Opinion: Fusion project promises energy boon

December 22, 2013


— In a scientific complex on 88 bucolic acres near here, some astonishingly talented people are advancing a decades-long project to create a sun on Earth. When — not if; when — decades hence they and collaborators around the world succeed, their achievement will be more transformative of human life than any prior scientific achievement.

The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s (PPPL) focus — magnetic fusion research — began at the university in 1951. It was grounded in the earlier work of a European scientist then living in Princeton. Einstein’s theory that mass could be converted into energy had been demonstrated six years earlier near Alamogordo, N.M., by fission — the splitting of atoms, which released the energy that held the atoms together. By the 1950s, however, attention was turning to an unimaginably more promising method of releasing energy from transforming matter — the way the sun does, by fusion.

Every second the sun produces a million times more energy than the world consumes in a year. But to “take a sun and put it in a box” — the description of one scientist here — requires developing the new field of plasma physics and solving the most difficult engineering problems in the history of science. The objective is to create conditions for the controlled release of huge amounts of energy from the fusion of two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe; Earth’s water contains a virtually inexhaustible supply (10 million million tons) of deuterium, and tritium is “bred” in the fusion plant itself.

The sun is a huge sphere of plasma, which is a hot, electrically charged gas. The production and confinement of plasma in laboratories is now routine. The task now is to solve the problem of “net energy” — producing more electrical power than is required for the production of it.

Magnets produce a magnetic field sufficient to prevent particles heated beyond the sun’s temperature — more than 100 million degrees Celsius — from hitting the walls of the containment vessel. Understanding plasma’s behavior requires the assistance of Titan, one of the world’s fastest computers, which is located at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and can perform more than 17 quadrillion — a million billion — calculations a second.

As in today’s coal-fired power plants, the ultimate object is heat — to turn water into steam that drives generators. Fusion, however, produces no greenhouse gases, no long-lived nuclear waste and no risk of the sort of runaway reaction that occurred at Fukushima. Fusion research here and elsewhere is supported by nations with half the world’s population — China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the European Union. By one estimate, to bring about a working fusion reactor in 20 years would cost $30 billion — approximately the cost of one week of U.S. energy consumption.

Given the societal will, commercially feasible production of fusion energy is possible in the lifetimes of most people now living. The cost of operating the PPPL complex, which a century from now might be designated a historic site, is 0.01 percent of U.S. energy spending. PPPL’s budget is a minuscule fraction of U.S. energy infrastructure investment (power plants, pipelines). Yet the laboratory, which once had a staff of 1,400, today has only 450.

The Apollo space program was much less technologically demanding and much more accessible to public understanding. It occurred in the context of U.S.-Soviet competition; it was directly relevant to national security (ballistic missiles; the coin of international prestige); it had a time frame for success — President Kennedy’s pledge to go to the moon in the 1960s — that could hold the public’s attention, and incremental progress (orbital flights) the public could comprehend.

Because the fusion energy program lacks such immediacy, transparency and glamour, it poses a much more difficult test for the political process. Because of its large scale and long time horizon, the fusion project is a perfect example of a public good the private sector cannot pursue and the public sector should not slight. Most government revenues now feed the public’s unslakable appetite for transfer payments. The challenge for today’s political class is to moderate its subservience to this appetite sufficiently to enable the basic science that will earn tomorrow’s gratitude. 

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Ken Lassman 4 years, 5 months ago

Well, Ho, ho, ho! Curmudgeon George has donned his beard of white whiskers and given us a Christmas column that reads more like a glossy brochure selling a fast, red sports car, complete with a long-legged model resting alluringly along its sleek lines. Only instead of a muscle car, Mr. Will is selling us something he has mysteriously pulled from the back storage room: the fusion genie! You know, the genie that comes without a bottle because "a piece of the sun" is too friggin hot to be contained by any substance we've come up with so far?

Mr. Will's little PR piece from the folks who have made fusion into a multiple career pipe dream contains very little reality on the state of things in fusion research, which seems to me worth checking out. A particularly good overview of the history and future prospects of fusion has been written by a Daniel Clery, titled "A piece of the sun," and it chronicles the long history of sincere hopes and "solutions" that have been dashed into failed pieces by this genie with such bright prospects and steep requirements.

Check out the funding of the National Ignition Program, just the latest attempt to create a containable fusion environment that will produce more energy than it takes to create, and how it promised in 2009 that given lasers 100 times more powerful than tried previously (to the tune of 3.5 billion dollars), they would attain net energy surplus. They assured reaching this point by 2012 and everything has worked exactly according to plan and design, except for the net surplus. It still consumes more energy than it produces.

The next "last" hope is an international effort largely funded by the US called ITER, and guess what? It is mired in huge cost overruns and delays. So it has been over 60 years and countless billions of dollars spent, with not a single fusion event to show where more energy wasn't spent than produced, let alone done so in a manner where that surplus energy could be harnessed to make electricity. This issue, mis-characterized by Mr. Will as a minor next step, has been the crux of the barrier that has stopped fusion cold. And don't get me started about efforts toward "cold fusion!"

Standard nuclear energy plants used to produce electricity are based on fission, where unstable uranium atoms are rendered asunder, a process that produces such an overabundance of energy for boiling water that it has been described akin to cutting butter with a chainsaw. Fusion must be like cutting butter with a piece of the sun, no? So no thanks, Mr. Will; your uncharacteristic optimism is misplaced and doesn't shed any new light on a topic where history has repeatedly looked for solutions, only to be burned.

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