An interdisciplinary applied plasma technology research program in collaboration with a higher-level institution in Illinois would bring together several elements of work already being done, or previously having been done by university scientists, creating a ‘critical mass’ able to attract more substantial funding in the future than such efforts have historically, on an individual basis. It would broaden the appeal of the school’s programs in Aerospace and Electrical Engineering and Physics, in particular, expanding their focus beyond concentrations in computing-related electronics, applied imaging, astrophysics, and high energy particle studies, respectively. Finally, it would establish a path and vehicle for commercialization of research results into the industrial base of the United States and globally.

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To be known as the “Space, Plasma, High-energy Electrostatics Research & Engineering Laboratory”, or “SPHERELab”, the proposed facility is a joint effort by ARES Institute and Institute and Interstellar Exploration Concepts, IEC Inc., (see below) and will engage academic and industrial research clients as well as perform government or foundation sponsored plasma research. It will establish a distinct identity as a Center of Excellence for plasma and high-energy physics and applications. Mr. Matthew Travis will serve as the initial Director of the laboratory with a commitment to hire a full-time Director with significant relevant experience as soon as practical and within the first year of establishment of the laboratory.

Indeed, the primary goal of the laboratory proposed herein is to bridge the gap between university and other publicly funded research and the commercial sector. There are many concepts that have been researched in a laboratory setting and matured to the stage that they are ripe for development into commercial products but have been unable to make that leap. This is due to many factors, usually relating to funding or inability to build commercial interest. An R&D laboratory that operates in the space between pure research and commercialization would be able to foster that transition and growth. In contracting terminology, it is analogous to going from an SBIR or NIAC Phase II contract to completing a Phase III and beginning commercialization of the research products.

The ideal locations for the plasma technology laboratory would be either a new facility designed specifically for high-energy research and the fusor apparatus or a vacant facility that has previously been used for aerospace, laser and/or high energy research. The facility should be located on or adjacent to a university campus or at a supportive R&D industrial park. One potential location could be the University of Illinois Research Park (https://researchpark.illinois.edu/).

The laboratory will undertake difficult, high-risk/high-reward investigations in each of the six principal sectors previously identified in the Objectives, the relative activity and prominence of each dependent upon the degree of external funding that can be developed in that program area.

Advancements in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning since the turn of the Century, combined with modern High Performance Computing platforms have enabled research in the plasma and fusion sciences far beyond what was possible just a couple decades ago. Equally important, these technological advances enable research to be conducted far more economically than in the past. SPHERELAB will collaborate with our industry and university partners to fully utilize advanced capabilities in AI/ML to stay on the leading edge of science and technology, especially in the development of commercial products and services.

The primary focus of the laboratory’s work will be research into applications of Inertial Electrostatic Confinement fusion for aerospace applications and the eventual development and commercialization of neutron-free “aneutronic” power and propulsion systems. Fusion is the ideal technology for terrestrial and space-based power systems and high impulse propulsion. It holds the promise of clean energy on Earth and the potential to open the door to truly deep space exploration beyond Earth and even beyond our solar system.

The range of potential applications of Inertial Electrostatic fusion in aerospace is vast. As described by Dr. Robert Bussard in his paper, “Inertial Electrostatic-Fusion Propulsion Spectrum: Air-Breathing to Interstellar Flight”2, IEC fusion technology has potential in air-breathing hypersonic point-to-point transport, orbital tugs and transfer vehicles in Earth orbit and cislunar space, and rapid transport, both uncrewed and crewed, to Mars and beyond