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SCOTTS VALLEY — A local “retired” scientist with collaborators throughout the country spent last week in Germany pedaling a plan to create huge amounts of energy through decades-old fusion power science, an effort, they say, that promises to economically solve the world’s energy problem without generating unusable radioactive waste.
“It actually does solve the energy problem,” said Robert Burke, chief technology officer and board chairman of Scotts Valley-based Fusion Power Corp. Burke, 68, who lives in Santa Cruz, incorporated the company in spring 2009 after about 45 years of working in the world of fusion in the public and private sectors. Burke led the Argonne National Laboratory team, which had participated in the discovery in 1975 of the heavy ion fusion process.
Fusion Power Corp. quickly moved to Scotts Valley in part because Santa Cruz is a nuclear-free zone. Although fusion is entirely different from fission — fission splits atoms to create energy while fusion combines parts of atoms — government has tended to create legislation around the science as if all were equally dangerous.
Burke flew to Germany last week with Charles Helsley, FPC president and chief executive officer, to present plans for the StarPower Energy Complex, a more than $20 billion, five-mile-long, mostly underground facility that promises to generate about 100 gigawatts of energy, enough to serve a population that is about the half the size of California. The pair delivered presentations to the 18th International Symposium on Heavy Ion Inertial Fusion in Darmstadt, which concluded Sept. 3. Burke said he hopes peer review will substantiate his science as well as jump-start greater collaboration.
“The first thing about the world’s energy problem is it’s huge and this is a very big solution,” Burke said. “Every one of our facilities would produce the equivalent of a supergiant oil field.” A supergiant oil field is defined as having at least 5 billion barrels of recoverable oil. “That gives you the idea of the size. It’s extremely good economics.”
While there are fusion accelerators in operation today and research under way internationally, the industry has failed to discover a viable energy solution to date, in part, due to scientific challenges, and, in part due to politics and economics. FPC is promoting a new way to solve the science and is in talks with national energy providers and several international investors, including China, India and Spain, according to board members.
“It obviously takes big bucks and a consortium of established industries to come together with some of their own money,” Burke said.
The presentations are an effort to get scientists in the field to look at the science in a new way.
“We’ve been looking through the wrong end of the telescope, trying to make fusion small,” said Helsley, 76, a retired researcher at the University of Hawaii who served as director of both the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and the UH Sea Grant College Program. “We should just let it be big. Big is what we need.”
One of the challenges is finding investors with long-term views. One has to find people who share the same vision, Helsley said.
“Many people want to invest in something that has a two- to three- year return,” Helsley said. “I have not found that venture group that’s willing to look at the five-year horizon or 10-year horizon rather than the three-year horizon.”
Helsley said he is optimistic the company will receive commitments for the first $20 million of funding within the next year. A plant would pay for itself after about a year of operation, he said.
“I would’ve liked to see it by now but the economic climate is not one where you can readily shake funding loose from,” he said. “I suspect it will be built in Spain first, but I don’t know. It may be India. They have the interest and the resources.”
Building the facility near saltwater would be ideal because the waste heat could help desalinate water, he said.
The company founders say they’ve dedicated a good part of the retired years to this idea.
“None of us play golf,” Helsley said. “Here was a solution. We have to pass it on to the next generation as soon as possible. We don’t have the drive and stamina to fight battles in the trenches but we have the vision.”
The Germany trip is “a matter of piquing interest and getting people to understand: Here is something that’s been sitting on the shelf almost 30 years waiting for someone to bring it out into the public,” said Harold V. Helsley, brother of Charles, who handles public relations for FPC as well as serves as treasurer and a board member.
“All of us in this operation are old farts. We’re up in our 70s and been concerned about what are our grandkids are going to do for energy,” he said. “We’re doing it now to make sure 10 years from now we have that energy for the nation and the world.”
Burke has donated the related intellectual property to the Fusion Power Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in January 2009 to benefit from the sale of the StarPower IP licenses. The ecology-focused nonprofit will receive 25 percent of gross profits to contribute “to the well being of mankind through the distribution of its excess resources for public good activities in the form of education and research in sciences and technology related to the production and distribution of energy.” Pat Modugno, chief financial officer of the Hilton Foundation, is serving as foundation president.
“One of the things about our solution is it’s really big,” Burke said. “It’s like the Apollo program going to the moon. You can’t go to the moon on a little rocket.”
But then, Burke was a mechanical engineer student in college when he first heard about the Apollo mission. He remembered thinking, I’m not so sure that’s going to work. “It takes guts; it takes leadership,” he said. “The exit strategy is to solve the problem.”
Fusion Power Corp.
WHAT: Fusion Power Corp. aims to design an environmentally safe, heavy ion fusion process energy production facility that could be operational by 2020.
HEADQUARTERS: 5610 Scotts Valley Drive, Suite 314, Scotts Valley, CA 95066
BACKGROUND: Incorporated in Santa Cruz in April 2009 by Robert Burke
LEADERSHIP: Charles Helsley, president, chief executive officer and board member; Robert Burke, chief technology officer and board chairman
EMPLOYEES: Three part-time employees
INFORMATION: 808-927-4614; http://www.fusionpowercorporation.com
FINANCIALS: The privately funded company needs about $20 million to complete first phase of its design, about $200 million to complete the design and at least $20 billion to build an operational facility.
VISION: Founders say one facility, built mostly underground, would provide 100 gigawatts of energy, enough to support about half the population of California.
For information on fusion: Visit http://hif.lbl.gov/tutorial/tutorial.html
For information on the Fusion Power Foundation: Visit: http://fusionpowerfoundation.org
SOURCE: The Fusion Power Foundation
This article first appeared here.