Mankind is on the Verge of Fusion Ignition

Posted by Rezwan Razani on Oct 11, 2012 at 12:04 PM
What do you think about this? Let us know in the comments below!

And this is how we respond.

Updates, 2013

August 13, 2013  NIF “high foot campaign” triples neutron yield.  And more recently:

Previously (2012)

_ _ _ And what prompted the initial draft of this article here_ _ _ _ _ _

What Happened (or rather, what didn’t) on Sept. 30, 2012:

As noted in the NY Times, The NIF fusion project did not achieve ignition on September 30, 2012.  The deadline was set for the end of fiscal year.  It passed.  Congress pursed its lips.  Financial analysts tapped their calculators.  Some green energy fans said some hurtful zero sum things along the lines of cannibalizing fusion for renewables (spoiler alert, there isn’t much to cannibalize). 

As for me, I’m still coming to terms with the idea that mankind is on the verge of fusion ignition!!! 

Talk about burying the lead.  We’re so close that they are setting dates.

Wasn’t fusion supposed to be decades away?  Who is managing this story?

I’ve known the NIF group has been closing in on ignition since last year, but like everyone else, I have been sober and restrained about the prospect.  In fusion, we downplay getting excited by a milestone until well after it has been achieved, tested, verified and triple verified.  No false alarms allowed.  There are a couple of other fusion projects purporting to be a year, two years away.  My enthusiasm is likewise curbed for them.

Why this stoic veneer?  Ignition is a phenomenal, transcendent, mind-boggling milestone.  None of us can be truly prepared for the shock. 

Ah, but the NIF team hasn’t smashed the ignition milestone yet.  Fusion continues to beckon and mock mankind.  You think you’re mankind enough?  Hah.

Why didn’t NIF achieve ignition on schedule?

This question is unanswered in the NY Times and subsequent opinion pieces.  What’s the specific technical problem?  How will our brilliant scientists solve it?  How many monumental challenges have already been solved to get to the point where they had the confidence to set an ignition date?  An article explaining the specifics will emerge soon, at which point I shall link to it here. 

For now, word is that the plastic in which the fuel is contained interferes with the plasma, contaminating it more than was expected.  Further tweaks are required, or perhaps that lining has to be rethought.  (Apparently, within the Hohlraum, the fuel is further contained by an unimaginably thin plastic lining). 

What is Ignition? 

“Ignition” in fusion refers to the moment when a controlled fusion device generates more energy than is used to run the device: more energy out than in.  Achieving ignition would be an unprecedented, phenomenal milestone for humanity.  A clear signal that fusion is here and means business. 

Note that being the first to achieve ignition wouldn’t necessarily mean being the best.  There are many other fascinating fusion approaches that some argue would be better (i.e., cheaper)  in the long run.  But first to cross ignition will be an undeniably proud distinction and will encourage people to invest in a broader range.  The fusion race will be on.

Response to Delayed Gratification.

If you’re working toward fusion, the NIF deadline slip is a bummer.  Delayed gratification always is.  This is not, however, cause to toss the fusion program. 

Unfortunately, “tossing fusion” is the first thing some want to do.  Let’s not give in to that.  Let’s turn the conversation around.

Conversation with the Green Community

The conversation is not off to the best start.  Thank you to Linda and Doug for sending me the link to this article by Joe Romm:  “NY Times: Funding for fusion ‘better spent on renewable sources of energy that are likely to be cheaper and quicker’” 

As you might gather from the title, Romm is ready to dismantle the fusion effort. Let’s break it down and see what the options are for more constructive collaboration.

Basking in Sunlight

Romm starts with, “I am a big proponent of harnessing the power of fusion - from 93 million miles away.” 

Great opening!  It brings us straight to the heart of the matter.  Here you see, on a hill, a solar energy proponent and a fusion proponent.  Both bask in the sunlight, but they dream of different things.

The solar energy proponent is content to bask in the ample, but diffuse, light of the sun, soaking up second hand fusion. 

The fusion proponent is not content and wants to figure out a way to do what the sun does, only better.  To scale. 

The solar proponent counters that this is unnecessary, wasteful and impossible. 

Arguments ensue about the diffuse quality of renewables vs. the likelihood of fusion to ever get working.  Meanwhile, a coal proponent starts jamming dynamite into the hill to scalp it for coal, which he claims will be clean, and over yonder, a natural gas proponent commences fracking.

I suspect that when all the facts and figures are added up, the conclusion our protagonists come to will be: that we need to pursue a broad and diversified strategy towards energy security; that we are not in a position yet to close off our options.  We need to go forward, full tilt.  The planet, peace and prosperity are at stake. 

But this moment in the sun isn’t about the facts or the logic driving the pursuit energy.  It is about the heart and soul of the matter. 

Underneath the very sensible and logical energy argument, Fusion proponents are driven by something deeper: by the call of the sun, the theft of fire from the gods, the theft of star power from the universe.  This is a primal, mythic drive that comes from a profound place of wonder and a need to know how the universe works and what we, as human beings, are capable of within it. 

Can we do what stars do? 

If we can’t, what does that make us? 

If we can, what will that make us? 

And what are we, if we don’t even try?

Romm doesn’t have much confidence in mankind’s ability to solve the fusion challenge.  He doesn’t see the point.  “Fusion is done by our sun really, really well and for free.  Here on Earth in reactors…not so much.” 

True, human-made fusion reactors don’t, at present, compare favorably with the sun.  However, once we crack fusion, even our most inefficient, bulky designs will be more efficient than the sun.  Technically, they will be billions of times more efficient.

This is because the sun, that huge fusion reactor in the sky, uses all that mass and power just to TWINKLE. 

Lawrence Lidsky Critique and Fusion’s Message Complexity Problem

Thanks to Romm for pointing out the insightful 1983 Lawrence Lidsky article, “The Trouble with Fusion”. 

Jumping to Conclusions

Lidsky’s article is a constructive critique of the fusion program.  It is not, however, a condemnation of fusion, as Romm implies:

I have never been a big fan of earth-bound fusion, in part because I was an M.I.T. undergrad in October 1983 when Prof. Lawrence Lidsky published his famous critique, “The Trouble With Fusion,” in the MIT-edited magazine, Technology Review, with that unforgettable cover quoting his devastating conclusion.

The alleged conclusion from the cover quote is, “Even if the fusion program produces a reactor, no one will want it.” 

Harsh words.  Taken out of context.  Lidsky’s conclusion was much different.

In the article, Lidsky was lamenting the narrow focus of the fusion program.  He was pointing out the possibly insurmountable engineering challenges facing magnetic fusion reactors with deuterium-tritium (“DT”) fuel.  His conclusion was that fusion alternatives, in particular aneutronic (“neutron-free”) fusion fuels had a far more promising end game.  His goal was to inspire America to take on a more sweeping fusion program involving alternatives, even though very little had been done in this area and it would require starting up a whole new avenue of inquiry.

Given the uncertainty in this area, he urged a long term view, which he felt was justified because the approach is even more promising than the present fusion path.

We have no guarantee that an answer exists.  But we know that if it does, it can meet the original goal of the fusion program - universally available, inexhaustible, environmentally benign power.  Perhaps we should not be greatly troubled that our first attempt to develop such a marvelous thing will not be the success we had hoped.  We can go on to seek a better alternative.

The Danger of Asking to Try New Things

Unfortunately, Lidsky’s article backfired on him.  It backfired in 1983, and it backfires again in Romm’s retelling. 

Lidsky wrote the article because “I couldn’t get an internal discussion going.” 

After he wrote it, rather than stimulating discussion and gaining funding for alternatives, Congress reduced funding for the whole program.  Lidsky resigned.  By the end of the decade funding had fallen to 50% of the 1983 high water mark. 

This drove home an important lesson to the fusion community:  don’t talk about alternatives.  Especially not in public.  Just keep on track and get the core project to work and then hopefully more funding will flow for those alternatives later - the spaceship beyond the stagecoach. 

This story is lost on Romm.  He skims Lidsky’s article (perhaps he just read the cover) and concludes that, “it’s time to scale back the fusion effort toward very long-term research.” 

Lidsky loses again.  I suspect he would prefer, “it’s time to scale UP and diversify the fusion effort, fully supporting it with enlightened, long term commitment”.   

Long Term Strategy

The “long term” commitment advocated by Lidsky is not a prediction that fusion has to take a long time.  Rather it is about providing permission for fusion to take the time it needs.  It is about taking a broader, diverse approach up front, having freedom to explore and fail, trying different fusion approaches without guarantees. 

There is a paradox at work here.  A “long term” diversified approach could make fusion happen faster.  Bigger risks taken up front are theorized to pay off in better options down the line and in quicker innovation. 

Speaking of “long term” - the fusion horizon is shrinking.  If you notice, the NIF story is about a fusion approach that they were hoping would achieve ignition THIS YEAR. 

The Fusion Research Ecosystem

The Lidsky article was written in 1983.  It was critical of magnetic fusion with DT fuel. It advocated for alternatives.  That was about 30 years ago.  Back then, NIF was a glimmer in researcher’s eyes.  Today, it is on the verge of ignition.  Progress has been made in magnetic fusion with DT fuel that increase its viability.  And alternatives continue to struggle for recognition and scrounge for support and a chance to prove they can well exceed magnetic fusion’s promise. 

One of the goals of the Fusion Energy League is to acquaint people with the broader fusion experimental parameter space, and to track progress.  The important takeaway is that we need to strengthen the fusion research ecosystem, and fight for expanded funding and promote policies that make it easier to explore alternatives and to pursue innovation in a flexible, responsive and dedicated research environment. 

The Money Thing

Romm’s illogical zero sum conclusion is that we should “scale back the fusion effort…and use most of the money for…energy efficiency and renewable energy.” 

I hate to break it to you but we won’t get much money from cannibalizing fusion.  As I found out by attending the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit, Fusion expenditures are a few thousandths of rest of the new energy sector: Seven years ago, spending in the Clean Energy Sector was $50 Billion/year. By 2011 it had increased to $260Bn, for a total of a Trillion dollars over the past 7 years. 

In contrast, total US spending on fusion in the last 7 years is in the $5 Billion range (and in the last 60 years, in the $20Bn range).  Quite modest for a program that’s trying to unleash unlimited energy and take humanity to the heights of technological achievement.

For some reason, folks still seem to think that governments spend unfathomable sums of money on fusion.  Indeed, Romm misquotes the Times as saying that the NIF project is, “one of the most expensive federally financed projects ever.” 

What the Times actually says is that at $5 billion (spent over ten years), NIF is “one of the most expensive federally financed science projects ever”.  The modifier “science” should tip you off to the poverty here.  It also brings up another important issue, that our country doesn’t spend enough on basic science research. 

Yes, the NIF project cost $5 billion over 10 years.  But consider this: BP spent over $40 Billion on one oil spill in one summer. 

That’s right.  One oil spill in ONE SUMMER cost more than the ENTIRE US FUSION PROGRAM TO DATE. 

More perspective on the money thing can be found at the billion dollar gram

We complain about how long it is taking to bring fusion online, and how expensive it is.  And yet here mankind is blissfully burning up in a few centuries what took the planet billions of years to generate; and creating untold costs in planetary systems chaos and regional wars in the process.

I love solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. Yet I can’t help think that we need some real energy muscle to unseat oil and gas.  We need to make the jump from resource based to knowledge based energy.  We need fusion to succeed.  But it might not succeed, so we need renewables to succeed and expand.  We have common cause and a ton of work to do.  Let’s work together.  And let’s add next generation nuclear energy into the mix too.  They have a lot to offer.

Enough of the zero sum game. Let’s get collaborative and let’s get busy.

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