Confronting the Perception that Fusion is 50 Years Away

Posted by Rezwan Razani on Feb 17, 2012 at 04:45 PM
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Thank you to Scott Hsu for posting the following in the forums:

Most people who make their way to this forum have likely heard the quip that “fusion is 50 years away and always will be.”  Earlier in my career as a plasma physicist, I used to simply dismiss those quips as coming from people who didn’t know anything, and that simply higher levels of funding would get us there sooner. 

Two Main Reasons For Lack of Fusion Success

As I recently started to wonder more seriously about the origin of that quip, I now realize that even though higher levels of funding might get us there sooner, there are two main reasons why fusion has not been successful in obtaining those higher levels of funding, whether it be from government or private sources.

Lack of Uniform Level of Readiness Across all Critical Areas

I believe that the first fundamental reason fusion is not taken seriously is that there is no fusion approach that has reached a sufficiently uniform level of readiness across all its critical required areas of science and technology

For example, magnetic confinement (i.e., the tokamak) is the most scientifically mature and successful plasma confinement scheme, but the required plasma facing component (PFC) technology (along with its associated plasma-material interaction science) is difficult and is only starting to be addressed seriously by the mainline magnetic fusion program.  The high price tags and long lead times for both building high performance tokamaks and the needed, challenging R&D program in the PFC areas contribute to the reason why “fusion is 50 years away.” 

On the other hand, there are proposed fusion approaches such as magneto-inertial fusion (MIF) that should cost much less than a tokamak, and by using thick liquid blankets surrounding the fusion plasma, MIF might largely avoid the PFC problems and required development program.  The problem with MIF is that it is scientifically immature, and that much research is still required to demonstrate a high performing MIF plasma system.  But an MIF reactor could ultimately be much less costly and time-consuming than a tokamak reactor, if we can muster the will and funding to advance the science and performance of MIF.

Fusion Plasma Physics is Difficult

The second fundamental reason is that fusion plasma physics and engineering is difficult! 

Early on in fusion research, scientists were falsely optimistic that all the problems were about to be solved.  It has taken about half a century of hard work by very smart people to push magnetic confinement plasma physics to where it is today.  I dare say that no other area of fusion science, including inertial confinement fusion (ICF), is at the same level of scientific maturity and sophistication as magnetic fusion science. 

Every time scientists have tried to push the performance of their proposed fusion system, the plasma has found new ways to thwart them with newly discovered instabilities and other problems.  This might very well be what is happening with the National Ignition Facility (NIF) right now in their quest for ignition (and I sincerely hope they achieve it soon). 

Timeline Premature

We as fusion scientists must be honest with ourselves and respect nature.  Until we demonstrate the level of plasma performance for fusion needed by any fusion approach, it is simply too premature to put a timeline on it.  We need to do the serious scientific research for many fusion approaches so that other approaches have a chance to reach fusion conditions.  Hopefully some of these other approaches have easier and less costly paths to a reactor than does a tokamak. 

Fusion Catch 22

The difficulty with the science and engineering, however, places fusion in a catch-22 situation with respective to attracting private investment.  If scientists tell the truth about any given fusion concept that the scientific risk is still high, then private investors will shy away.  In order to convince most private investors to invest, scientists have to oversell and promise a fast-track schedule, and then when the physics turns out to be elusive and more difficult than anticipated, the promised timeline is not realized, and fusion gets another black eye.  I hope this doesn’t happen to General Fusion, which will soon be entering the phase of testing the most difficult physics of their approach.

Thus, to recapitulate, for most of the history of controlled fusion research (some 50+ years), fusion has been and still is 50 years away.  To continue on our present path of worldwide fusion development will not alter this entirely correct perception.  To seriously confront and overturn it, there are a few things that all fusion proponents should do: 

  1. commit themselves to bringing all critical areas needed for a fusion reactor to equally advanced levels of technological readiness (otherwise fusion will always be a science and not energy program),
  2. for proponents of non-tokamak fusion concepts, don’t oversell the readiness of your favored approach, but rather work toward establishing and demonstrating the scientific understanding needed to field a fusion-relevant experiment,
  3. re-examine inherent biases we all (especially mainline tokamak and ICF proponents) might possess about various fusion approaches with the goal of enabling a more level playing field for the less mature ideas, and
  4. think of ways to help open up new models of funding for fusion without overselling, from both government and private sources.

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I think the main reason has been lack of funding and the mismanagement of funding in the worst possible way. I mean, what they did was eliminate funding for nearly every type of fusion except a few methods chosen by politicians, .. and then didn’t even fund those adequately! In the end, the “big machine” concepts didn’t get enough funding AND the “little machine” ideas didn’t get funding. This was a worst of all worlds scenario. It virtually guaranteed failure.p0
A good example is the tokamak .. They cancelled all other programs in favor of laser and Tokamak .. but when time camee to fund a large tokamak they backed away .. ITER had been on the drawing books for 20 years before it finally got approved—we should have an operating ITER by now! Instead they are building a scaled back version of it.

If there were budget constraints, they should at least have funded the little projects instead of half-way funding the big projects and setting them up for failure.

Fusion was 50 years away if the funding had been kept at the level of funding it received in the 1960s. I believe there has been an 80 to 90% decline in fusion funding .. and it wasn’t a gradual decline of funding .. the cuts happened drastically in the 70s and early 80s.

You are correct.  My post is trying to tackle the question of the reasons for the lack of funding, both past and present.  How do we bring the fusion budget up to roughly US$1B/year?  And I don’t really care about the source: government vs private.  Scientists can help technically, according to the ways I outline above, but the public and concerned citizens have perhaps an even more important role to play in being vocal in their support for fusion energy development.


Meta Conversation

Take action!

Per Scott:

  1. Commit to broad based readiness;
  2. Proponents of non-tokamaks, don’t oversell
  3. Re-examine inherent biases (especially Mainline)
  4. Think of new ways to open up funding without overselling.

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