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Is Fusion Energy in Our Future?

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John Holdren has heard the old joke a million times: fusion energy is 30 years away—and always will be. Despite the broken promises, Holdren, who early in his career worked as a physicist on fusion power, believes passionately that fusion research has been worth the billions spent over the past few decades—and that the work should continue. In December, Scientific American talked with Holdren, outgoing director of the federal Office of Science and Technology Policy, to discuss the Obama administration’s science legacy. An edited excerpt of his thoughts on the U.S.’s energy investments follows.

Scientific American: Have we been investing enough in research on energy technologies?

John Holdren: I think that we should be spending in the range of three to four times as much on energy research and development overall as we’ve been spending. Every major study of energy R&D in relation to the magnitude of the challenges, the size of the opportunities and the important possibilities that we’re not pursuing for lack of money concludes that we should be spending much more.

But we have national labs that are devoted—

I’m counting what the national labs are doing in the federal government’s effort. We just need to be doing more—and that’s true right across the board. We need to be doing more on advanced biofuels. We need to be doing more on carbon capture and sequestration. We need to be doing more on advanced nuclear technologies. We need to be doing more on fusion, for heaven’s sake.

Fusion? Really?

Fusion is not going to generate a kilowatt-hour before 2050, in my judgment, but—

Hasn’t fusion been 30 years away for the past 30 years?

It’s actually worse than that. I started working on fusion in 1966. I did my master’s thesis at M.I.T. in plasma physics, and at that time people thought we’d have fusion by 1980. It was only 14 years away. By 1980 it was 20 years away. By 2000 it was 35 years away. But if you look at the pace of progress in fusion over most of that period, it’s been faster than Moore’s law in terms of the performance of the devices—and it would be nice to have a cleaner, safer, less proliferation-prone version of nuclear energy than fission.

My position is not that we know fusion will emerge as an attractive energy source by 2050 or 2075 but that it’s worth putting some money on the bet because we don’t have all that many essentially inexhaustible energy options. There are the renewables. There are efficient breeder reactors, which have many rather unattractive characteristics in terms of requiring what amounts to a plutonium economy—at least with current technology—and trafficking in large quantities of weapon-usable materials.

The other thing that’s kind of an interesting side note is if we ever are going to go to the stars, the only propulsion that’s going to get us there is fusion.

Are we talking warp drive?

No, I’m talking about going to the stars at some substantial fraction of the speed of light.

When will we know if fusion is going to work?

The reason we should stick with ITER [a fusion project based in France] is that it is the only current hope for producing a burning plasma, and until we can understand and master the physics of a burning plasma—a plasma that is generating enough fusion energy to sustain its temperature and density—we will not know whether fusion can ever be managed as a practical energy source, either for terrestrial power generation or for space propulsion. I’m fine with taking a hard look at fusion every five years and deciding whether it’s still worth a candle, but for the time being I think it is.

24 Comments on "Is Fusion Energy in Our Future?"

  1. makati1 on Tue, 14th Feb 2017 7:29 pm 

    ” Is Fusion Energy in Our Future?”


  2. twocats on Tue, 14th Feb 2017 7:40 pm 

    “My position is not that we know fusion will emerge as an attractive energy source by 2050 or 2075 but that it’s worth putting some money on the bet because we don’t have all that many essentially inexhaustible energy options.”

    When all hope is exhausted – play the lottery.

  3. Anonymous on Tue, 14th Feb 2017 8:01 pm 

    I suggest a moratorium on all fusion related stories….

  4. dave thompson on Tue, 14th Feb 2017 8:08 pm 

    Lets say one of these fusion reactors gets up and running. Is it going to fit in a car let a lone a space ship? To what scale could we hope to see this system operate? Are we going to be able to build enough fusion power plants at scale to replace what we now do with the power grid? I cannot see building out fusion as being any kind of solution to replacing what we do with FF.

  5. DMyers on Tue, 14th Feb 2017 10:15 pm 

    This is nothing but pandering to the eternal hope for energy nirvana, a legitimized existence of laziness. Why do we have to keep asking this fockin question?

    dave thompson, amen brother.

    With respect to burning plasma, I say, be gone! The only thing any human is going to do with burning plasma is burn his own ass. I guarantee it.

  6. Ralph on Wed, 15th Feb 2017 2:53 am 

    Fusion energy will power humanities future, just as it did our past, and to lesser extent our present. The only question is how much, and to what uses we put the solar radiation to.

  7. Antius on Wed, 15th Feb 2017 5:13 am 

    I do agree that far more money needs to be spent on energy research. Whilst I do not consider fusion research to be a waste of time and money, it is worth pointing out that even if successful, it is questionable that tokomak based fusion would be economic. A tokomak is an extremely complex machine and its magnets contain large amounts of rare earth metal. It also suffers from low power density. Remember, fusion plasma at 100million kelvin has a pitifully low density. Even if you meet the Lawson criterion and achieve a stable burn, power density is poor. That really pushes up the cost of a reactor. A fast breeder reactor core has power density reaching 100’s MW/m3. With tokomaks, you are talking no more than a few MW per m3, a hundred times lower than an FBR and 20-30 times lower than a bog standard PWR.

    Another problem with tokomaks: The deuterium/tritium reaction, the only one realistically achievable in a tokomak, releases most of its energy (80%) in the kinetic energy of neutrons. That is bad news for the structure of the reactor, which will suffer radiation damage and require refurbishment every few years. It is also bad news from a proliferation viewpoint. Anyone wanting to breed weapons grade plutonium can use the tokomak to irradiate natural uranium.

    There are other fusion concepts that get around these problems. Inertial confinement fusion is showing progress as well, as it the polywell concept. With the discovery of metallic hydrogen, maybe muon induced fusion has new potential?

  8. Antius on Wed, 15th Feb 2017 5:27 am 

    ‘Lets say one of these fusion reactors gets up and running. Is it going to fit in a car let a lone a space ship? To what scale could we hope to see this system operate? Are we going to be able to build enough fusion power plants at scale to replace what we now do with the power grid? I cannot see building out fusion as being any kind of solution to replacing what we do with FF.’

    Meeting the Lawson criterion becomes increasingly difficult as the size of the plasma declines. This is because of surface area / volume ratio and also, the larger the size, the longer the confinement time at average particle speeds. That suggests that these devices will be big. They will also need to be large in total power output, to get over the economic hit imposed by low power density – i.e. they need economy of size.

    The low power density and huge size would make them unsuitable for mobile applications. Power-to-weight would be far too poor for any Earth-launch spacecraft. That is assuming of course, that the device is a tokomak. If it works in some other way, the conclusions may be different.

  9. Cloggie on Wed, 15th Feb 2017 5:49 am 

    Intelligent human life will be an ever more scarce commodity in the future. People with baggy pants, listening to jungle rap will not maintain super complex fusion power stations, let alone run a “plutonium economy”.

    For God sake, cut the crap.

  10. Midnight Oil on Wed, 15th Feb 2017 6:25 am 

    Rumor has it North Korea has perfected a working model of the a fusion reactor and is planning to conquer the decadent West once it’s missile system gets to the point of penetrating Trumpet’s hair Doo.
    We are in grave DANGER!

  11. Jerome Purtzer on Wed, 15th Feb 2017 10:31 am 

    People in the U.S. were shown how to harness the power of the sun by Nicola Tesla at Wardenclyffe. For a fraction of the cost of trying to duplicate fusion power here on Earth, Wardenclyffe could be duplicated and modernized but I wouldn’t hold my breath for common sense to lead the way.

  12. Sissyfuss on Wed, 15th Feb 2017 11:41 am 

    Antiyou, I have met the Lawson criteria and was not impressed. Rather rude folks emanating
    a most malodorous malfeasance.

  13. Bob on Wed, 15th Feb 2017 2:44 pm 

    Please Stop, Stop Stop! No more Fusion fairy tales! I can’t stand them any more.

  14. Go Speed Racer on Wed, 15th Feb 2017 5:33 pm 

    I say what Cloggie said. People with baggy pants and tattoos, on vape, meth, crack, and welfare, are not capable of a fusion society. Nor do they deserve itc if given for free. They deserve a push down a flight of stairs. Hopefully they will tumble into a roadway, and a passing 18 wheeler splatter them all over the underframe. Driver can hose off the mess, at the next truck stop getting more diesel.

  15. DMyers on Wed, 15th Feb 2017 8:56 pm 

    Go Speed, I’m struck by the..well..brutality. I’ll die for your right to say whatever you want.

    Don’t forget we have convicted murderers getting sentences of three months probation. [see Malcom Wallace, murder at Pigeon Park, Lyndon Johnson hitman).

    There was a time for most people when they did about everything their friends did. Any one of us, who went through that phase in life, I contend everyone, would have worn baggy pants had all their friends been wearing baggy pants. The death sentence does not fit here. Could we at least consider life in prison without parole?

  16. Go Speed Racer on Wed, 15th Feb 2017 10:15 pm 

    Give all those dope heads a sentence
    worse than death. Take away their vape and
    pot and welfare, and force them to mow
    lawns and pull weeds for a week.
    For these new loser ‘Americans’, that would
    be worse than death by firing squad.

    If Trump will make America Great Again,
    he has to turn all the degenerate American
    substance abusers, into steel workers and
    truck drivers. Good luck with that.

  17. DMyers on Wed, 15th Feb 2017 10:28 pm 

    Hitler could not have said it better. Ahh, have I pulled the Hitler card? I give only an honest impression, and I’m open to correction by neo-Hitler himself.

  18. makati1 on Wed, 15th Feb 2017 10:40 pm 

    Fusion is too little … too late, that is, IF it ever works. Do the math and see why it will NEVER replace FF. That is, if you have the brains cells to do so. Most do not.

  19. GregT on Thu, 16th Feb 2017 12:35 am 

    If fusion ever became a realistic option, it would do nothing to solve mankind’s most pressing issues. Overpopulation, environmental degradation, and resource depletion.

    The humans are addicted to energy, and will stop at nothing to get that next/last fix, even if it completely wipes them off of the face of the Earth. Stupid humans. They had so much potential.

  20. penury on Thu, 16th Feb 2017 2:15 pm 

    Makati1, it is not only the lack of brain cells which effects people it is good old fashioned fear.As far as current knowledge goes, there is no replacement for fossil fuels to create the energy humans require to continue living as we know it. There is an old saying “nothing so concentrates the mind, as the knowledge of certain death.” For the majority of people in the developed world, loss of fossil fuels is death. Cognitive disconnect assures that this subject will be ignored by the majority.

  21. makati1 on Thu, 16th Feb 2017 5:52 pm 

    penury, you summed it up nicely. The first world is in pain already and denial is all they can so about it. They will not voluntarily reduce their consumption until forced by finances and/or lack of energy to waste.

    That is why I keep saying that the 3rd world will not suffer as much as the first. Less to lose or change. If you are on the bottom rung of a ladder the fall hurts less than if you are near the top.

  22. onlooker on Thu, 16th Feb 2017 6:51 pm 

    This is for Cloggie who thinks Europe will be a haven.
    France and Britain riots galore

  23. Go Speed Racer on Thu, 16th Feb 2017 6:59 pm 

    Europe France and Britain are full of
    muzlimz. They bolt a megaphone onto the
    side of the gas station. Calls you
    to Mekka starting at 4 AM.

    Probly better to stay here. Deal with
    Rednecks on pot and trump.

  24. Apneaman on Thu, 16th Feb 2017 8:35 pm 

    Paris protesters clash with police after officer accused of anally raping young man

    One sign that was held read ‘Faced with police impunity let’s be uncontrollable’

    Hell, if that cop would have shown the kid some common courtesy and gave him a reach around while raping him, things might not have got so out of hand. People are just so rude these days.

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