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Tech Breakthrough: Will Open Air Plasma Pave the Way for Practical Fusion Energy?

Published: April 22, 2013
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Exclusive Interview Regarding Exciting Breakthrough

University of Missouri engineer Randy Curry has made a fascinating technology breakthrough: the ability to transmit high-energy plasma through the air.

The University’s website reports:

University of Missouri engineer Randy Curry and his team have developed a method of creating and controlling plasma that could revolutionize American energy generation and storage. Besides liquid, gas and solid, matter has a fourth state, known as plasma. Fire and lightning are familiar forms of plasma. Life on Earth depends on the energy emitted by plasma produced during fusion reactions within the sun. However, Curry warns that without federal funding of basic research, America will lose the race to develop new plasma energy technologies. The basic research program was originally funded by the Office of Naval Research, but continued research has been funded by MU.

 

Curry’s device launches a ring of plasma as far as two feet. The plasma doesn’t emit radiation, and it is completely safe for humans to be in the same room with it, although the plasma reaches a temperature hotter than the surface of the sun. The secret to Curry’s success was developing a way to make the plasma form its own self-magnetic field, which holds it together while it travels through the air.

Launching plasma in open air is the ‘Holy Grail’ in the field of physics,” said Curry, professor of electrical and computer engineering in the University of Missouri’s College of Engineering. “Creating plasma in a vacuum tube surrounded by powerful electromagnets is no big deal; dozens of labs can do that. Our innovation allows the plasma to hold itself together while it travels through regular air without any need for containment.”

The plasma device at MU could be enlarged to handle much larger amounts of energy, according to Curry. With sufficient funding, they could develop a system within three to five years that would also be considerably smaller. He noted that they used old technologies to build the current prototype of the plasma-generating machine. Using newer, miniaturized parts, he suggests they could shrink the device to the size of a bread box.

“We have a world-class team at MU’s Center for Physical & Power Electronics, but that team will evaporate without funding,” Curry said. “Department of Defense funding for basic research led to our plasma innovation. The sequester’s funding cuts threaten America’s ability to compete in the future of energy technology. Not only will research not be advanced, a new generation of Americans won’t be trained to take the reins of American engineering leadership.”

(Here’s Curry’s paper.)

Extreme Tech comments:

The University of Missouri claims that this technique could “revolutionize energy generation and storage,” but doesn’t actually say how. Presumably there is some basis to this claim, though there seems to be very little in the way of peer-reviewed science in this area. Much more likely is the weaponization of the technology — imagine a plasma rifle that can cut through just about anything, or a plasma shield that can instantly incinerate incoming ammunition and missiles. This theory is made all the more plausible by the research group’s primary source of funding: the Office of Naval Research — the same office of the US Navy that funds research into the humbling and/or terrifying railguns ….

We thought Extreme Tech’s take was a little off-base (while we are sure that there are military applications, we also happen to know that the military is becoming a big promoter of alternative energy). And we are also fans of Nikola Tesla’s work on plasma.

So we called Dr. Curry to find out more about his plasma energy breakthrough.

Curry told us that his tech breakthrough can generate 6 inch plasma rings using “very little energy” – “4,000 to 20,000 joules” – and can send them 1 to 2 feet through open air using a self-controlling magnetic field.

The plasma rings keep their size throughout the path it travels.

Usually, plasma rings last less than a millisecond. But Curry’s team kept plasma rings intact for “many tens of milliseconds”.

We asked Dr. Curry what generation and storage applications his technology might have. His answer: “fusion“.

Specifically, it is usually incredibly expensive to build fusion generators. His plasma generator – which operates “without large vacuum chambers or other expensive equipment” – could make fusion energy practical.

(Dr. Curry is an engineer – not an economist – and doesn’t know the Energy Return on Investment (EROI) for his device or fusion generators which use his device. That – along with price – will be the metrics against which any energy generation strategy is ultimately measured.)

Dr. Curry also said that his device could be a breakthrough for “etching or other industrial modification processes”, since the plasma ring sticks to “whatever surface it is aimed at until it dissipates.” Further tweaks to his equipment could increase the “sticking” time.

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