Among his many—mostly decidedly unscientific—achievements, Penthouse magazine founder Bob Guccione was probably the world's biggest private investor in fusion technology. Guccione, who died at age 79 in Texas yesterday, launched the magazine Omni in 1978 with a mixture of serious articles about science and technology as well as science fiction. He got hooked when he read an interview with fusion scientist and inventor Robert Bussard in the pages of his magazine.
Bussard, who had previously worked on fusion at Los Alamos National Laboratory, had set up a company, International Nuclear Energy Systems Company (Inesco) to develop a compact tokamak design he had devised. His innovation was to equip the device with extremely powerful electromagnets to allow it to heat a small volume of plasma to high enough temperatures so that nuclei would fuse and generate heat. Mainstream tokamaks were getting larger and larger in an effort to reduce heat loss.
According to Robin Herman in her book Fusion: The Search for Endless Energy, Guccione invited Bussard over to dinner and heard about his trouble getting government funding or private investors. In 1980, Guccione decided to back the project with an initial $400,000.
Bussard set up the business in San Diego, California, and soon had a staff of 85. Other investors failed to materialize, and Guccione eventually sank up to $17 million in the project. When a public share issue for Inesco in 1984 flopped, the pair were forced to wind up the project.
The idea of a compact, high-field tokamak did not die, however. Bruno Coppi of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who aided Bussard on the original design, has continued to work on the idea with the Alcator tokamak at MIT, which forms the basis of the Ignitor project, an Italian-Russian collaboration that is going to be built in Russia.
"He contributed to a line of scientific work which has proved sound," Coppi told ScienceInsider, who lamented the fact that governments "tend to like the large-scale enterprises" in this area. Inesco "was ahead of its time," he said. Although the basic science involved had yet to be proven, "it was headed in the right direction."