The reactor at the Fusion Technology Institute uses a technology called inertial electrostatic confinement (IEC). Kulcinski explains: “If we used a tokamak to do deuterium-helium-3, it would need to be bigger than the ITER device, which already is stretching the bounds of credibility. Our IEC devices, on the other hand, are tabletop-sized, and during our deuterium-He3 runs, we do get some neutrons produced by side reaction with deuterium.” Nevertheless, Kulcinski continues, when side reactions occur that involve two deuterium nuclei fusing to produce a tritium nucleus and proton, the tritium produced is at such a higher energy level than the confinement system that it immediately escapes. “Consequently, the radioactivity in our deuterium-He3 system is only 2 percent of the radioactivity in a deuterium-tritium system.”
More significant is the He3-He3 fusion reaction that Kulcinski and his assistants produce with their IEC-based reactor. In Kulcinski’s reactor, two helium-3 nuclei, each with two protons and one neutron, instead fuse to produce one helium-4 nucleus, consisting of two protons and two neutrons, and two highly energetic protons.
“He3-He3 is not an easy reaction to promote,” Kulcinski says. “But He3-He3 fusion has the greatest potential.” That’s because helium-3, unlike tritium, is nonradioactive, which, first, means that Kulcinski’s reactor doesn’t need the massive containment vessel that deuterium-tritium fusion requires. Second, the protons it produces–unlike the neutrons produced by deuterium-tritium reactions–possess charges and can be contained using electric and magnetic fields, which in turn results in direct electricity generation. Kulcinski says that one of his graduate assistants at the Fusion Technology Institute is working on a solid-state device to capture the protons and convert their energy directly into electricity.
Still, Kulcinski’s reactor proves only the theoretical feasibility and advantages of He3-He3 fusion, with commercial viability lying decades in the future. “Currently,” he says, “the Department of Energy will tell us, ‘We’ll make fusion work. But you’re never going to go back to the moon, and that’s the only way you’ll get massive amounts of helium-3. So forget it.’ Meanwhile, the NASA folks tell us, ‘We can get the helium-3. But you’ll never get fusion to work.’ So DOE doesn’t think NASA can do its job, NASA doesn’t think that DOE can do its job, and we’re in between trying to get the two to work together.” Right now, Kulcinski’s funding comes from two wealthy individuals who are, he says, only interested in the research and without expectation of financial profit.
Overall, then, helium-3 is not the low-hanging fruit among potential fuels to create practical fusion power, and it’s one that we will have to reach the moon to pluck. That said, if pure He3-based fusion power is realizable, it would have immense advantages.
Gain the insight you need on energy at EmTech MIT.