Monday, October 4, 2010

Get on with fusion !

It's about time the fusion people got on with it.  The scientific community has played with their toys long enough, doing 'elementary science' and building test reactors to get a 'better understanding' of the process.  Which has cost society billions of euros, dollars and other seashells that could have gone towards other useful things, like health care, education and energy-saving measures.

I'm not very concerned about that money.  I'd rather see that billions are used to build fusion test reactors than for waging war.  Fusion power research only costs a small fraction of waging war in various Pipelinistans.

What I am concerned about is the slow pace at which all this is happening.  If scientists are certain, as they have been saying for decades, that harnessing fusion power can be done, then the rest is engineering.  There is nothing to be better understood about fusion power, it is one of the universe's most elementary processes: throw hydrogen atoms against each other hard enough to overcome the repellant force of the protons in their cores, and they can fuse to make helium while generating humongous quantities of heat.  It happens in the Sun, as it does in every star.  it's what most of the universe as we know it runs on.

What is left is nuts and bolts.  Steel and other alloys.  Magnetic coils- superconducting coils perhaps.  Tubing.  Maybe powerful pulsed lasers if that is a better way to go.  Whatever.
Such things are typically done by plumbers on steroids.  Tell them you need a reactor vessel and they start drawing, then grab some steel plates and a welding torch.

Politicians have let themselves be taken for a ride long enough by the fusion scientists.  The ITER project is a case in point.  The top-notch international school and other comfortable perks for the scientists who will arrive in Cadarache to work there, were already built before the site for the reactor was even leveled. 
And what are they going to do?
Prove that they can sustain a fusion reaction for a few minutes at most, and generate a bit more energy than what has to go into sustaining the reaction.
After that they will start on building DEMO, a demonstration reactor that will function as a power plant, to show that fusion can actually be used to generate electricity.

But DEMO will never supply a single kilowatt-hour of power to the grid.  Oh no.  It will just sit somewhere, like ITER probably surrounded by the villas, schools and sports facilities of its scientific crew, for a decade or longer, proving (or not) that yes, the world could be saved from an energy crisis by fusion power.

Without actually doing so.

Meanwhile oil production is going into a decline that will never recover. Like any non-renewable resource, oil is running out, even if it will take decades before the last barrel is pumped. And burning up all that oil, or any other fossil fuel like coal or gas, is heating up the planet according to many self-declared climate experts, causing climate changes that many people will not like as they will get their feet wet or see their harvests fail (I have mixed sentiments about this - nobody is a real climate expert, as even the best scientists know next to nothing about what makes our planetary systems tick. But for the sake of argument, let's assume there is truth is those predictions). And no 'green', renewable resource like wind or solar will stand a chance in hell to replace petroleum. They are simply not reliable and energy-dense enough.
Now the world may continue to function without billions of oil-guzzling cars or jet planes, but it would be nice to have a reliable, dense and practically eternal energy source to produce electricity, so we can keep travelling by train, communicate, switch on the lights, watch tv, get on the internet to publish this kind of musings... Maybe even move around in little electric vehicles. Only a technology like fusion will offer that. Failing that we will burn every barrel and ton of fossil carbon we can extract, then burn down the forests and finally we will end like the people on Easter Island, with no resources at all, and most people will die.

If I were to be made dictator of one of the major countries involved in ITER (say France, where the thing is being built) I'd have all the scientists involved rounded up and tell them this:
“Ladies and gentlemen, you have been leading us on long enough.  You have been saying fusion power can be generated.  So here is the deal.  You build a fusion power plant that works, and that supplies at least 1000 megawatts to the national power grid of this country, and that plant must be operational and generating power  by 1 January 2020.  No more scientific toying around.  The world needs this.  We are on a war footing to save us from the energy crisis, global warming and peak oil.  There will be no more test reactors, no demonstration plants.  The only thing you will be allowed to work on is a fully operational and productive fusion power plant.
If that plant is not operational and supplying reliable power into the grid on New Year's Eve 2020, we will then conclude that fusion outside a star can not be made to work, and not a cent will be spent on it after that date.  The project will be closed for ever and you will be set to work on a biological farm milking goats and cutting hay - with a scythe.”


  1. I have read about that as well. The device developed by Bussard and now shrouded in secrecy as it's being financed by the American Department of Energy and the US Navy.
    I don't care what technology turns out to be the one that works. I do care about the fact that oil may run out, or become prohibitively expensive for normal people, and that the world's economy will pass a point of no return where the funds and energy to produce fusion reactors (or any other high-density technology) on a large scale will simply no longer be available. Right now there is atill cheap oil to fuel the development of alternative technologies. That won't last.
    If none of the fusion technologies can actually work, I would prefer that at some point hard choices are made and funds are spent elsewhere, instead of continuing to fund research into a 'maybe in the future' technology.