved the handwritten journals that Farnsworth kept during the 1950s and 60s, which embody all the original and unpublished math. The Waterstar Project has been granted access to these journals;
–An Actual Fusor: We have recovered an original Fusor that was constructed and operated at the Farnsworth labs in Fort Wayne, Indiana during the 1960s;
–A Cathode: The Fusor in our possession is somewhat different from fusors in operation in amateur efforts around the world today. The most notable difference is the design and construction of the cathode grid at the center of the fusion chamber. However, we have located an actual Farnsworth-designed cathode from the period and should be able to recover it to use as a guide to constructing a new cathode more in accord with Farnsworth’s designs.
–A Body of Knowledge: For the past 20 years, the principals in The Waterstar Project have operated a website – fusor.net – which is acknowledged around the world as the foremost assemblage of information about the design, construction, and operation of Farnsworth-type fusion devices. Here is a vast database of knowledge and experience in the construction and operation of the fusor that we can draw on in the design and construction of a device that can replicate Farnsworth’s approach.
Another key to our project will be the application of powerful technologies that were not available in the 1950s and 60s.
In order to secure a more thorough understanding of the inner workings of the Fusor, we will use modern sensing equipment. The data extracted from the first tests will then be used to create software programs capable of recreating the conditions within the Fusor on a computer. Ultimately, we will be able to run hundreds of tests of new Fusor configurations before we ever need to build a new one.
We firmly believe that the Farnsworth Fusor offers a startlingly simple and elegant solution to the perplexing questions of nuclear fusion, and that by returning to Farnsworth’s original intent and by applying new technologies, the ultimate goal – a system that sustainably puts out more energy than goes into it – is achievable.
5. A Sustainable Source of Funding for a Sustainable Source of Energy
Before it was dissolved by ITT in 1968, the Farnsworth fusion program had an annual budget of $400.000. That translates to $3-Million in 2020 dollars.
We want $75-million.
Not to spend. To invest in an endowment.
An annual draw of 4% from an endowment of $75-million will provide $3-Million/year or $250,000/mo. Given the relatively low cost of building and operating a fusor, that should be sufficient to sustain a meaningful effort to arrive at a definitive conclusion: Either the Fusor produces useful fusion energy, or we will conclude without equivocation that the approach is a dead end – at which point the endowment will be dissolved.
The point is: nobody has built or operated an actual Farnsworth Fusor in more than 50 years. The experiments that have been conducted at the amateur and institutional level over the past 20 years have utilized a simplified version of the fusor developed by colleagues of Farnsworth, known as the “Hirsch/Meeks Variation” since it was designed by the aforementioned Robert L. Hirsh and Farnsworth lab hand Eugene Meeks).
The construction of an actual Farnsworth Fusor – for the first time since the 1960s – will cost a tiny fraction of what it will cost to build the International Tokamak Experimental Reactor (aka “ITER” and ironically pronounced “eater”). Before it produces a single fusion reaction, ITER will cost more than $22-Billions-with-B.
An endowment that will enable years of experiments with the Farnsworth fusor will cost less than 1/2 of 1% of what it will cost just to build ITER.
Once endowed, the Project will solicit proposals from individual and institutional experimenters to try different approaches to solving the Riddle or The Fusor. For qualified applicants, will provide access to the unpublished Farnsworth journals and encourage them to retrace the path that he was forced to abandon 50 years ago.
If Philo Farnsworth had had that kind of funding at his disposal in the 1960s, we might be living in a very different world today. Alas, Farnsworth was subject to the vagaries of corporate finance and the institutional preferences of agencies like the Atomic Energy Commission, which devoted all the resources available for fusion research to more orthodox approaches like the aforementioned tokamak.
The endowment would of course be non-profit in nature (i.e. WaterStarProject.org); by establishing a 501(c3) organization, the funds contributed to the endowment will be tax deductible to the contributing individuals or organizations. Any intellectual property (i.e. patents) produced under its umbrella would the property of the endowment. Any revenue generated would be used to make fusion power available to those areas of the world most in need of clean, cheap energy, and to promote the benefits of fusion technology for the general welfare or mankind and our host planet.
6. Conclusion: While The World Burns, Science Fiddles
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon to grasp that a twenty billion dollar solution to a problem is really no solution at all. If humanity is to be freed of the cultural, political, environmental and spiritual burdens of a fossil fuel economy, then answers must be found elsewhere.
The principals in the Waterstar Project are unshakeable in their conviction that the path to a solution was found in a small laboratory in Fort Wayne, Indiana in the mid-1960s. For a variety of nearly-inexplicable reasons the trajectory toward that solution was knocked off its course.
We believe that experimenting with the Farnsworth Fusor (not the Hirsch/Meeks Variation) offers a path to a practical energy. Admittedly, there is no way to know how much research – or how much expense – will be required to deliver the desired result. What we can reasonably do is project how much a research effort may cost in any given year, and map out the benchmarks that we hope to demonstrate within any given time frame.
The uncertainties mandate a sustainable approach.
There is little doubt that fusion holds great theoretical promise. Science has been pursuing that promise for nearly 80 years, with little to show for the effort and expense.
Believing as we do that research into the Farnsworth Fusor was derailed and abandoned before reaching its true potential, we propose to revisit the territory, to find Philo Farnsworth’s original intent and follow in his footsteps. By creating an endowment to support this work, we can minimize the financial risk and assure a satisfactory conclusion.
If you would like to receive a copy of our more detailed proposal, please contact
The Waterstar Project