Why a US Jew joined an Iranian on a quest for the nuclear holy grail

Why a US Jew joined an Iranian on a quest for the nuclear holy grail

As world powers hammered out a nuclear deal, scientists Dr. Eric Lerner and Dr. Hamid Yousefi pursued the ever-elusive fusion in a bid for clean energy that would make ‘uranium enrichment obsolete’

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

LPP Chief Scientist Eric J. Lerner and Electrical Engineer Fred van Roessel (Courtesy)
LPP Chief Scientist Eric J. Lerner and Electrical Engineer Fred van Roessel (Courtesy)

It isn’t often that the words “Iranian nuclear physicists,” “American scientists,” “peace activism” and “global disarmament” can be successfully strung together in a single sentence. But then again, it isn’t often that a Jewish scientist from New Jersey teams up with an Iranian scientist to develop a cheap alternative to nuclear fission — one they say can take uranium entirely out of the equation — even as world powers hammered out an international accord on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

Back in 2012, when Iran appeared to be racing toward the bomb, US back channel talks with the Islamic Republic were underway, and an Israeli military strike on its nuclear facilities seemed imminent (and according to former defense minister Ehud Barak, had already been meticulously planned and abruptly called off on two occasions), Dr. Eric Lerner, Dr. Hamid Yousefi and Dr. Morteza Habibi made the following proposal in launching their “Fusion for Peace” campaign.

“As physicists in Iran and the US, we are proposing an alternative [to war]: starting a scientific and engineering collaboration between the two countries that could, if successful, make uranium enrichment obsolete, block proliferation everywhere, liberate the world from oil, and open up a new source of cheap, clean unlimited energy,” they wrote.

The answer, the three maintained, lies in aneutronic fusion — the holy grail of clean energy; the elusive, nondestructive cousin of nuclear fission; the still-unattained replication of the natural process that powers the sun.

“There is a risk that aneutronic fusion will take much longer than we think, despite recent encouraging advances. But the risks of war are far greater than the risks of trying to eliminate the causes of war. And the potential rewards — both for peace and for the development of a cheap, clean energy source that can replace both fossil and fission — are enormous.”

While an international research effort on fusion in unlikely to have swayed the Islamic Republic to abandon its existing nuclear program, for Lerner and his associates it is in clean, cheap energy extracted from the fusion of hydrogen and boron, through the use of a 50-year-old device called the dense plasma focus (DPF), that hopes for global nuclear disarmament ultimately rest.

Harnessing the power of the sun

Harnessing low-cost energy through nuclear fusion — the fusion of two atoms, generating huge amounts of energy and little radioactive waste — has long been sought by scientists, though to date, none have succeeded in producing a larger amount of energy from a reaction than the amount put in.

Government projects and international efforts, including the massive Iter project between the US, EU, China, Japan, Korea, India and Russia, primarily center around the tokamak device — a decision that Lerner says he and other scientists believe is “very misguided.”

“At a time when none of us know for certain what the best route is or what a feasible route is to practical fusion energy, it’s a mistake to put all of our eggs in one basket,” he said.

Meanwhile, privately funded fusion companies, like Lerner’s LPP Fusion, are tackling fusion research from other angles. Like the countless attempts before it, all the fusion efforts may prove to be dead ends, but several small companies are nonetheless holding the attention of prominent investors. General Fusion, a company based in British Columbia and backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, bases itself on a method of magnetized target fusion (MTF). California-based Tri Alpha Energy, whose research centers on a colliding beam fusion reactor (CBFR), has garnered support from big names such as Microsoft’s Paul Allen.

Lerner’s LPP Fusion, initially funded by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and now backed by private investors, is “a combination of using a specific device, the dense plasma focus, and a fusion fuel which is a combination of hydrogen and boron,” and, according to Lerner, “gives the best hope of getting a safe clean energy source that is much cheaper than any existing energy source.”

To achieve fusion, “you need three ingredients,” continued Lerner. “You need very high temperature, which we have achieved. We’ve achieved a temperature of over 1.8 billion degrees Celsius, which is enough to burn this fuel. You need to confine it for a certain amount of time, which doesn’t have to be very long, which we’ve also achieved. What we haven’t achieved is a very high density, almost a solid density, and that’s what we’re working on now.”

Both the fuel materials — hydrogen and boron — and the device itself are accessible and relatively inexpensive, Lerner said.

The dense plasma focus device in the LPP Fusion lab in Middlesex, New Jersey (Courtesy)
The dense plasma focus device in the LPP Fusion lab in Middlesex, New Jersey (Courtesy)

And right now, he added, the country leading research efforts in aneutronic fusion with the dense plasma focus is Iran.

An unlikely partnership

Yousefi and Lerner first made contact around 2009, with Yousefi later traveling to the US and taking up the position of chief research officer at Lerner’s LPP Fusion in Middlesex, New Jersey. Yousefi resigned from the company this past year after his wife and son were denied a visa to the US and returned to Tehran’s Plasma Physics Research Lab.

Prior to his “informal collaboration” with Yousefi and other Iranian scientists, Lerner said he consulted with the US Department of Commerce to ensure that he was not contravening any US sanctions.

Dr. Hamid Yousefi in the LPP Fusion lab in Middlesex, New Jersey (Courtesy)
Dr. Hamid Yousefi in the LPP Fusion lab in Middlesex, New Jersey, in March 2015 (Courtesy)

“We went to some trouble to make sure we weren’t in any way violating the sanctions,” he told The Times of Israel. “This is not an economic agreement. No money has changed hands. This is an agreement purely for the purpose of scientific publication. Such efforts that are aimed at scientific publication, not at propriety technical knowledge are specifically exempt from the sanctions.”

Apart from Yousefi, Lerner said he was working with Iranian scientists who reached out to him following the “Fusion for Peace” initiative, and also has an “informal collaboration with other scientists, some of whom are in Iran trying to simulate our device, in computer simulation.”

Iran, Lerner said, “happens to be the country that has the highest number of active research groups using the type of device we’re using, the dense plasma focus.”

The device was invented simultaneously in the US and Soviet Union in the 1960s, and while Lerner said he couldn’t explain “100 percent” why the DPF remains popular in Iran, he speculates that it’s a combination of past collaboration with the Soviets, advocacy by scientists like Yousefi, and the economical value of the machine for research purposes.

Lerner, a secular Jew, said his religion never came up in talks with the scientists. As for his feelings toward the Jewish state, the chief scientist — who emphasized that these are his personal feelings, and do not in any way reflect those of his company — takes issue with the jumbling of religion and state in both Israel and Iran.

“The United States is founded on certain principles and one of them is the strict separation of religion and state functions. I think that any state entity, and obviously both Israel and Iran qualify, that mixes up the running of government with the running of religion, creates huge, multiple problems, including what is the status of people in non-favored religions. So I’ve always felt that the establishment of a purely Jewish state violates the basic principles that I think are central to running a democracy. And a democracy can only be a secular democracy,” he said.

The end of nuclear weapons?

In Lerner’s semi-utopian vision, if all goes to plan, the world could see a day when diplomacy takes a backseat to science.

“If this energy source can be successfully developed, and of course it’s still in a research stage…. If that energy source, which we call focus fusion, was developed, there would be no reason for Iran, the United States, Russia, Israel, any country to have access to nuclear fission materials,” he said. “As we say, you could basically put a lock on the uranium mines. You could ban uranium.”

Lerner noted that fusion would not solve the problem of existing nuclear stockpiles (and does not note the problem of countries who would attempt to pursue nuclear weapons for malevolent aims, regardless of the restrictions on uranium). But “in terms of more nuclear weapons being established, it would basically phase out entire nuclear fission industry,” he said.

Three years after launching “Fusion for Peace,” Lerner is also not giving up on international scientific collaboration on fusion, which would include Iran.

“Are we still advocating such cooperation? Yes. Do we think it’s a possibility? Yes,” he said. “Has it occurred yet? No, obviously not.”

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