Fusion research

Research into fusion power, or fusion research for short,
is a subject at the junction of science, technology, economics, and politics.

Fusion power offers vast potential to solve critical world problems,
most notably,
  • global warming and
  • dependence on rapidly vanishing fossil fuel reserves
(this latter entails a national security issue,
as most of the world’s reserves of fossil fuels
are not located in the United States).
For more information,
visit the U.S. Fusion Energy Science Program or Fusion Power Associates.

Considering the great benefits, to the nation and to the world,
from developing an economic way to obtain power from fusion,
it is surprising that the United States spends so little
on research into fusion power
(see, e.g., this One Pager, or for more, scroll down to Budget here,
or see the historical data here);
we are talking from $.3G to $.5G per year
(G = giga = billion = 109, so, to illustrate,
$.5G = $500M = $500,000K = $500,000,000),
which seems paltry considering the potential benefits.

The question, to me, is:
How much money can the scientific and technological community
productively absorb to advance this research?

Evidence is that it can absorb considerably more than it is now getting,
but how much more?
To answer this question, it seems to me the best approach would be
to ask the National Academy of Sciences to appoint a panel
to investigate precisely that question.
The panel would report back to Congress and the executive,
which would then make available the funding level
that offered the optimal combination
of achieving progress while avoiding undue risk.

A reasonable starting point for such a panel would be
the National Research Council’s 2001 report
“An Assessment of the Department of Energy’s
Office of Fusion Energy Sciences Program”
for the book in HTML, click here;
for more on the web, click here.
That report made seven specific, concrete, recommendations,
listed in its Executive Summary.
Note that its seventh recommendation was:
Recommendation 7.
There should be continuing broad assessments
of the outlook for fusion energy and
periodic external reviews of fusion energy science.
Have those contining broad assessments have been done?
Maybe so, but I don't know (yet).

In any case, questions I would like to be asked now are:
  1. Are those recommendations still valid, five years later?
    (Probably more crucially:)
  2. Have those recommendations received
    an adequate and desirable level of financial support?
    (One would suspect, just based on general knowledge,
    the answer is almost surely “No.”)
  3. What additional initiatives are desirable now, starting in 2006?

Miscellaneous Comments


The well-known NYT columnist Thomas Friedman’s latest book is titled
Hot, Flat, and Crowded.
Tonight he gave a talk summarizing the book.
He gave a list of (five) major problems that he considered humanity to be facing,
and, as I understood it, stated rather emphatically that they could all be solved, or at least greatly mitigated,
if someone could come up with a cheap, clean way of producing electrons,
by which I presume he meant a cheap, clean source of power.
(I’m sure the book would clarify this, but frankly I haven’t read the book.)

He left the talk before I could ask him a question that I thought relevant
to both his concerns and the subject of this post.
Let me phrase the question here,
together with a bit of context-setting preamble,
and perhaps someone reading this can bring it to his,
or someone else’s, attention.
Here goes:

Most people, when they establish a budget,
make a distinction between what is essential and what is “nice to have”.
Well, if one believes what he said in his talk,
coming up with a cheap, clean source of power
is absolutely essential to
the long-range continuation of anything resembling
the standard of living much of the world has become accustomed to
in the last few centuries.
On the other hand, so far as I can tell,
most medical research falls under the “nice to have” category.
If the world fails to cure cancer, heart disease,
or any other of the medical problems
that have afflicted the world for lo these many millennia,
we (the human race) won’t be in worse shape,
rather in just the same shape.
But again, to repeat myself,
if we fail to come up with reductions in hydrocarbon pollution
and a replacement for fossil fuels,
we will be in drastically worse shape.

If you believe all that, or at least a reasonable fraction of that,
then the question is:

Why does the U.S. government spend
on the order of $30 billion a year on medical research,
and only a few hundred million dollars per annum
on research into fusion power?

In Hot Pursuit of Fusion (or Folly)
New York Times Science Times, 2009-05-26


Here in a dry California valley, outside a small town, a cathedral of light is to be dedicated on Friday. Like the cathedrals of antiquity, it is built on an unrivaled scale with unmatched technology, and it embodies a scientific doctrine that, if confirmed, might lift civilization to new heights.

“Bringing Star Power to Earth” reads a giant banner that was recently unfurled across a building the size of a football stadium.

The $3.5 billion site is known as the National Ignition Facility, or NIF. For more than half a century, physicists have dreamed of creating tiny stars that would inaugurate an era of bold science and cheap energy, and NIF is meant to kindle that blaze.

In theory, the facility’s 192 lasers — made of nearly 60 miles of mirrors and fiber optics, crystals and light amplifiers — will fire as one to pulverize a fleck of hydrogen fuel smaller than a match head. Compressed and heated to temperatures hotter than those of the core of a star, the hydrogen atoms will fuse into helium, releasing bursts of thermonuclear energy.

The project’s director, Ed Moses, said that getting to the cusp of ignition (defined as the successful achievement of fusion) had taken some 7,000 workers and 3,000 contractors a dozen years, their labors creating a precision colossus of millions of parts and 60,000 points of control, 30 times as many as on the space shuttle.

“It’s the cathedral story,” Dr. Moses said during a tour. “We put together the best physicists, the best engineers, the best of industry and academia. It’s not often you get that opportunity and pull it off.”

In February, NIF fired its 192 beams into its target chamber for the first time, and it now has the world’s most powerful laser, as well as the largest optical instrument ever built. But raising its energies still further to the point of ignition could take a year or more of experimentation and might, officials concede, prove daunting and perhaps impossible.

For that reason, skeptics dismiss NIF as a colossal delusion that is squandering precious resources at a time of economic hardship. Just operating it, officials grant, will cost $140 million a year. Some doubters ridicule it as the National Almost Ignition Facility, or NAIF.

Even friends of the effort are cautious. “They’ve made progress,” said Roy Schwitters, a University of Texas physicist who leads a federal panel that recently assessed NIF’s prospects. “Ignition may eventually be possible. But there’s still much to learn.”

Dr. Moses, while offering no guarantees, argued that any great endeavor involved risks and that the gamble was worth it because of the potential rewards.

He said that NIF, if successful, would help keep the nation’s nuclear arms reliable without underground testing, would reveal the hidden life of stars and would prepare the way for radically new kinds of power plants.

“If fusion energy works,” he said, “you’ll have, for all intents and purposes, a limitless supply of carbon-free energy that’s not geopolitically sensitive. What more would you want? It’s a game changer.”


[In my opinion, this project, and other projects seeking ways to harness fusion,
are a hell of a lot more worthwhile than
the far more expensive and extensive research
that the federal government funds into medicine.
The medical research budget should be slashed,
with the savings going into fusion and other energy research,
or just reducing the deficit.

As to why cancer research gets so much spent on it, see here.]


Zeal for Dream Drove Scientist in Secrets Case
New York Times, 2010-09-28


In 1988, after nine years at the weapons lab, he left and embarked on a personal crusade to achieve what had eluded thousands of other scientists: a controlled version of nuclear fusion, the violent process that powers the Sun, the stars and hydrogen bombs. His proposal — the use of a big laser — was considered among the most futuristic of the alternatives on the table.

Skeptical of federal plans for laser fusion, he promoted his own as cheaper, faster and far more likely to succeed. Its wavelength was much longer, and its blasts of concentrated light far easier to achieve. He dismissed resistance to his plan as an overzealous commitment to the status quo.

“It’s a cultural thing,” he told The New York Times in 1988. “They don’t want to admit something different.”

He won guarded approval. A Los Alamos panel led by Gregory H. Canavan, a respected senior scientist, found Dr. Mascheroni’s idea worth exploring. The main attraction, the panel said, was that his laser system might prove to be as little as one-twentieth the cost of its rivals.

“It’s very important for our country to have this option for the future,” Dr. Mascheroni said in a 1989 interview. “The other approaches are not going to work.”

After leaving the weapons lab, Dr. Mascheroni toiled on his pet project without pay, relying on his wife to provide most of the family’s income. Her jobs at Los Alamos included technical writing and editing.

Dr. Mascheroni, meanwhile, persistently lobbied the Capitol for his laser plan. In 2003, for example, he wrote to Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who had just become chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. The letter was 319 pages long, and Dr. Mascheroni sent copies to relevant experts outside of Congress.

Despite his rebel status and impolitic ways, he was often taken seriously. He won the backing of a former Central Intelligence Agency director, R. James Woolsey, who helped him promote his vision. Ultimately, however, the nation chose a more elaborate laser path.


As Dr. Mascheroni sits in a halfway house in Albuquerque awaiting trial, the rival laser that he criticized for so many years now looms over a small California town. The size of a football stadium, the $3.5 billion site is known as the National Ignition Facility. It is the world’s most powerful assemblage of lasers, their concentrated light like a tiny star. The 192 lasers fire in unison on flecks of hydrogen fuel smaller than a match head.


[This illustrates exactly the problem I suspected above.
There are indeed other reasonable approaches to achieving fusion power which have not been pursued, not because they are judged infeasible, but simply because there is not adequate funding.
Surely, as important as energy is for our nation’s and people’s future, funds could have been found (in my preference, diverted from medical research) to fund this alternative approach.]

Fusion energy milestone reported by California scientists
By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post, 2014-02-12

Scientists are creeping closer to their goal of creating a controlled fusion-energy reaction, by mimicking the interior of the sun inside the hardware of a laboratory.
In the latest incremental advance, reported Wednesday online in the journal Nature, scientists in California used 192 lasers to compress a pellet of fuel and generate a reaction in which more energy came out of the fuel core than went into it.

There’s still a long way to go before anyone has a functioning fusion reactor, something physicists have dreamed of since Albert Einstein was alive. A fusion reactor would run on a common form of hydrogen found in seawater, would emit minimal nuclear waste and couldn’t have the kind of meltdown that can occur in a traditional nuclear-fission reactor.


Stewart Prager, director of the Princeton laboratory, applauded the new results reported in Nature by the California team, saying, “It’s the first sign that they’re getting what we call self-heating.”

He’s optimistic about fusion energy in the long run.

“In 30 years, we’ll have electricity on the grid produced by fusion energy — absolutely,” Prager said. “I think the open questions now are how complicated a system will it be, how expensive it will be, how economically attractive it will be.”

The short-term problem is funding.
Congress appropriated about $500 million for fusion energy science in the 2014 budget,
a boost of more than $100 million from the tight budgets of the previous two years,
but fusion advocates want more.

Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), a physicist who spent 10 years working at the Princeton lab, said Wednesday that the United States is losing leadership in fusion energy research to Europe, Japan, South Korea and China.

“It’s nowhere close to making your electric meter run backwards,” Holt said of fusion energy. “But the reason other countries are now investing more than we are — this is a sad story in itself — is that the country that was the world’s leader in fusion research is no longer.”

[There is no clearer place where the nation's priorities are askew than here.
$30 billion for health care research and only $500 million for fusion research?
With the problems global warming is forecast to produce?
Talk about the wrong priorities!]

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