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The Real Problem With Fusion Energy

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The quest to bottle the power of the sun has led to countless starry-eyed predictions of an imminent clean energy revolution. But the expectations for fusion have always been outsized, the trail of broken promises has grown long and public perception has soured.

While our cynicism about fusion may feel justified, it’s also unfortunate. Because, despite tepid support and constant funding peril, researchers are making progress toward this futuristic energy source. Scientists will eventually solve fusion’s immense technical challenges, if society can commit to the journey.

Last week, I visited the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory to tour the recently-upgraded National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX-U), the most powerful “spherical tokamak” fusion reactor on Earth. An 85 tonne beast of a machine shaped like a giant cored apple, the NSTX-U uses high energy particles to heat hydrogen atoms to temperatures of 100 million degrees Celsius, hotter than the core of the sun. To contain this super-hot plasma, winding copper coils generate a magnetic field 20,000 times stronger than that of the Earth. All of this so that for a few magic seconds, atomic nuclei will collide, fuse and release energy.

The experiment is a step along the path toward a fusion plant that would run constantly, powering entire cities on mere grams of seawater.

It’s easy to see why the field of fusion energy is prone to grandiose claims — this stuff just sounds epic. But what struck me the most from my trip to the PPPL was not the science wizardry taking place inside its giant reactor, or the Houston-style control centre where dozens of (white, male) scientists crunched data and ran supercomputer simulations. It was the balance of optimism about the fusion energy future, and realism about the hard physics and engineering problems that need to be solved to get us there.

The Real Problem With Fusion Energy

Technicians inspecting the installed centre stack of the NSTX-U. Image: Elle Starkman/PPPL Office of Communications

“It almost sounds too good to be true: this concept that we’re going to have a limitless, carbon-free energy source,” Clayton Myers, a plasma physicist working on the NSTX-U, told me. “But the nuclear physics says that it’s not. It is proven that fusion reactions are real and that we can make them.”

The basic challenge, as physicists first learned in the 1950s and ’60s, is that fusion plasmas — free-flowing soups of protons and electrons in which atomic nuclei collide and release energy — do not like to be contained. They want to splatter everywhere, and yet we need to contain them, at high enough pressures and for long enough time intervals that we can produce more energy than we put in.

Our sun contains plasma with its immense gravity, but here on Earth, we need powerful magnets or lasers to do so. And the margins for error are minuscule. A teensy amount of escaped plasma can scar the wall of a fusion reactor, causing the machine to shut down.

The field plasma physics blossomed out of a desire to bottle the stars. Over the past few decades, that field has expanded in myriad directions, from astrophysics to space weather to nanotechnology.

As our general understanding of plasmas has grown, so has our ability to sustain fusion conditions for more than a hot second. Earlier this year, China’s new superconducting fusion reactor was able to contain a 50 million degree Celsius plasma for a record 102 seconds. The Wendelstein X-7 Stellarator, which fired up in Germany for the first time last spring, is expected to blow that record out of the water with runs of up to 30 minutes at a time.

The NSTX-U’s recent upgrade sounds modest by comparison: the experiment can now keep a fusion plasma cooking for five seconds instead of one. But this, too, marks an important milestone.

“Making a fusion plasma that lasts for five seconds may not sound like a long time, but the physics [of plasma] at five seconds is comparable to its physics at steady-state,” Myers said, referring to conditions in which the plasma is stable. (The ultimate goal is a steady-state “burning plasma”, one that can sustain fusion on its own with only a small input of external energy. No experiment to date has managed to achieve this.)

The NSTX-U will allow Princeton researchers to fill in some of the gaps between what is known of fusion plasma physics now, and what will be needed to build a pilot plant capable of reaching reaching that steady state burn and generating net electricity.

For one, in order to find the best materials for containment, we need to better understand what’s going on between the fusion plasma and the reactor wall. Princeton is exploring the possibility of replacing its current reactor walls (made of carbon graphite) with a “wall” of liquid lithium in order to reduce long-term corrosion.

More generally, the NSTX-U will help physicists decide whether the spherical tokamak design is one that’s worth pursuing further. Most tokamak reactors have a much higher aspect ratio, meaning they are less cored apple-shaped and more doughnut-shaped. The unusual shape of the spherical torus allows it to use the magnetic field from its coils more efficiently.

“In the long run, we want to figure out how do you optimise the configuration of one of these machines,” said Martin Greenwald, the deputy director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. “To do that, you have to know how the performance of the machine depends on things you can control, like the shape.”

The Real Problem With Fusion Energy

Footage from the inside of the NSTX-U during a run. Image Courtesy of PPPL.

Myers was loathe to estimate how far out we are from commercial fusion power, and you can hardly blame him. After all, it’s decades of excessive optimism that have harmed the field’s reputation and fuelled the perception that fusion is a pipe dream — and that has had real funding consequences.

In a major blow to MIT’s fusion program, the US feds recently pulled support for the Alcator C-Mod tokamak reactor, which produces one of the strongest magnetic fields and has yielded some of the highest pressure fusion plasmas in the world. Much of the NSTX-U’s expected research will depend on sustained federal support, which, Myers admitted, is “year to year”.

Of course, we need to spend our research dollars carefully, and some fusion programs have racked up staggering bills. Take ITER, an enormous superconducting fusion reactor currently under construction in France. When the international collaboration began in 2005, it was billed as a $US5 billion ($7 billion), 10 year project. After years of setbacks, that price tag has risen to roughly $US40 billion ($55 billion) Optimistically, the facility will now be completed by 2030.

But where ITER seems destined to swell like a tumour until it runs out of resources and kills the host, MIT’s stripped-down fusion program is showing what can be done on a budget. Last winter, a team of MIT graduate students unveiled plans for ARC, a low-cost fusion reactor that would use new, high temperature superconducting materials to generate the same amount of power as ITER in a device a fraction of the size.

The Real Problem With Fusion Energy

The small, modular fusion plant recently proposed by a team of MIT graduate students. Image: MIT ARC team

“The challenge with fusion is finding a technical path that makes it economically attractive and that’s something we can do soon,” Greenwald said, adding that the ARC concept is now being pursued through MIT’s Energy Initiative. “Our view is that, if fusion is going to make a difference to global warming, we have to go faster.”

“Fusion is really the ultimate energy source — it’s the way we want to do things eventually,” said Robert Rosner, a plasma physicist at the University of Chicago and co-founder of its Energy Policy Institute. “In the meanwhile, the question really devolves to how much do we want to spend now. And if we drop funding to the point where the next generation of really smart kids do not want to go into the field, we’re going to put ourselves out of the business.”



42 Comments on "The Real Problem With Fusion Energy"

  1. dissident on Sun, 29th May 2016 8:46 am 

    It’s peculiar how society is prepared to pay for the military including nuclear weapons without question, but b*tches day in and day out how fusion research is going nowhere. Fusion research is vastly more important than the capacity to fight WWIII. The capacity to fight WWIII is geared towards committing national suicide. Fusion research is geared towards saving us from global warming and fossil fuel depletion oblivion.

  2. makati1 on Sun, 29th May 2016 9:02 am 

    dissident, fusion is not possible in any profitable scenario, IF it is possible at all. No profit, no fusion power. Not to mention that it is always long in the future after many billions of dollars spent for decades. Dream on.

  3. Bob Owens on Sun, 29th May 2016 9:58 am 

    We would have fusion power by now if we had spent all this money on wind/solar; true fusion power. This fusion will never be profitable, ever. Way past time to pack up and go home.

  4. penury on Sun, 29th May 2016 10:19 am 

    The transfer of money from the eolple to the corporations is proceeding at a comfortable pace,
    We will never produce commercial power however, the corps will remain wealthy so everything is awesome.

  5. ghung on Sun, 29th May 2016 10:48 am 

    dissident said; “Fusion research is geared towards saving us from global warming and fossil fuel depletion oblivion…”

    Even if humans mastered fusion this year, nothing will save us from global warming and fossil fuel depletion. Those consequences are hard-baked into our future. CO2 is well above 400 PPM and will continue to increase. Too many processes are dependent on things as they are, and even a global change-over to fusion energy will continue to deplete resources and drive global warming.

    Sorry. No silver bullets coming to the rescue.

  6. onlooker on Sun, 29th May 2016 10:53 am 

    Even is they’re was some magical limitless free energy, too late to transition to it, without a massive collapse. Ditto for climate change the methane is already escaping in increasing amounts. Runaway global warming has commenced. those are the facts whether some wish to accept them or not.

  7. Davy on Sun, 29th May 2016 11:11 am 

    We need to be geared toward a doom curve by doing are best to determine what will fail first and where. This should revolve around climate change/ ecological failures, peak oil dynamics, and economic decay. All of them together will combine to destroy globalism.

    Without globalism we will not be able to feed our current population. Nothing can stop this momentum. All we can do is adapt to this and begin a mitigation of a forced power down by nature.

  8. onlooker on Sun, 29th May 2016 11:17 am 

    “Without globalism we will not be able to feed our current population. Nothing can stop this momentum. All we can do is adapt to this and begin a mitigation of a forced power down by nature.” It may be for the better in the long run if any chance exists to stabilize the climate it is by immediately ceasing our contribution to GHG emissions.

  9. Davy on Sun, 29th May 2016 11:23 am 

    The question is going to come down to the value of time. Do we care about living and our lives now or saving a habitable climate for the next generations? We can’t have both and we know which choice will win so plan accordingly.

  10. penury on Sun, 29th May 2016 12:06 pm 

    Humans like all animals exist in the “now”, theoretical “futures” are of hypothetical value but they do not put beans on the table. So we know what the choices made will be, the future is already apparent to those who will look. The only course for any of us is, to care for those you love and try to protect them. Realize that the changes coming will be slow but continuous. To9day is the best it will ever be again for humans on this planet.

  11. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 29th May 2016 12:08 pm 

    Now, why did they bring up racism in this article? They said the researchers are white, male. Presumably there are not enough blacks on the project?

    The problem is the spherical reactor shape. If they instead built a reactor shaped like a watermelon….

  12. onlooker on Sun, 29th May 2016 12:14 pm 

    Well said Penury, we evolved to deal with short term threats. We stayed true to this evolutionary trait to our detriment. So the greatest irony is that while this mentioned trait allowed us to progress into modern man it now is dooming us.

  13. Davy on Sun, 29th May 2016 12:17 pm 

    I agree Pen.

  14. yoshua on Sun, 29th May 2016 12:52 pm 

    A simple solution to their problems would be to just imitate the universe by creating a gravitational force and then feed this force with hydrogen atoms.

    The gravitational force would fuse the atoms into heavier atoms and release heat in the process which would help the fusion process and at the same time allow us to harvest the energy released by this process.

    This gravitational force machine would have the same mass as the sun so it would take up a little bit more space than the average backyard though.

  15. dissident on Sun, 29th May 2016 12:55 pm 


    Sorry but amateur doomer predictions are not worth a tin foil hat. The amount of carbon we need to add to the atmosphere to really mess up the system is an additional 300 ppmv worth. So stopping today would have real benefits and can’t be fobbed off as “too little, too late” based on nothing more than gut feelings.

  16. Davy on Sun, 29th May 2016 1:13 pm 

    Wow, that was delusional. I guess someone hasn’t got the message the Arctic is melting or he may think that is of no consequence. Tin foil anyone?

  17. B_rad on Sun, 29th May 2016 1:14 pm 

    Research and develop fusion “right on”

    We already have a fusion energy system ready and available. It’s the source of nearly all the energy we already use including the food we eat.

  18. David on Sun, 29th May 2016 1:55 pm 

    Fusion won’t save you, but this will.
    There IS a new World coming…
    Enjoy :^)

  19. gern blanston on Sun, 29th May 2016 2:34 pm 

    “…the Houston-style control centre where dozens of (white, male) scientists crunched data…”

    What the f-word does the race of the scientists involved have to do with ANY of this?

  20. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 29th May 2016 2:46 pm 

    Well if the spherical reactor was modified for shape, slightly elongating the reactor until shaped like a watermelon, this would attract more non white scientists to the fusion project.

  21. Roto2 on Sun, 29th May 2016 3:21 pm 

    Having worked in the fusion field many years ago and have kept up with the latest efforts. Fusion is not a pipe dream. However, it does depend on a method here on Earth that is not imitated anywhere in the Universe (or visa versa). Therefore, its damn difficult to do. Magnetic fields are not ideal for containment. Nor are electrostatic fields. But that’s what we have to work with. This is not just about global warming. Its about an inexhaustible energy source on this planet (not just tritium, deuterium, and hydrogen but potentially other elements as well). It will be done and eventually economically. But it requires something humans don’t have much of; long term vision. To those that do will go the spoils (yeah, the doubter will all be dead by that’s what happens with long term visions).

  22. onlooker on Sun, 29th May 2016 3:46 pm 

    According to physics, fusion can’t happen at temperatures lower than a few millions of degrees Fahrenheit. That is because protons are positively charged and repel each other. Bringing them close together in order to fuse them makes the repulsion forces stronger. This is known as the “Coulomb barrier.”

    Overcoming it requires a great deal of energy and stars can do it because they have so much mass that gravity’s brute force smashes protons together. The only way earthly scientists can do it is with a particle accelerator or with a massive plasma containment facility. Containing the plasma so that reactions are self-sustaining is the current focus of a lot of fusion energy research.

    “Cold fusion, the idea of positively charged nuclei overcoming the Coulomb barrier at room temperature, to me, has no merit,” said Krivit.

  23. Al Hopfer on Sun, 29th May 2016 4:57 pm 

    The entire concept of Global Warming will destroy the planet, or all living things on its surface including man and woman…. is bogus. Just like in the 50’s when the A-bomb was sure to end all life. Drop a 100 or 1,000 A-bombs and the planet and man and woman will continue just as before.

  24. Anonymous on Sun, 29th May 2016 5:19 pm 

    “The experiment is a step along the path toward a fusion plant that would run constantly, powering entire cities on mere grams of seawater”.


    Typical of ‘science writers’ on this topic repeating fusion advocates many false claims. The above is a great example.

    A (hypothetical) fusion plant, would NOT run continuously. A fission plant today, only operates 50% of the time. The other 50% is downtime for maintenance. A fusion plant, would be at least 5-10 more complex than a fission station. How much downtime would a fuser require for routine maintenance? No one knows of course, but to say they would operate continuously, does not even qualify as an exaggeration, its a patent lie to suggest one would.

    And ‘mere’ grams of seawater is so much bullshit as well. It would take staggering amounts water and energy, and materials to ‘fuel’ a fusion plant. The idea that all you do is stick a hose into the ocean, and out comes fusion fuel, free-for the taking, is also utter bullshit. Extracting fusion fuel from the world’s oceans would be an incredibly complex, dirty, and expensive process all by itself. In fact, there is no existing technology or engineering that can even do that part at this time.

    If you want to learn about the real ‘problem’ with fusion, you will never learn it from crap articles like the one above.

  25. Richard Sittel on Sun, 29th May 2016 6:24 pm 

    “God Parity” is on track to hit the US in 2022. That will be the end of centralized power generation because solar will be cheaper than the cost to distribute the power to people’s homes. Investors will stop spending money on Fusion years before that because there will be no profit in generating power to sell….
    Of course, there will always be paid shills posting otherwise, but google it.

  26. makati1 on Sun, 29th May 2016 6:28 pm 

    Richard, and electric from nuclear plants “will be too cheap to monitor”. LMAO

    “…there will always be paid shills…” and suckers, er, “investors”.

  27. makati1 on Sun, 29th May 2016 6:29 pm 

    Anonymous, you are hitting the techie dreamers below the belt when you use facts. LOL

  28. Sissyfuss on Sun, 29th May 2016 7:31 pm 

    Al baby, there have been 5 mass extinctions in the history of our magical planet. Your brain is proof there is a 6th one acoming.

  29. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 29th May 2016 8:25 pm 

    c-c-c-can’t we all get along?

  30. GregT on Sun, 29th May 2016 11:28 pm 


    Human beings are discriminatory by their very nature. Besides, how would you ever expect others to get along with someone like yourself? You obviously have a typing impediment. 🙂

  31. Go Speed Racer on Mon, 30th May 2016 12:41 am 

    Nah, I type fast as I drive. At least if it’s a
    Regular desktop keyboard. Yeah, the more
    I keep watching everything, nobody gets
    along with anybody anymore. I thinks
    It is because we are in the race for
    what’s left. And unless you can find a
    Seat in the lifeboat, they will row away to
    a safe distance to watch you drown.

    So instead of everybody get along, it’s
    every man for himself.

  32. Anonymous on Mon, 30th May 2016 1:16 am 

    Sorry to burst your bubble roto, but while fusion *might* turn out to be technically feasible, it will never be economic. It would too funny if ‘we’ figure out how to do fusion, only to realize 10 mins later, its so damn expensive that no one can afford to actually it.

    If you think learning curves and economy of scale will rescue fusion from its inherent un-affordability, just look at fission. Has it exhibited ANY benefits from positive learning curves? No it hasn’t. IF anyone, fission exhibits all the signs of a NEGATIVE learning curve. That is to say, it gets more expensive with time, not less.

    Why anyone would expect a technology far more complex than fission to exhibit positive learning curves when fission has totally failed to, is beyond me.

  33. Go Speed Racer on Mon, 30th May 2016 4:25 am 

    Fusion is a joke.
    The best fission reactor is Liquid Fluoride Thorium Fuel Cycle.

    Already built by Weinberg, worked great, and so they shut it down. It is not allowed to build anything that works. Only crap that doesn’t work can be built.

    Just like that MH370 flight. You are only allowed to search where the plane obviously isn’t. You cannot search in such a way as to actually find the plane, that isn’t allowed.

    Vote Hillary, to make sure that nothing will be allowed anymore. The big bad nanny-mommy will make sure that you are not even allowed to buy a roll of toilet paper, if elected. And she will raise spending on fusion reactors by 20 times, because that will never work, so funding must be increased.

  34. John Orr on Mon, 30th May 2016 11:38 am 

    Why the f… did they give the job to the French in the fist place if any hoping to keep project budget…

  35. John Orr on Mon, 30th May 2016 4:41 pm 

    The other problems with budget is when it’s needed, budget gets pulled right out of thin air…cos budget is only a make believe number to certain people, paper money no longer has any value

  36. Dan on Tue, 31st May 2016 12:45 am 

    It doesn’t look like many people here understand; we don’t have a choice but to find an alternate source of power. It is our demand that will make fusion economically feasible eventually. It will only take time.

  37. makati1 on Tue, 31st May 2016 1:55 am 

    Dan, I think everyone here understands that the way of life we expect is NOT going to be the one we get. Fusion is a sick joke after what, 40 years and billions spent to pay a bunch of dreamers with PhDs to play with nature. They are always saying just another 10 years and a few more billion and we MAY find the answer. The answer is it is NOT going to happen. Demand does NOT make realty or we could all “demand” a billion dollars and live a fantastic life. And I, at 72, could demand a young, healthy body because I think I must have it.

    Why do you insist that we don’t have a choice. Is it because you want your good Western wasteful life to go on at least until you die and return to the dirt? We had a choice maybe 50 years ago. We took the wrong road in our greed. Now we only have the choice to deny and suffer or to prepare and ease our transition back into a less energy intensive lifestyle.

    But it may be too late for even that possibility. Many of us see total human extinction before 2100. The globe is warming much faster than scientists predicted even 5-10 years ago. We may not even have until 2050.

    Dream on…

  38. HARM on Tue, 31st May 2016 12:55 pm 

    “It almost sounds too good to be true: this concept that we’re going to have a limitless, carbon-free energy source,” Clayton Myers, a plasma physicist working on the NSTX-U, told me.

    And we all know about things that seem too good to be true, right?

  39. HARM on Tue, 31st May 2016 1:03 pm 

    It’s great that some new designs can hold plasma at the required temperatures to enable fusion for a whopping 1.7 seconds. Wake me up when: (a) they can convert that fusion into *usable* energy (energy to do real work, like say, powering the electrical grid), or (b) the resulting usable energy exceeds the mount of energy used to power the reactor (much less the colossal amount of energy required to *build* the d**mned thing).

  40. Apneaman on Tue, 31st May 2016 1:11 pm 

    John Orr, who should they have given it to that could stick to the budget and complete it – the Americans? Bahaha Wrong century and wrong generation for that.

    After 36 Years, Nuclear Plant in Tennessee Nears Completion

  41. peakyeast on Tue, 31st May 2016 4:55 pm 

    I disagree: Fusion power WAS the most important some 50 years ago.

    Now with our ongoing war on everything – we have reached a point where WW3 is the most important and fusion power just pointless.

    What do people expect fusion power to do? Stop the eco-system destruction? Stop overpopulation? Stop emerging pandemics? Reversal of already released CO2?

    Its only interesting to real nerds that want to waste their time.

  42. Noi Tall on Fri, 3rd Jun 2016 6:54 pm 

    Surprised no mention made of private efforts. There are quite a few, including industry giants like Lockheed, and others with innovative approaches that can capture neutrons and breed tritium for fuel.,_Inc.

    Since human genome sequencing was completed by private companies for a fraction of the money in a fraction of the time the govt effort was taking, I’d place my bets on private companies.

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