Alternate Energy
Penning Fusion eXperiment - Ions
Inertial-Electrostatic Confinement (IEC) of a Fusion Plasma
Source Page
from Penning Fusion Project
at the Los Alamos National Laboratory US Government
  1. Spherically Imploding Ion Beams: Inertial Electrostatic Confinement (IEC) is achieved by accelerating ions into a highly transparent cathode-grid, concentrically placed inside a larger vacuum vessel of the same geometry. Typical IEC devices are usually spherical, although many cylindrical ones have also been studied. Ions generated near the wall of the vessel are accelerated into the cathode-grid, due to the strong electric field produced by the potential difference (~50 kV) placed between the cathode-grid and the grounded vessel wall. Different schemes are employed to generate the ions, e.g., glow discharge, electron-impact from a low density electron cloud that is confined near the vessel wall via an extra grid and produced from hot electron emitters, and externally mounted ion sources.
  2. Multiple Potential Well Formation: Ion confinement time in the hot plasma can be significantly increased via the formation of a series of multiple potential wells inside the cathode-gird. These "virtual wells" appear as "virtual" anodes and cathodes to the ions, confining them but not absorbing them like the "real" cathode-grid. With this formation of wells the only loss mechanism for the ions is upscatter (an interaction in velocity space, not physical space) and fusion. These wells, modeled with computational codes and observed experimentally (described below), form due to a complex interaction between the ions circulating through the cathode-grid and electrons, emitted as secondary products from the cathode-grid when an ion is absorbed and from ionizations of the background gas inside the cathode-grid.
  3. Encouraging Experimental Data: Numerous studies, spanning almost four decades, have reported exceedingly high neutron yields, as a function of plasma density and energy, and direct measurements of potential well formation,,.
  4. The Early Pioneers: The approach to fusion using IEC was originally conceived by P. Farrnsworth (inventor of electronic television in the US), and later studied experimentally by Hirsch (including neutron production, direct plasma measurements, and computational modeling)1.Then during the late 60ís and 70ís, Verdeyen conducted many experiments on the potential well depth and formation, but not neutron generation. R. W. Bussard and G. H. Miley renewed studies in the late 80ís, looking at electrical power production, space propulsion, and neutron generation.
  1. Non-Maxwellian Ion Energy Distribution: Since the ions are accelerated, reaching the center of the cathode-grid with near uniform kinetic energy, the resulting plasma is non-Maxwellian. This energy distribution and consequent beam-beam type reactions, plus lack of cyclotron radiation due to the elimination of B-fields makes the IEC attractive for burning advanced fusion fuels, like D-3He and p-11B.
  2. Non-Linear Scaling of Reaction Rate with Ion Current: Computational studies have shown that potential well formation and ion confinement time is a function of ion density,. Since ion density is dependent on ion confinement time, non-linear scaling of fusion reaction rate with ion current is considered possible. Scaling on the order of current cubed would lead to high reactor power densities and attractive reactor efficiencies. 
  3. Plasma Target Fusion: The greatest number of fusion reactions is occurring inside the cathode-grid; in most devices operating today, the majority of reactions are beam-background in nature, that is, between the fast moving ions in the plasma and the neutral background gas. Since there is no solid target upon which ions are directed there is not a solid target that will deteriorate from plasma interactions. This is advantageous for it places no upper limit on confined ion density and fusion reaction rates.
  4. Non-Ignited Plasma: Most IEC reactor concepts employ a direct energy conversion scheme, wherein the high energy fusion products are allowed to escape the potential well "trap" and slowed down in an external, high voltage electric field. Such a configuration does not require an "ignited" plasma where the fusion reaction products are keeping the plasma hot. Therefore, reactor sizes smaller than conventional fusion devices are possible to demonstrate reactor breakeven.
  5. Compact Size and Low Reactor Weight: IEC devices do not need magnetic fields, hence eliminating the need for large, heavy magnets. In addition, IEC devices are relatively simplistic and small, making for an easy to transport inexpensive device.
Potential Applications
  1. Terrestrial Power Source: Several approaches are under consideration for earth-based power production: Q >1 fusion reactor, employing direct energy conversion; and a fusion-fission hybrid with a Q < 1 IEC reactor and a keff < 1 fission assembly.
  2. Deep Space Power and Propulsion: IEC is presently being investigated for use in deep space power and propulsion. The low weight, compact nature of the IEC makes it attractive for use in propulsion and remote site power production.
  3. Radioisotope Production: A Q < 1 IEC device producing either high energy neutrons or protons, would be ideal for producing radioisotopes for everything from industrial uses to medical diagnostics and therapy.
  4. Medical Therapy: A high output IEC device has been considered in therapies involving neutrons such as Boron Neutron Capture Therapy.
  5. Nondestructive Evaluation/Neutron Activation Analysis: Thermalizing neutrons from an IEC device, or using 14-MeV neutrons from D-T fusion in an IEC, is advantageous, considering the attractive attributes considered above, i.e., low weight, compact nature, and most importantly, plasma target. Indeed, Daimler-Chrysler has commercialized IEC technology for small, compact neutron generators (this is the first commercial application of a confined, fusing plasma!).
Key Issues 
  1. Multiple Potential Well Formation: Further study is required to understand potential well formation and the scaling of such formation with ion current, energy, etc. This is the central key to developing IEC technology for advanced applications beyond that of small scale neutron activation analysis.
  2. Scaling of Reactor-Power with Current: Operation with present IEC devices is in the mode of linear scaling of neutron output with cathode-grid current. It is believed that too high of a background operating pressure is truncating ion confinement, preventing the formation of deep, multiple potential wells. Construction of next-generation IEC devices are needed to reduce background neutral gas pressure, increase ion injection currents, so as to measure reaction rates as a function of cathode-grid current.
  3. Power Conversion: Given the advantage and possible use of advanced fuels, such as D-3He and p-11B, research is needed to develop a conversion scheme that will allow for high efficiency extraction of useful energy from the IEC device.
  4. Cathode Grid Life Expectancy and Efficiency: It is unlikely that present-day cathode-grid technology is sufficient to make a grid that can contain a Q > 1 IEC plasma. Investigation is needed to optimize grid design, or even to see how to eliminate the cathode-grids altogether.
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    Unless otherwise indicated, this information has been authored by an employee or employees of the Los Alamos National Security, LLC (LANS), operator of the Los Alamos National Laboratory under Contract No. DE-AC52-06NA25396 with the U.S. Department of Energy. The U.S. Government has rights to use, reproduce, and distribute this information. The public may copy and use this information without charge, provided that this Notice and any statement of authorship are reproduced on all copies. Neither the Government nor LANS makes any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any liability or responsibility for the use of this information. 

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