The Fusion Challenge
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- An Epic, Human Challenge
- Energy Crisis
- The Case of Fusion
- Technical Challenge
- Cost effectiveness
- The “N” word
- Anti-Science Bias
- Fusion Research is underfunded
- Small Scale Fusion Alternatives are particularly underfunded
- Present Fusion Strategy: Big Government, Big Fusion
- Advantages: Leadership & National Spirit
- Disadvantage: Lack of Differentiation
- Disadvantage: Restricts Action to Government
- Omission: Investors
- Omission: Philanthropists
- Missed Opportunity: Leveraging Uncertainty
An Epic, Human Challenge
Our civilization is at a threshold, marked by an energy crisis and grappling with a collective action problem. Fusion could potentially resolve this crisis and then some. The enormous potential of fusion makes it imperative that we take it on. The uncertainties and difficulties require that we raise the level of our game.
We say “Fusion could potentially resolve this crisis” but “Fusion” is not a sentient being that can act upon a goal.
The challenges we face are not so much “science problems” or “energy problems” as they are human problems.
This is because it’s human beings (scientists) who do the science which may liberate fusion energy. Science doesn’t do itself.
It’s other human beings who fund/support those scientists. Scientists don’t fund themselves.
Yes, scientists are on the front lines of the problem, grappling with the physics, but they need our conscious commitment and material support.
As with any “overnight success”, the “fusion ex machina” solution won’t come about without effort on the part of many people. This is great news because it means we all have a role to play in the discovery of fusion! The sooner we appreciate and clarify our roles, the sooner we can get the job done.
This brings us to the big question: if we do the job, support and do the research, push the envelope of fusion all the way - will we have the solution to our problems? A venture into the frontier of science is fraught with uncertainty. While fusion is clearly achievable, affordable fusion has not yet been demonstrated and really cheap, civilization transforming fusion is in no way guaranteed. As such, the idea of fusion can’t be an excuse to ignore other energy solutions. Indeed, the quest for fusion needs to be integrated into the larger social, economic and technological challenges we grapple with.
This is a Big Hairy Human Challenge, worthy of our best. Let’s explore!
Today, most energy is produced the same way it was at the end of the 19th century, by burning fossil fuels to turn heat into work. Despite the pollution, green house gases and geopolitical conflict, humanity owes a great deal to these 19th century sources of energy. They took our civilization to a new level. Without this energy, the prosperity and quality of life at the scale that many of us experience would not be possible. Unfortunately, the prosperity didn’t reach everyone. And today we are literally running out of gas while much of the world still remains trapped in poverty.
Resource Accounting Problem
This situation is often seen as a resource accounting problem. On one side of the equation are our increasing energy needs, on the other side, dwindling supplies. For a sustainable civilization, these sides need to match up. If they don’t, civilization will grind to a halt. To achieve sustainability, we must reduce consumption, increase efficiency and increase the variety and supply of clean, affordable energy alternatives.
That seems straightforward, but there are a few snags. First, the sustainability conversation often takes on a zero sum cast. It suggests a future without growth, in which we are struggling to sustain the status quo, and headed for a downgrade. This puts people on the defensive. Second, Fossil fuels are easily harnessed energy supplies. In a world without an agreed on “triple bottom line”, they beat out any other source of energy in cost.
- As such, alternative energy sources are relatively uncompetitive.
- Attempts to enforce a “triple bottom line” to level the economic playing field quickly run into resistance. Energy information is contested, leading to confusion and “cognitive relativism.” The integrity of science comes into question.
- In any case, no clear alternative energy champion stands out. All energy options need to improve in some significant way . Information about alternatives is bewildering and often disputed. The possibility of improvements in technology via research is often ignored in discussions of energy. Subsidies and hidden costs obscure actual costs and add to the difficulty of true comparison.
- In order for energy technology to improve, significant research and development is required on all energy fronts. (This is contested. Some, who feel present renewable options are adequate, prefer subsidies rather than more research. Others, who feel the energy problem is overstated, prefer more drilling and resource exploitation, not more “science wool gathering”.)
- Those who accept the idea that substantial energy R&D is needed, lament the fact that neither the private nor the public sector invests the resources required.
- The public sector is mired in deficits and demands for fiscal austerity.
- Private firms face barriers including: “The higher price of clean energy technologies; knowledge spillover risks from private investment in research, inherent technology and policy risks in energy markets, the scale and long time horizon of many clean energy projects, and a lack of wide-spread enabling clean energy infrastructure. (Hayward et al, 2010)”
In short, what appears to be a basic resource accounting problem quickly devolves into a “collective action” problem, with high uncertainty and information costs.
Collective Action Problem
The term “collective action problem” describes the situation in which many people would all benefit from a certain action (mankind will benefit from energy research), which, however, has an associated cost (risk of not backing the energy option that succeeds and losing your investment) making it implausible that anyone will undertake it. The rational choice is then to undertake this as a collective action the cost of which is shared. For energy, most people think of government as heading up the collective action, but a mix of many institutional arrangements can be used.
Note: Skip the problem and go straight to our Fusion Finance Section to start working on the solution.
The collective action issue revolves around the question: “who’s going to pay for the R& D?” The private sector wants the public sector to take the risks, while many taxpayers and their elected officials today allege that the private sector will do a better job. Over the years there has been a steady erosion in the incentives for energy research and development . Into this breach, the most effective action is taken by the best organized – for example by those able to lobby for incentives and subsidies for their preferred renewable, or by companies and researchers that are better at selling an idea to investors. This adds an element of special interests “gaming the system” and further dilutes the credibility of energy research initiatives.
The “Information costs” are high because the answer to “which energy solutions are the best?” isn’t that simple. An accurate answer requires that we compare the true life cycle costs of all energy options now existing and herinafter conceived. The cost curves would have to take into account financial risks and subsidies. It would have to be dynamic, regularly updated with current events and breakthroughs in technology that come from research.
Note: Skip the problem and jump straight to our “Energy League and Brackets” campaign for a solution to the information problem.
The Spirit With Which we Approach the Problem
So far, we’ve described the energy crisis in terms of survival, which evokes fear; of sustainability, which evokes judgement; and as a collective action problem, which evokes suspicion of betrayal. In short, we’ve managed to hit a lot of anxiety buttons, but haven’t appealed to the best in people. We haven’t invoked the possibility of the best and highest human achievement in energy.
To appeal to the best, we ask:
- Could this be about more than survival?
- Is sustainability as good as it gets?
- Or is it possible that while exploring energy solutions we’ll come up with breakthroughs on par with the civilization boost that was represented by fossil fuels and the industrial age?
- Are there pleasant energy surprises that research can uncover?
- How do we increase the chances for such surprises?
Emphasis on sustainability and survival are essential, but they have the unfortunate effect of putting people in scarcity mode, which intensifies collective inaction paralysis.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the development of a strong research ethic with emphasis on exploration and creativity over scarcity may lead to better results including “enduring prosperity as a matter of course.” (Rushkoff, 256)
The questions to keep asking are:
- What does the universe hold in store?
- What are we human beings capable of?
- And what is the best way to coordinate the collaboration of people (and also leverage their competitive spirit) to address the collective action problem in energy?
We are in the midst of a great challenge. How we face it defines our character.
The case of fusion:
This brings us to fusion, a poster child for energy possibilities shackled by information and collective action problems.
Fusion energy comes from fusing the nuclei of light particles together to release an enormous amount of energy. Fusion is difficult because nuclei repel each other. It takes a lot of energy to overcome the repulsion to get them to fuse in the first place. Stars (such as our sun) are giant balls of plasma that burn with fusion energy. Their sheer mass and gravity enables them keep the nuclei confined so that they fuse. On Earth, we have to come up with more creative ways to do the job.
The good news is there have been significant advances in mainline fusion. Most notably, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) is projected to achieve “ignition” this year (more energy out than in). This is an exciting possibility. If NIF succeeds, it will be a major milestone for fusion. Following ignition, NIF will give way to LIFE (“Laser Inertial Fusion Energy”) which expects to turn out a commercial reactor in 15 years. Many other compelling ideas are ready to move forward, given funding (ASP, 2011).
The issue with many fusion ideas is not if they can ultimately be achieved, but whether or not they will be affordable.
The “N” word
Fusion is a type of nuclear energy. Fusion is not fission, but it is tarred with the same brush. Transparency, differentiation and education are required to put the nuclear hazards in perspective.
Anti Science Bias
Visit our “Pro research ethic” section. For some reason, people refer to cutting edge fusion research in a perjorative manner, with quotes like, “We don’t fund science projects,” or “forget about that science wool-gathering”.
Fusion research is underfunded.
Despite its enormous potential as an energy source, fusion faces stiff collective action problems. Fusion projects are considered expensive, risky, and restricted to government for development and funding. Said funding has been (and remains) erratic (Weisel, ASP, Synakowski .) The entire US fusion budget for the past 57 years is less than what was spent by BP for the gulf oil disaster ($40Bn for one accident – UK Guardian vs. $29Bn over 57 years for fusion (FPA)). It is also less than one third the cost of the Apollo program that put a man on the moon (ASP). Energy Secretary Chu’s FY 2012 energy budget features cuts to fusion, with the GOP pushing for even greater cuts.
Alternatives in fusion are particularly vulnerable
The projects that have suffered the most with cuts are what, for simplicity’s sake, we’ll refer to as fusion alternatives. These are often low budget items including university programs, various experimental devices such as the so called Innovative Confinement Concepts (“ICC”) and advanced fuel experiments (aneutronic fusion - the “spaceship” of fusion). The total cost for these projects is ~ $20-30 million per year, but their funding is down to $11 million.
The alternatives are considered compelling but somewhat speculative in comparison to mainline fusion. Their value lies in opening a broader avenue of fusion enquiry and providing “possible pleasant surprises in physics and technology” which many fusion scientists cite as necessary for fusion success (Ryutov , 2010).
Support of alternatives fits in with the overall fusion program as stated in the October 2007 FESAC report summary:
A program carried out so slowly and deliberately as to never make a wrong step may carry more risk than one which tries to move more boldly and accepts that it will make some mistakes and follow some blind paths. The principal strategy to mitigate risk is to implement a sufficiently broad program so that alternative approaches or technologies are available at each step.
Few people have heard of fusion alternatives or advanced fusion fuels. This is because most fusion outreach focuses on two multi-billion dollar multi-decade mainline approaches. You have to search much harder to find information on other fusion ideas. This is simply not an area where significant public outreach has been done.
Explicit emphasis on low budget alternatives is vital, first for their own continued existence, second for the possibility that they might accelerate the development of fusion, and third for the public relations benefits they confer to the fusion endeavor as a whole. These benefits include helping people (investors, philanthropists, individuals) see opportunities for action; making fusion seem immediate, accessible, fun and appealing; leveraging the “pleasant physics surprise” factor to open up possibilities; increasing public enthusiasm and interest.
Present Fusion Strategy: Appeal to government & mega projects
Most fusion advocates approach the fusion funding problem by appealing to central government for action and leadership. They look to the DOE or OFES to fight harder on the budget. They say the President should make a pro-fusion declaration similar to JFK’s “man on the moon” declaration. Or we hear, “Fusion needs a Manhattan project.” This strategy has advantages, disadvantages, and a few key omissions.
Advantages: Leadership is an essential part of a pro-fusion strategy
The slow pace of the fusion program is often attributed to a historic lack of government commitment and leadership. The current fiscal crisis, the threats to the fusion budget today and the steady erosion of small scale alternative fusion projects support this thesis, and suggest that things aren’t about to change any time soon.
With fusion under constant threat, making the case for American leadership is critical to its overall success. To this end, the American Security Project (ASP), has issued an excellent white paper titled “Fusion Energy: An Opportunity for American Leadership and Security.” (ASP, 2011). The paper concisely spells out the the advances that have been made in fusion so far. It also lists the dangers of inaction: If we don’t rise to the challenge, other countries will beat us and the longer we delay, the graver the security risk from nuclear (fission) proliferation will become.
The ASP paper calculates the budget required for the US to achieve commercial viability in fusion as $35 billion over the next 15 years.
“This breaks out as $15Bn for PILOT and CTF , about $5-8Bn for LIFE, and about $10Bn for associated and necessary research and development activities. In addition, the United States must meet its commitment of an additional $2Bn to support our small fraction of the ITER program.…It would be invested over a period of years, but would require a stable funding platform to enable rational planning and staff recruitment and development.” (ASP, p. 4)
The paper notes that it is less than 10% of what the US spent to bail out the banks. This approach works to address the collective action problem as far as government action is concerned. However, in its brevity, it misses key opportunities.
Disadvantage: Lack of Differentiation leaves alternatives vulnerable
As a white paper, the ASP document is necessarily brief. Its intention is not to dismiss fusion alternatives. A small portion of the $10Bn for “associated and necessary research and development activities” is meant to trickle down to the alternatives.
If we felt confident that this “appeal to leadership and mega projects” strategy would prevail today, we would be content to keep it simple, trusting in government to bring about a broad range of fusion research. Unfortunately, this is not the prevailing mood, and until it is, the alternatives are vulnerable: the OFES is fully aware of many excellent projects and is only holding back on funding because of budgetary limitations. Their strategy is to “make the hard choices” and not dilute support for the mainline projects.
We thus need to be proactive and explicit in support of a broader range of low cost approaches. This would help open up the landscape to potentially un-tapped actors and actions and increase the vitality and appeal of the fusion endeavor. Indeed, if managed properly, emphasis on the alternatives could bring about the necessary public support that creates the conditions to empower pro-fusion leadership at the top.
Disadvantage: Emphasis on large scale restricts action to government
Emphasis on a few mega, multi billion dollar projects, with a several decade turnaround time may signal confidence. On the other hand, the large scale of the mainline approaches scares away potential investors, philanthropists and individuals. The information signal sent here is that fusion is hopelessly complex and only big government can pursue it. This gives everyone else a passive role. Their actions are limited to wishing the fusion community well, writing a “strong letter of support” to their Congressfolk, wringing their hands and waiting to see what happens.
Omission: No mention of industry - lets them off the hook, and more importantly, doesn’t address their information needs.
In many industries, 70% of R&D is funded by the private sector, and 30% by government (Hayward et al, 2010). In fusion, almost 100% of R&D comes from government. In general, the Energy industry spends a far smaller proportion of its revenues on R&D than the industry average (0.3% vs. 3% industry average - Hayward et al, 2010). As far as industry accountability is concerned, there are many actions that can be taken together with other groups that want to see the energy industry assume more of the R&D burden. To begin with, this will require reaching out to connect with other groups and developing an energy industry leadership and accountability campaign with them, parallel to a “government leadership campaign”. This is already taking place via initiatives such as the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit – http://bnefsummit.com
While such a campaign may eventually pay off, more immediate results may be gained by considering industry information and institutional needs. These were touched on in an interview with Bill Weihl, Google Inc.’s “Green czar”. Google is considered a futuristic, philanthropically oriented organization, but it has yet to fund a fusion project. Per the interview, their reason for not funding fusion is:
…Unfortunately, we can’t fully evaluate all possible technologies, so we aren’t able to make that judgment call on every type of alternative energy. Fusion and cold fusion, for example, are both areas where we felt that we could not develop enough expertise. Furthermore, the amount of money that would be required to make real progress was prohibitive: if we put $10 million into something, well in a couple years they’d need another $50 million, and a couple years after that they’d need another $200 million and so on.
This is a clear call to action to the Fusion Community to supply useful information and support the development of practical institutional structures. (See our Finance Section for the action plan!) The problem for Google and other investors, is threefold.
- Lack of expertise (information) – investors are not aware of the breadth of projects and get neutral or negative signals from the fusion community itself which keeps the focus on the mainline. There is an acute need for contextual information on the multitude of fusion projects and possibilities to help build investor expertise and confidence. The fusion community could work together to come up with a ReNeW (Research Needs Workshop) type document about fusion alternatives, ICCs and Advanced fuels; they could also reach out to work with finance experts to develop more useful presentations of their work.
- Lack of Institutions – Weihls’ emphasis on runaway costs and the uncertainty of results underscores the need to develop institutions and instruments to enable systematic investment at the early stages while hedging one’s bets. Some examples: pooling fusion projects together via a “fusion fund” or “fusion bonds,” patent extensions and other instruments.
- Lack of Perspective – The health industry spends $95 billion a year in R&D – more than 3 times the amount that has been spent on fusion in 57 years. Many of these projects end in loss. What motivates expenditures in this high risk field? A study comparing the risks of health care research to fusion research would likely be favorable for fusion. Likewise, a study of the instruments and institutions the health care industry has developed to support research risks and how they could be adapted for fusion would be useful.
Missed Opportunity: Fusion Philanthropy
As with industry, the information signal given to philanthropists is that the job of fusion is too big for them. This is not true. There are many ways that fusion philanthropists can make a big difference:
Stop Gap measure to stop the losses in fusion: Time is running out for fusion alternatives. The US program remains underfunded, and the tough decisions have been made. Many smaller projects, especially university projects have already been terminated (Brown, Weisel). Others are threatened (see Appendix B: Fusion Alternatives in jeopardy or cut). The loss of these projects wastes the lives of physicists and the best years of their creativity. Supporting such programs is a natural fit for philanthropists, especially alumni of universities with fusion programs. Fortunately, these types of projects are also relatively inexpensive (starting at $100K). Fusion philanthropists can make a big difference by supporting and reviving some of these projects while working to develop a broader pool of funding sources (see “institution building” below).
Pursuit of Pleasant Physics Surprises: Investors are in search of prototypes and market-ready technology. This generates conservative pressure on fusion research, as researchers prematurely select ideas that have reactor potential, at the expense of exploring other fascinating options. Philanthropists can make a big difference by deliberately funding more experimental efforts at their earliest, least expensive stage, to incubate a wider pool of possible “pleasant physics surprise”(Ryutov).
Institution Building: Just as the philanthropic community doesn’t have much experience with fusion, the fusion community doesn’t have experience with philanthropy. For both parties there are concerns that prevent reaching out. The fusion community has experience with getting funding from the government. They fear that if they look to other sources, they will be cut off from government sources, even as those sources have dried up. Philanthropists, likewise, don’t want to foot a bill that government or industry should foot. This is a classic collective action impasse and reveals yet another area for philanthropist intervention:
Philanthropists can support projects that shift attitudes on funding , and that develop the institutions necessary to bring about consistent and appropriate funding by all potential actors. The ultimate institution building goal is to bring about crowd-sourced and funded fusion. Shifts in technology are making this more feasible.
Information, Education: Fusion philanthropists can make a big difference in energy and fusion education, supporting the development of materials that help clear up the information signals and create a strong pro-research ethic. Note that education without consideration of funding of research or future employment is inadequate.
Pro Fusion Culture: Finally, fusion philanthropists can make a big difference in cultural projects related to fusion. Such projects go beyond education to develop pro-fusion culture and a pro-research ethic. They get people to see themselves as actors in the advancement of our civilization. The potential in this area is largely untapped.
Missed Opportunity: Leveraging Diversity and Uncertainty
Those who pursue fusion know and love the adventure. For most people, however, the idea of nuclear physics is a turn off. The “N” word and radiation fears loom large for many. Those who get so far as to differentiate fusion from fission and recognize the greater safety of fusion, and particularly aneutronic fusion, still find fusion either intimidating, or worse, boring.
The standard emphasis on a few mega, multi-billion dollar, decade long projects makes things worse. It encourages public passivity. There’s no room for people to act. At best they can check in every few years for an update.
Emphasis on a variety of smaller scale projects together with a “fusion race” can help popularize fusion. In addition to their intrinsic value in increasing knowledge and potentially solving the energy problem, these projects (if marketed properly) can have broad public appeal that transfers over to the mega projects. Juxtaposing the approaches, in fact, is a big part of the appeal.
The current mainline approaches can be compared to stately galleys headed out across the ocean, scheduled to arrive on the other side in a few decades. The alternatives can be seen as a variety of scrappy vessels of various pedigree attempting to beat them. These vessels are considered more risky, but hold the possibility of a “pleasant physics surprise.” The allure of an “upset” beckons.
The value of launching a “fusion race”: The fusion race can be pitched as a classic tortoise and hare race. The multi-decade, multi-billion dollar ITER project is the tortoise. The various alternatives are the hares. (NIF/LIFE is a fox?) The OFES current policy seems to be to put everything into getting the tortoise across the finish line, while downplaying the hares.
In a climate of scarcity, hares are a luxury that dilutes funding away from the tortoise and increases the chances none of them will win the race. Hares are liabilities.
In a climate of uncertainty, however, where there is need for public support, hares can be an asset.
Even if none of the hares does win (and this is by no means certain), they nevertheless have great value. They get rid of “fusion fatigue”. Few people are interested in watching a tortoise walk for miles. The very idea of a 20-30 year program is exhausting. But if it’s a race…and there’s the possibility of a surprising, nimble upset…and there’s some gambling on the side…I’m in! As each new “hare” rises and falls, interest can be sustained over the long haul.
Fusion has long had to contend with a “credibility problem” leading to failure aversion. This stifles exploration. By embracing the uncertainty and adopting a “race” motif, there is an important shift. People are comfortable with losers on the path to an ultimate winner. The sports metaphor creates a broader space for a pro-research ethic to function.
In addition, the “race” motif drives self-education. The public will be more motivated to seek out information on the “candidates” so that they can decide who to root for. In addition, there may be untapped revenue streams. The key is for fusion outreach programs to leverage and build on this social energy by using a coordinated strategy.
Other benefits: The OFES “all hands on deck for ITER” mantra seeks consensus but masks discord. A multi-device approach leverages the appearance of discord for the benefit of the group. “Trash-talking physicists” become an engaging part of the show.
The point is that a shift in strategy from a few mainline approaches to a broader, multi-target approach has many advantages. As part of an integrated pro fusion strategy it can stimulate the enthusiasm and pursuit of information by the broader public, a public that includes investors, philanthropists, journalists and students, among others.